Just like last year, my wife Jun and I met up with my parents in Chicago for my mother’s business trip. While the schedule again was very hectic with us helping out my mother again (Jun lost her voice from sore throat after arriving in the city already under the weather), I wanted to find an opportunity to again have a wonderful meal with my parents for at least one night. With all the wonderful restaurants in the Windy City, where to dine is not a very easy decision to make. I thought about going back to Smyth which we had visited last year (see my review here https://kenscale.com/2018/11/23/smyth/), but decided to look elsewhere as there were plenty of other places I haven’t visited. It occurred to me in the middle of my search that Alinea, that seminal restaurant from Grant Achatz, was just about to open its dining tickets for November. I had been to the more casual Roister before (see my review here https://kenscale.com/2016/08/24/roister/), but Alinea had long evaded me, largely because it requires advance planning to purchase tickets on Tock more than a month in advance. I had always been intrigued with Mr. Achatz’s vision and philosophy to elevate the dining experience beyond our normal everyday consumption of food, and was very thrilled to secure a table for four at the second-floor Salon. So did Alinea lives up to its name? There is no question that it offers one of the most unique dining experiences in your lifetime, but Jun and I weren’t quite as sold on the place at the best restaurant in Chicago.
When we arrived at the restaurant for a 8:30 p.m. dinner, everyone was already pretty exhausted (my parents were still jetlagged and Jun was not in her best condition either). The various “shows” that the kitchen put together for us were certainly dazzling, but it was also difficult to muster a ton of enthusiasm when you are not in the best physical condition to dine. More importantly, though, compared to the ingenuity from all the dishes that came in, Jun and I couldn’t think of many life-changing dishes. The first dish, called “focus” and consisting of trout roe, concord grape and parsnip, had an interesting combination of flavor to start the meal, and the assortment of seafood based dishes, including the king crab with coconut bite, a soup of prawn and chili that tasted like Thai curry and octopus covered in “Korean barbecue” ink, showed that the kitchen was not afraid to borrow influences from around the world like Asia.
You don’t often see bite-sized dishes using rabbit meat exclusively, and I found the plating of truffle (using rabbit liver), cracker (using celery root) and bone of rabbit meat strangely resembling what cavemen would’ve eaten in ancient times. In the middle of our meal, we were presented with some objects on the grill and no one was able to figure out what they were until our server pointed out they are trumpet mushrooms. The mushroom, accompanied by a truffle sheet on top and blueberry puree on the side, was quite nicely done. The best dish of the night was the ribeye steak which was prepared by the server in front of us and accompanied by mushroom on the side. The meat’s texture was immaculate and seasoning more or less perfect as well. When my mother who was getting full offered to give half her portion, I gladly took up on her offer. Following the savory course, we were greeted by a kitchen staff who laid out a “painting” by splashing different dessert elements on a cloth canvas; it certainly was the most unique way I remember having a dessert. We also got the signature balloon with green apple flavor (put your mouth into a surface and you can actually sense helium that alters your voice!) at the end.
As noted above, getting a reservation at Alinea requires sizable investments up front by purchasing tickets online (mine cost $285 per person plus 20% service charge and taxes but then I get to see my parents only once a year so was willing to splurge for a special dinner). The dimly lit dining space at the Salon gives a somewhat mythical aura to add onto the dining experience. The wine list at the restaurant is commensurate with the expensive collection you would expect from a Michelin three-star restaurant although you can also find some values in some bottles at less than $200, like a fine Brunello that I ordered for the table. While Jun and I appreciated the kitchen’s approach on its cooking, we also couldn’t generally shake the impression that Alinea’s experience is meant to surprise you with all the creative ways humans can manipulate food ingredients rather than offer you a truly memorable dinner. Perhaps we have become too spoiled from all the wonderful restaurants we had been to in our culinary journey, but I think our assessment is also a testament to how we think about what it means to have a great dining experience. Behind all the fancy techniques and ingredients, it was a bit difficult to find that one powerful moment that defines what this restaurant is looking to do. At least once in your lifetime, Alinea is worth checking out to see the seemingly endless possibility that human mind can employ to turn a dining experience into an art form; Jun and I both agreed though that we will probably not miss the restaurant that much in the foreseeable future.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10)
- Creativity: 9.5/10
- Execution: 8.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 1723 North Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60614