This January, I ventured to Chicago to visit the famed restaurant Alinea, lead by Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. The inspiration for the trip began (somewhat embarrassingly) with the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, which highlights innovative restaurants around the world. The Alinea episode was beyond anything I imagined a dining experience to be — Achatz seems to innovate in every way possible. It looked like visiting Alinea was as much of a magic show as it was a dining experience, and I was intrigued.
My girlfriend and I planned this trip to Chicago entirely around the reservation (that in itself is tricky to secure). I secured us a spot at the gallery table, a communal space near the kitchen that according to their site, “combines fine dining with experimental moments.” We also chose to do the wine tasting, which featured a pairing with every course.
The night of the reservation, we were very nervous, which, in retrospect, was ridiculous, but neither of us had ever eaten at a Michelin star restaurant before. Here we were, entering the world of fine dining at one of the best restaurants in the world, which had three Michelin stars. Of course, as soon as we arrived we felt immediately more comfortable and then began an incredible experience.
As we were seated, we were given a roadmap of sorts that gave us titles for each course and clues as to what to expect next. I’m listing out some of the more memorable courses by their title below.
We were seated at a long table with about six other guests, and each had a glass of champagne. The course was served in an ice sculpture, with five small glasses, filled with caviar, King crab, egg pudding, whipped truffle and pickled onions with parsley. We were given perfectly toasted brioche on which to spread.
Shaker / Dough
We were invited to leave our table and head into the kitchen, where the chefs showed off an antique cocktail shaker they had recently acquired. We had a small, delicious doughnut with our specialty gin cocktail.
Crunch / Paper
By the time we were led back into the dining room, the space had been transformed and separated into individual tables for each party. The servers placed large bowls of citrus on the tables as centerpieces, but did not mention them — we were excitedly guessing how they could be used in an upcoming course.
We were served a bowl of hot, purified butter broth (which was also flavored with corn) and then the server placed a thin sheet of what looked like rice paper upright into the bowl. The crunchy paper immediately melted into a noodle-like texture. The sheet was actually a sea scallop that had been dehydrated and compressed into a paper-like texture, resulting in a perfectly salty and buttery taste that reminded me eating lobster rolls during Maine summers.
Sprouted coconut, popano, kuzu, shellfish
This Thai-inspired dish was presented on a large wreath of curry leaves on a bed of salt that through its fragrance, seasoned the entire course. The dish itself was fish and scallop served in a coconut sauce garnished with lime.
Gruyere, Black Truffle, Pumpernickel
A play on the senses here — this course was intended to look like an Oreo, but was actually incredibly rich and savory. The truffle topped the sandwich, which was filled with gruyere cheese, and served on a small piece of pumpernickel toast.
Wagyu, Rice, Myoga
This course cited sushi in its presentation, but was composed of red meat instead of fish. Beef tartare was arranged on what was basically a Rice Krispy Treat, held together and sweetened by bone marrow instead of marshmallow.
Short Rib, Bitter Cocoa, Casis
This dish was served in a pot. Once the lid was removed, a plume of smoke containing burnt sassafras and licorice hit you in the face. In the pot was a short rib that had been cooked for 36 hours with a slice of bitter cocoa that offset the savory meat.
Sweet Potato, Chocolate, Miso
This was the first dessert and one of the coolest. A plate the looked like several rocks from a japanese island. One was a smooth pebble with melted Vietnamese chocolate inside. Another was green tea reduced into a flour and cooked as a traditional shortbread. The last was purple sweet potato and chocolate in a thicker pudding form.
Bubble Gum, Cake, Banana
This was the course we were waiting for, made famous by the Netflix episode. Edible banana taffy balloons were filled with helium delivered. One of them popped and got stuck in a girl’s hair from the table next to ours. Also served were Bubble Yum and banana flavored ice cream on a Betty Crocker mix with a glass maraschino cherry on top.
Chocolate, Cherry, Bourbon
The space was further transformed here where the servers pulled down what appeared to have been a canopy of paintings hanging above us, and placed them flat on our tables. They blasted LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Urself Clean” and walked through the dining area splashing various flavors of ice cream across the splatter paintings. They finished with a massive chunk of chocolate meringue, which was basically like ice cream that you could top with the various bourbon, chocolate and fruit sauces tossed on the painting.
Sesame, Brown Butter, Gold
The final course, accompanied with delicious espresso, was a small piece of gold-covered chocolate, flavored with brown butter and sesame