Last Saturday evening, Paul and I celebrated the new marriage of Chicago friends Robert and Steven over dinner at Grant Achatz’s Alinea. We’ve long dreamed of visiting the acclaimed Michelin three-star restaurant after learning about the personal and professional journey of Achatz on Chef’s Table and other media.
Part of the charm of this restaurant hinges on surprise. If you plan to dine here in the near future, stop reading here. I don’t want to spoil your experience of the current menu. The menu changes routinely at Alinea, so continue reading only if you plan to visit in the distant future.
We arrived at a table for four decorated with oranges and clementines in a bowl chilled at its base, along with a mysterious word search puzzle on a stand. Our table staff confirmed my initial speculation that the puzzle contained the menu for the evening (Spoiler Alert: the solved puzzle appears at the end of this post).
Dining at Alinea stimulates all of the senses (taste, touch, scent, sight, and sound) and explores elements of earth, wind, water and fire. Paul reserved the Salon Menu seating on the second floor for us: an eleven course tasting with wine pairings.
WET SNOW | ASIAN PEAR, ROE, SHISO
The salty trout roe in the subtle sweet “wet snow” and chilled pear paired beautifully with the Ruinart, “Dom Ruinart” Blanc de Blancs, Reims (France 2004).
SPEAR | ROMAINE, AVOCADO, JALAPEÑO
A carved lime provided a lovely pedestal for the artfully dressed spear of romaine lettuce topped with avocado and chopped jalapeño.
RANINA RANINA | SPANNER CRAB, COCONUT, CURRY
Crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds and deep fried kale added contrasting texture to the comforting coconut cream crab curry paired with a Hans Wirsching, “Iphöfer JuIius-Echter Berg” Silvaner G.G. (Franken, Germany 2015).
GLOW | SPICED ORANGE
During this course, a young woman poured water from a kettle into the centerpiece of oranges decorating our table. Wisps of dry ice citrus vapor flowed to the edges of the table. In a smaller bowl, “oranges” lit beneath a mound of ice and protected by thin membranes followed with jolting bursts of sweet spicy juice when broken in our mouths.
BLACK | OLIVE, ARTICHOKE
Nothing appears as it you expect at Alinea. A dark tray of shiny black rocks smoothed in a river bed obscured four black “olives” filled with rich artichoke cream in the molecular tradition of the old elBulli by Ferran Adriá.
INK | SQUID, BLACK GARLIC, CALENDULA
Served on another plate with the olives, a gel of garlicky black squid ink and a creamy bite of tender squid meat in cream that left us craving a savory bowlful of squid. The sommelier paired a Viñátigo, Gual with this savory dish — a white wine varietal from the Canary Islands (2016) which reminded us of the first time we enjoyed a Canary Island red wine varietal in the summer of 2017 at George in Toronto.
SMOLDER | VENISON, JUNIPER, HUCKLEBERRY
Following this course, a bowl of coarse salt replaced the oranges at the center of the table. With a lighter, the staff lit a fuel of pure grain alcohol beneath the salt which sent flames licking up the interior edges of the bowl.
When the flames subsided to a slow burn, table staff covered the fire with a bouquet of juniper branches topped with crunchy, savory donuts filled with venison sausage and huckleberry. Wafts of smoky juniper filled the air at our table as we dined on the next two dishes.
PAPER | LANGOUSTINE, BOUILLABAISSE, OLIVE OIL
We shredded a thin sheet of “paper” made with shrimp with chop sticks in a bowl of savory broth and took turns sipping from the bowl and a glass of Benjamin Leroux, Puligny—Montrachet (Burgundy, France 2012), one of the most remarkable pairings of the night.
CRUNCH | ROUILLE, NORI
We finished the bouillabaisse with crunchy Nori rolls wrapped around creamy rouille with hints of saffron, garlic and red pepper.
