Chicago’s Alinea – Come on an Empty Stomach

Come on a very empty stomach. Some top rated restaurants fail to live up to the hype but this is not the case for Alinea. It has three Michelin stars and was voted the country’s outstanding restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2016. Admittedly I was half worried that I wasn’t going to enjoy the food as much as I should, but the presentation, breadth of tastes from dish to dish and fine but not stuffy service really surprised me as to how good this place really is. It’s almost over-the-top in the exercise the brain and palate gets but all done in a delicious way.

The very neat kitchen as it winds down

Alinea (website) is hard on the wallet but you get a lot for the cost. The only stressful bit is really the reservation system and which dining experience to choose. There are three choices with the kitchen table (or Chef’s Table as it’s known in most other restaurants) only available to groups of six. I’d like to do that one day as you can watch the activity in the kitchen. The choice thus, is mainly between the Gallery and the Salon experiences. This may depend on how much your budget is and how much food you want to consume for dinner. The Gallery experience has 16-18 courses and I’m told has more sensory “activity” as well. Since this was fully reserved (only 16 seats are available) when I tried to make my booking, it left me with the Salon. This consisted of 10+ courses and cost USD247.50 per person on the night I was there. Alinea’s website states a range of USD175-255 so I assume the variation is due to the seasonal fluctuations and varying ingredients. Payment for the food is made in advance so once you’re there at the restaurant, you only have to worry about paying for drinks and tips. Needless to say, with a bottle of wine between two, the evening will end up costing around USD400-500 per person at the least.

But enough about the cost, this is destination dining at the best, and I balanced it out with Shake Shack burgers and Portillo’s hot dogs the rest of the trip.

The Meal

Alinea names its dishes and some of these titles are a play on what the item is or how it’s prepared. It makes you think and is also an interesting education on how ingredients can be used together to form a totally different experience. It’s hard to define Alinea’s cuisine (and it shouldn’t be necessary to) because there are obvious international influences from Japan to France to South East Asia. The following are photos of my meal in the order that the dishes were served. It looks like there are more than 10 dishes but some were presented together (Crunch and Paper for example). I had a great experience and would definitely hope to return my next visit to Chicago. I’ll aim for the Gallery next.

Ice is char roe, pineapple and passionfruit served in ice
Crunch is a nori wrapped rouille
Paper is made of langoustine and served in a bouillabaisse and drizzled with olive oil
Contrast is cider, orange, maple served along with Espana that is pear, paprika and iberico ham
A Swirl of apple with lemon balm and yuzu
Influenced by time spent in Thailand, Thai Coconut is pompano, shellfish and kuzu, with a light green curry taste
Yellow is the curry and banana that dresses the pork belly
Glass is made of blueberry which is artfully splintered over lapsang souchong glazed maitake mushroom
Beautifully presented, Toast is gruyere sandwiched with a pumpernickel bottom and a black truffle top
Bone, fittingly served on a bone, is bone marrow and rice
See the Rock, and the moss, – it’s sweet potato, chocolate and miso
Nostalgia is meant to remind us of fair ground candy floss and other goodies – it’s bubblegum, cake and banana