Fanwife and I were frantically weaving in and out of traffic on our way downtown. Normally, it takes about 35 minutes from our house to get to Chicago’s North Side. On this day, a bad accident had us at a virtual standstill. Our ETA was well over an hour. At stake? A $600 meal we were in danger of missing.
I heard that Alinea’s late policy was 10 minutes or bust. We arrived at 5:12, worried our reservation may be canceled and the rest of our crew would be enjoying the show without us. That wasn’t the case. The staff and, as it turns out, the rules, are more relaxed than I expected, especially at a restaurant with a Michelin 3-star rating. Our host guided us passed the first floor Gallery seating and up a small staircase to our dining partners in the second-floor loft known as the Salon.
Because of our tardiness, the show began immediately. I do mean show. We remarked that dining at Alinea is kind of like being in an escape room- everything does something. Our table centerpiece acted as an aromatic display, a juniper branch was used as a serving tray, and even our celebratory post-meal balloon was entirely edible, including the string. I was half expecting the paintings to come to life a la The Haunted Mansion.
This adventure was unlike any dining experience we’ve ever had. The 10 courses were made up of six savory and three sweet dishes, with a transition yam between. Transition Yam would make a great band name by the way. The food was, of course, delicious. We tried bold flavor combinations we never would have considered. Proteins were reimagined in a way that seemed chemically impossible. Some of our dishes were cooked right at the table.
A highlight of the evening was a group trip to the kitchen to try a cocktail and pepperoni roll. I’m forever fascinated by the controlled chaos of the back of the house. I watched in admiration as the talented chefs painstakingly but carefully built our beautiful meal. The chef’s table is quite expensive, so I appreciated the opportunity for us second-story peons to get a glance at the magic.
Naturally, when provided 10 courses, not all will be favorites. I found that dining at Alinea was about trying something new and bold, not expecting every bite to hit the mark. Everyone loved something. We all liked most. There was ample time between each dish for the table to discuss. What did we enjoy? What flavors did we pick up? Why is Adam licking the plate? A standout for me were the scallop noodles. I still get a headache trying to understand how they did it. That’s part of the fun. I think I asked the table after every presentation, “Wait, what are we eating?” It turns out, among others, we ate roe, pork, langoustine, and squab. I still only know what two of those are.
The fun doesn’t end with the food. A noticeable element of Alinea is that they are very sensory conscious. They take great care to cultivate an environment in which every aspect of your experience enhances the flavors of the food. There was fog, some fire, and a few things that perplexed me. It was like watching a Cirque du Soleil show.
Ultimately, is it worth $300? I’d say so. It was an exciting gastronomic experience I shared with people I quite enjoy. Plus, with reservations and deposits made so far in advance, I had time to forget and recover from the economic impact. I don’t think I’d do it again any time soon, though. My brain needs time to heal from the culinary confusion.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include any pictures of the food. There were no rules prohibiting this. I had heard that Alinea chef, Grant Achatz is not a fan of the foodie photog movement. I’ll play along. Plus, I don’t want to spoil the fun. If your interest is piqued, go enjoy the surprises.