Happy Holidays from Alinea!!

December 17th, 2014

It's no secret that I like to eat. In fact, just today, I lost $40 as I failed miserably in our "Biggest Loser" style competition in our office (though I am entirely ready to full-on compete in our 1Q15 competition as partaking in Dry January will do wonders). I've eaten my way through many countries and take a food tour in every new foreign city.

I like food.

So, why haven't I been to Alinea yet??

Cost. Totally the cost.

I rarely (ever??) have $275 ready to go for JUST a meal. We're not even talking about wine. It's a big financial commitment.

Adele texted me several weeks ago. It was time to go to Alinea. She started looking for days that worked for us. At the beginning, I kind of played along. We'd talked about this before, but nothing really materialized. This time was different. She was ready. At first, I was kind of tagging along in spirit, but wasn't 100% invested. But as the date got closer and closer, I became more and more excited. During the few weeks between booking the ticket and the actual dinner, I read Grant Achatz's book. And watched a really interesting documentary that featured the Chef.

By the day our dinner finally got here
, I was jumping out of my skin with excitement.

To backtrack a bit, Alinea is one of the top restaurants in the country. In the world, really. It has been on the San Pelligrino Top 50 Restaurant list for years now. It's in Chicago. Adele and I have been to two other Top 50 restaurants across the world. But Alinea?? Not until today.

Before I get fully into the food, I want to give the specs. If you want to eat at Alinea, you need to buy a ticket. The ticket gives you a date and time for your dinner. If you can't make the date and time, you are out the money. Too bad, so sad. I had to say no to a Christmas party today because, tickets. The tickets are for dinner only. You pay in advance. If you want wine, it can be a game day decision. Wine does not have to be purchased right away. And actually, this is a genius move. Two tickets to Alinea ran us over $500. It's a big chunk of money to hand over at once. Waiting another few weeks to pay for wine takes a bit of the sting out of everything.

Our dinner started at 5p. Luckily, work has been slow enough that I was able to bail out of the office an hour early. I walked over to Adele's building and we cabbed it over to Lincoln Park. The entrance to the restaurant is a non-descript black door. I don't even think there was a name anywhere. You know you're in the right place when you see multiple valet guys, ready to open the door for you.

As you enter the restaurant, you'll walk down a blue lighted hallway. The moment you pause to wonder how much farther you are supposed to go, hidden doors open in a Star Trek (TNG) sort of way.

We were instantly greeted by several people. They double checked who we were, took our coats, then walked us up the stairs to our table.

We were seated in a room with five tables. Ours was the only table currently in use. It was almost like we were in our own world. And this was perfect for us. At the start, it seemed we had three or four servers per table. They were quiet and efficient. And we got off to a good start as we began joking with the group. We wanted them to know we were cool. Because, and lets be honest, we are.

Once we were seated, the host (or another waiter?? Manager??) let us know there was a new dish not on the menu, but could be added to our table for a per person fee. White truffle risotto. Yes, but...this was for an additional $125 per person?? Adele and I looked at each other for a moment. I think she would have been down for this dish. I would have too, had it been juuuuust a bit less money. I mean, this one dish is nearly half the cost of the entire meal itself. I could work without this one. Especially since I didn't know how I'd feel during the meal we'd already paid for.  Tasting menus can be a bit much at times.

Next up, Sommelier Jon. We had two choices for wine. $150 for a standard pairing. $225 for a reserve pairing. We'd both heard the standard pairing was amazing. And after the meal was over, we picked Sommelier Jon's brain for a while and he pretty much said the standard pairing was recommended. The reserve would be great for a wine snob or people who REALLY know wine. Several of the wines are the same between the two pairings, so we really did win by choosing the standard pairing.

My big concern with the wine, and with the night in general, was how much wine we would be drinking.  I didn't want to be That Girl at a swanky restaurant.  But Sommelier Jon put our minds at ease.  He said we'd be tasting 11 glasses of wine which would net out to about one bottle per person.  Not to sound like a total lush, but come on...we got this.

Once the formalities were over, the dinner began. Now, I did take pictures (along with everyone else, it seems...once the other tables were occupied, there were iPhones EVERYWHERE in our room), but the iPhone can only do so much. I'm also taking the explanations directly from the menu we were given to take home, supplemented with the memory of what we consumed.  Some of the comments will be stronger than others.  Because some of the dishes I remember more than others.    And because, wine.  Also, there may be a few pictures that are...less than desirable.  Mostly because I was trying to be discreet in my picture taking.  And because, wine.

Let's do this.