THE CAPE | CLAM, POTATO, BACON with OLD BAY “OYSTER CRACKER”
Staff prepared for the next course by bringing small bowls of celery, onion, and chopped bacon and a whipped cream dispenser filled with a creamy clam bisque. Using a pair of tongs, our chef d’étage removed a fully roasted potato hidden in the coarse salt of the bowl from our previous course. After brushing most of the excess salt away, he mashed the potato into a new bowl with the bacon, celery and onion and divided the mixture into four smaller bowls. He topped each bowl with a surge of whipped clam cream and served to each of us with hot sauce and house-made oyster crackers dusted with Old Bay spice. Robert proclaimed, “That’s a good CHOWdah!” as he sipped a delicious white burgundy with a name which escaped our notes.
Our chef d’etage invited those of us dining from the Salon menu on the second floor to the kitchen downstairs for a special cocktail amuse-bouche. Incorporating a visit to the kitchen enhanced the dining experience and provided a welcomed opportunity to stretch and move about during a sedentary meal of multiple courses.
A sous chef introduced us to a special hand-cranked machine that shakes several metal cocktail shakers at one time – allowing her to make and pour cocktails for around 16 guests.
As we enjoyed our cocktails, we observed several stations in the kitchen where staff prepared dishes seen and not yet seen.
GLASS | BLUEBERRY, LAPSANG SOUCHONG, MAITAKE
Back at our table, staff brought us small servings of Maitake mushrooms prepared in smoky lapsang souchong tea on a huge platter decorated with blueberry syrup and “glass.” We enjoyed glasses of Pinot Noir from Hanzell Estate Vineyard (Sonoma, California 2014).
COAL | SQUAB, BLACK FORBIDDEN RICE, BINCHOTAN
Our next course arrived with a white hot piece of Japanese coal (binchotan) over a slice of squab served with black rice and ashy-white black garlic. We also received a small spiral of chilled beet with mustard (not pictured).
BEAN | TENDERLOIN, SPICES
A jar of chewy beef tenderloin jerky in the shape of a vanilla bean spiced with vanilla from Madagascar, soy sauce, shallot, smoked paprika, red chili flakes and star anise accompanied the squab and black rice, all of which we washed down with a Cheval des Andes, Malbec / Cabernet Sauvignon blend (Mendoza, Argentina 2004).
AIR | GOAT CHEESE, MĀNUKA
Dessert included an airy dry goat cheese cake topped with Mānuka, a mono-floral honey with a shot of shiso gelatin, aloe and pineapple drawn from a hollow glass tube.
STILL LIFE | CHERRY DISTILLATION, BANANA, VANILLA
The sommelier poured us the lovely sweet dried fruit flavors of a D’Oliveiras, 35 Year Frasqueira Verdelho (Madeira, Portugal 1981) as we reached the finish line. The last sweet course – named nostalgia for its new expression of a banana split – consisted of a nutty banana ice cream covered in chocolate and painted with a yellow turmeric coating served with a shot of Luxardo cherry liquor. We also received Alinea’s signature sugar-spun balloon infused with green apple and filled with helium. Emboldened by the helium and many glasses of wine over the evening, I offered my rendition of the Lollipop Guild’s welcome of Dorothy to Munchkinland from the Wizard of Oz. Robert started the chorus of Dolly Patton’s “Jolene” but ran out of helium before he could get to the first verse.
Alinea challenged our minds with playful mystery and fed our bodies with nourishing food and drink. During dinner, we searched for names of ingredients and food descriptions in the menu word puzzle and wondered with awe as each course stimulated our senses. The sommelier impressed us with his pairings for each course and his knowledgeable descriptions of the wines when pouring at the table. The full brigade of staff anticipated every need and answered every question posed by us.
As we ended our meal, I thought about Chef Grant Achatz’s personal story, his culinary creations and how they relate to Alinea. Nearly a decade ago, Achatz survived stage four cancer of the tongue — an experience which nearly killed him and robbed him of his sense of taste. While chemotherapy deadened his sense of taste and smell, Achatz continued working in his kitchen while relying on experience, memory and staff input to create new food for his customers. Achatz gradually regained his health and senses after trying a new and experimental treatment. Trying something new enabled him to keep pursuing his gastronomic and sensual genius. Alinea literally means the beginning of something new or a new train of thought: a fitting place to celebrate new beginnings with Robert and Steven as they begin a new life together.
Word Puzzle Solution:
Steven Wilson contributed several photos for this review.
Check out Roister, another restaurant in The Alinea Group: