Alinea is on the list of “must eat” places for any “foodie”, and I certainly was no different.
The restaurant stopped taking reservations over the phone several years ago. Now, they sell “tickets”, which go on sale the month prior. Their reasoning was that it was taking two full time employees to answer the phones for reservations, and to make their reservations more “transparent” as anybody could see their schedule. Getting the preferred date and time is somewhat akin to winning the lottery.
Some say that getting the earliest reservation possible is the way to go, that way you don’t “see what’s coming” as servers bring dishes to neighboring tables.
The restaurant is located in a non-descript gray building on Halsted. If it weren’t for the very small valet parking sign, you would have a hard time finding the restaurant.
I was able to reserve a 5:00 PM reservation, the earliest available.
After being seated, the noticeable things were the “centerpiece” of rosemary, mint and lemon rind in a pitcher, as well as a lily and shishito pepper hanging from the ceiling.
The meal began with an aperitif of a peach “juice ball” with basil on top of some frozen crumbles. We were instructed to just eat the peach ball first.
The next “course” used the water pitcher in which prosecco was poured into the pitcher then shaken to remove all of the bubbles. This was poured over the “frozen crumbles”, which was actually frozen alcohol. The dish together was somewhat reminiscent of a bellini.
The next course consisted of 3 small dishes.
The first consisted of bread, Iberico ham and manchego cheese. The bread was pillowy soft, while the ham and cheese added a salty punch. This was a high class ham and cheese sandwich.
The second was a gelatin cube with flavors of guindilla de Ibarra (a type of chili pepper), anchovy and olive. Once again, this dish had a strong salty component to it. This was not one of my favorites.
The last dish consisted of paprika, chili and garlic. Despite the strong flavor profiles of the ingredients, the taste was somewhat subdued and underwhelming.
The next course was a soup. Inside of the bowl, was a fennel tea with tapioca pearls and a gazpacho foam made of tomatoes and strawberries. We were given a metal boba straw to drink the soup. On the rim of the dish was a strawberry, tomato, basil, pumpernickel and burrata cheese. The soup was very refreshing and fun. On the rim of the dish, the tomato tasted like a strawberry, and the strawberry tasted like a tomato.
The next dish was served in a bowl that looked like a shell that was sitting in another bowl with dry ice. The dry ice enveloped the shell looking dish with a thick fog which contained Arctic char roe, peas, olive oil and chamomile. The salty theme continued with the roe, but was mellowed with the peas and olive oil.
The next dish was a salad served on a slab of concrete. The salad consisted of white and green asparagus, fava beans, black truffles and a carrot dressing that was “spray painted” over the salad. The asparagus and fava beans were nice and firm, the black truffles adding some earthiness while the carrot dressing added a hint of sweetness. This was a nicely balanced, creative and fun.
The hanging squash blossom and chile were also brought into play. There was a black kettle and “charcoal” that were set on fire, but this was the beginning of the following course.
There were several components to the dish. There corn with uni butter and togarashi; ice fish cracker with smoked Hamachi tartar and kombu seaweed. Lastly, on a piece of driftwood adorned with seaweed were goose barnacles. On the rosemary was unagi with umeboshi (pickled plum), brown sugar and soy glaze.
The “charcoal” was yakitori chicken legs wrapped in kombu and nori. Another piece of charcoal was daikon. The shishito pepper had been grilled. The lilly flower was served raw. A dashi was poured over the entire dish, which had been kept warm over the fire.
Next was the signature hot potato-cold potato. The dish is served in a wax bowl with a pin holding a black truffle hot potato. By pulling out the pin, the hot potato is dropped into cold truffle and potato soup. The interplay between temperature and texture makes this a simply wonderful, and stunning dish.
The next dish brought a large vase filled with olive brances with pieces of oily, cottony fluffy olive bread. The remainder of the dish included black grapes, green and black olives, lamb loin and tenderloin, lamb sausage, greek yogurt sauce and lamb jus. The bread was meant to use to sop up the sauces. The lamb was perfectly cooked with just a hint of gaminess but the brine of the olvies was a little too strong for my taste.
The parade of desserts then started. There was a deconstructed cheesecake including freeze dried blueberry powder, matcha, strawberry frosting, “shattered” hibiscus. Not being a huge fan of deconstructed desserts, this one was actually quite good. The cheesecake was creamy, which the hibiscus added some textural crunch.
Next came the signature green apple balloons. This is a green apple taffy, somewhat reminiscent of a Jolly Ranchers green apple candy in flavor, but obviously more chewy. The balloon is filled with helium. The idea is to suck on the balloon and inhale the helium and then to talk like a Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz movie. Doing this gracefully is kind of an art, as the taffy is super sticky and you are likely to get it all over your face as the balloon deflates.
To end the meal, the “Jackson Pollock” dessert was the finale. The mind numbing list of ingredients in this one included a rum-molasses reduction, white chocolate, mango puree, guava, passion fruit, carmelized banana, compressed watermelon, pineapple, dragon fruit, kaffir lime candy with rice paper wrapper, chocolate, lychee sugar and a frozen coconut sphere which shattered upon hitting it. This was a kaleidoscope of flavors, colors and textures.
It should be noted that portions are small. We didn’t eat lunch, so we weren’t super stuffed when we left, but were satisfied.
Given the great restaurants in Chicago, I am not sure that I would be in a hurry to return, but I am glad to have had the experience.