Ostera - Traditional

Out of the gate, we have caviar.  This is not something I'm used to.  With the caviar is a brioche foam, an egg custard and a gelatinous onion (maybe more in the gelatin).  Champagne and caviar??  That's a  pretty excellent start to the night.

SalsifyBranch Camouflage

The servers brought out this contraption and asked us to find the two pieces of "vegetable jerky" hidden within the branches.  They were pretty easy to find.  And it really was like jerky...again with the bubbly.  A lovely pairing.

SkateBrown butter, lemon, herbs

"Hold out your non-dominant hand"  

The server put a "cocktail napkin" plate in my hand, where the dish stayed until I damn near licked the plate.  This one was skate with a creamy (butter, I think) sauce.  The glorious part was the breadcrumbs that just became a crunchy joy with every bite.  

Wine Pairing - A.J. Adam "Dhroner" Riesling Mosel 2012

PebbleEbi, ogo, clam shells

I don't like beans.  But who am I to tell Chef Achatz that he can take this bean dish and shove it??  There were seven (I believe) different types of beans in a sweet broth next to a bean puree and a prawn poached in olive oil.  I'll say this, I still don't like beans.  But the broth was amazing.  And there were crunchy things that kept me wanting to continue eating this dish.  When all was said and done, there was one bean left on the plate.  I asked about the crunchy things.  Fried lentils.  Noted.

Wine Pairing - Domaine de l'Ecu Muscadet Sevre et Maine "Granite" 2013

GurnardWhite pepper, Vietnamese coriander, broccoli

The whole plate

My pieces
Ok, so this one...I have little to no memory of this dish.  I remember liking it.  There were chopsticks and I believe pieces of fish.  A peanut sauce (with peanuts) and broccoli.  I tried using the chopsticks as a delivery system to get more sauce into my mouth.  I was moderately successful.

Wine Pairing - Domaine Bernard Defaix "Cote de Lechet" 1er Cru Chablis 2012

EggplantBanana, cocoa, curry

The infusion for our tea broth.

Eggplant in a broth.

Above our table was a piece of something.  Just hanging there.  Of course, I didn't think to take a picture.  The server took down the decoration and added it to a teapot filled with Darjeeling Tea.  The decoration was some kind of combination of lemongrass and ginger.  And the aroma coming from the teapot was pretty much as fabulous as you think it would be. 

Once the lemongrass had steeped long enough, the tea was poured into a shallow bowl with eggplant and dried bananas, cocoa and curry.  I want to say the little dots in the broth were mustard seeds.  The spice of the dish worked well with the spice of the wine.  I really did love the pairing on this one.

Wine Pairing - Cantina Tramin "Nussbaumer" Gewurtztraminer 2013

HamachiShishito, bean, pine branch

The next three courses were all related.  Servers brought a campfire to our table and used a very small and powerful blowtorch to get a fire started.  On one of the logs sat a pine branch with a pepper and bean.  This part was actually eaten after the next dish, though was on the menu first.  We had some sake with this section of the meal.  And I think I now know...not a fan of sake.  Luckily, I had a few other glasses at the ready.

They also brought an apple cider for this set of courses.
Wine Pairing - Chiyonosono "Shared Promise" Junmai Kumamoto

MatsutakePine, abalone, tapioca

Oh, this one.  This one!!  The server took the blowtorch to the mushrooms to heat them up slightly.  In the bowl was a custard of some sort, plus tapioca balls.  I love me some mushrooms and really dig tapioca.  I really loved everything about this dish.

Pork Belly Parsnip, black trumpet, kombu

Adele and I were talking about work or travel or something (probably travel) and I became distracted quickly.  The server had taken the campfire away from our table, but to a rolling tray directly behind Adele.  I watched as the server took a few items from the middle of the fire and put them on a carving block.  The server unwrapped pork belly and a parsnip and placed them on a piece of charred wood.  This was pretty darn cool.  The red wine began being poured here.  Because of course it would.

Wine Pairing - Domaine de la Reserve D'O "BilBo" St. Saturnin 2012

Hot Potato Cold potato, black truffle, butter

The picture is a bit...not great, but I didn't have the time to waste on this course.  A small paraffin bowl was filled with hot soup.  On a pin was the truffle, butter and potato.  In one swoop, you had to pull the pin out, dropping the ingredients into the soup, then take one mouthful of the mixture.  All while the server stood next to you.  Once I had swallowed the soup, I immediately turned to the server and told him I'd be perfectly fine if he wanted to bring over another.  It's been on the menu for nine years for a reason.

SquabBeet, orange, dark flavors

A very rare looking squab is paired with a lump of beet (on the left), a blackened sweet carrot, an orange, and corn smut (on the right).  Stop it.  Those are all of the names.  Lump of beet and corn smut.  Like a corn fungus.  I don't remember the sauce, but it was good.  

Wine Pairing - Tomasso Bussola Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2009

ChocolateFrozen distillation

We were on our way out of the savory courses, so we had to have a bit of a palate cleanser.  The server didn't tell us what the flavor of the sorbet was.  So we had to guess.  Adele and I were both wrong, but ultimately pretty close to the real flavor.  My guess was Hot Cocoa.  Adele thought White Chocolate.  It was actually a sorbet of Dark Chocolate.  And it's the only Dark Chocolate I need to eat.

GraffitiHazelnut, perigord, balsamic

This dish bridged the gap between savory and sweet.  And I really don't entirely know what the gray thing was.  It was like honeycomb candy, but with hazelnut??  Or the ice cream substance was hazelnut.  Either way, the server sprayed balsamic vinegar on the plate and dish.  This was super weird, but pretty darn good.  As for the wine, this was weird wine.  It smelled awful, but the taste was darn good.

As Sommelier Jon explained how we were going into the sweet courses, I did cheer a bit, tossing up the heavy metal sign in a show of happiness.  So, he cheered too, exclaiming the (now) classic line, "Totally Metal Dessert!!"  We like Jon.

Wine Pairing - Cardamaro

QuinceAlmond, grapefruit, oxtails

The dish was smoking as it was brought to the table.  The "smoke" was almond-flavored and I decided to shove my face as far into the "smoke" as possible.  Candied grapefruits and nuts (not candied) were in the bowl with some kind of custardy thing.  Look, this dish is kind of a mystery.  I would blame the wine (which is probably valid), but I think I was mesmerized by the "smoke."  This dessert was just great, even though I don't know what I was eating.  

I'm sure Adele enjoyed this part enough, but this was the time she uttered, "Man.  Dessert is a battle for me." 

I don't understand those words.

Wine Pairing - Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2006

BalloonHelium, green apple

A server I hadn't seen before brought us two balloons with a pin at the bottom of the balloon string.  We were told to remove our glasses and quickly put the balloon to our mouth to inhale the helium and consume the balloon (and string) itself.  Done.  It was like eating a jolly rancher.  If you do this correctly, you will have a helium voice.  It's fun.  

Tropical FruitRum, vanilla, kaffir lime

And finally, the main event.  This is the part of the meal we all know is coming.  Well, you know it's coming if you've researched Alinea before you arrive.  Which, I have.  And which, you are maybe doing right now??  Hmmm???

Two servers arrived at our table and asked us to pick up our glasses.  A rubber tablecloth (the first tablecloth we've seen today) was unfurled underneath us and multiple ramekins were brought to our table.

The pastry chef (I'll assume...it was a new guy and he was wearing a white chef's jacket) came to our table and started methodically taking ramekins and flinging sauces (rum, mango, white) and fruits (pineapple, banana, cherry, kefir lime, watermelon and passion fruit) on the tablecloth.  A second group of servers brought a sphere by and placed it in the middle of the decorative sauces.  Then they took a hammer (of some sort) and broke the coconut ice cream.  That was our cue to start eating.

You took spoons of coconut ice cream and dragged the spoon in the sauce.  And repeat over and over again.  Nicely done.

Wine Pairing - Bodegas Cesar Florido Moscatel Especial Jerez NV

As we finished up the final course, we had some tea and talked about what we just went through.  Adele called over Sommelier Jon and asked if he had one more wine recommendation for the road.  He pondered for a minute and came back with one final sweet wine.  The Jorge Victoria was sweet and amazing.  It was a perfect end to the meal.  Perfect.

We were again the only table seated in the room.  The other four tables had been in and out before we finished up.  Eventually, we begrudgingly pushed our chair back from the table and was escorted downstairs.  Well, escorted seems like a harsh word.  One of the waiters walked with us downstairs.  The hostess was there with our coats and called us two cabs.  Walking down the blue-lit hallway was the end of the adventure.  Our experience was over.  We walked out into the cold reality of the December evening.  Nearly four hours went by in the blink of an eye.

After the second bite of the first dish, I paused and said to Adele, "I love our life."  I am acutely aware that this is an experience that most people can't have...or would never choose to have.  I doubt this is something I'll ever get a chance to do again.  But boy am I glad I had this moment.


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