Absolutely, one of my favorite parts of being a photographer is that it allows me to travel all over the world, which enables me to eat at some of the coolest (and sometimes, worst) restaurants. Alinea in Chicago is, without surprise to anyone who's heard of it, one of the most unique dining experiences of my life. It wasn't all good, as you'll read below; however, it stands out above all others as the craziest, coolest restaurant I've experienced.
First off, I have a talent-crush on the chef. Chef Grant Achatz was one of Food and Wine's best new chefs in recent years, and I've even recreated (with some success) his Hot Potato-Cold Potato, which you'll see below. He questions everything about the dining experience and about food in general, which is one of the reasons his food is so creative.
We went with our best friends Wiley and Adrienne, who were up for the road trip (and who we photographed in the Windy City... that shoot coming soon!). We of course had to take a quick selfie before dinner.
Let's dive in to the courses, shall we?
Course #1: Osetra caviar. I've had this before at the French Laundry with a sabayon and it was delicious. At Alinea they also pair it with "traditional flavors" but in an anything-but-tradition way. The foam here BLEW ME AWAY, as it tasted exactly like toasted brioche. How you make a foam taste like that, I don't know, but I wish I could take a bubble bath in it. The clear gel in the image below tasted like red onions. Again, HOW? The chef recommended "2-3 bites to get the palette ready" and as a good little student, Meredith obeyed. Better for me... I gobbled up all my and then the rest of hers. No regrets.
Course #2: Salsify. The second course arrived in a wood wreath. Not unlike you'd get at Hobby Lobby (as Mere pointed out to get a good laugh), the wreath contained our food hidden within. Our server said that the chef would like for us to forage for our food. It was really fun, a tad difficult, and enhanced the experience of dinner.
Success! We all found our salsify (the root veg), which had been cooked sous vide (my favorite way to cook pretty much anything, particularly veggies and meats). It was tender and yummy. Though, I think it was too little to actually count as course. Regardless, it was fun. We decided we should toast with our finds since we weren't drinking anything (except water).
Course #3: Skate. The fish was paired with brown butter, lemon, and herb stems (and an edible flower). I scooped everything up in one bite and let it sing in my mouth. The brown butter crumbs tasted a lot like graham cracker crust and was a great textural contrast to the fish. This course, again small, was a winner.
Course #4: Tomato. You won't see the heirloom tomatoes in the image below. The presentation was great, bringing the course out on "authentic Chicago concrete" and even decorating it with "black licorice graffiti." What you do see is the concrete, graffiti, and ashed goat cheese. I was a huge fan of this dish and ate mine completely, then finishing off Meredith's and Adrienne's.
Course #5: Corn. Another great presentation, this dish looked much like a grilled corn on the cob, but we were once again tricked. Under the perfectly roasted corn was corn grits, polenta, manchego cheese, black truffle, and ham. The smokiness from the husk and the smell from the black truffle make this dish ridiculously good.
Hanging above our table when we arrived was a "floating" piece of rhubarb. A baby hook and fishing line made it look like it was just hovering above our table, and we all commented before dinner at how cool the ambiance was where we were sitting.
Course #6: Rhubarb. Little did we know that the hanging rhubarb would later be sliced with a truffle slicer over our rhubarb dish. You'll also see below that it contained celery root and leaves. This dish, although was conceptually cool (to use the hanging rhubarb), it wasn't one of my favorites. It I dropped mega moolah on a dinner, I don't want much rhubarb or celery. Don't worry... the next course makes up for it.
Course #7: Lobster. By this time I was really ready for something meaty. Chef read my mind as we got our heartiest dish thus far, and we agreed after... tastiest thus far. Butter poached lobster with curry, earl grey, and grapefruit (see those little pink balls? THAT's the grapefruit!). I forget what was in the thing that looks popcorn... all I remember is that the server said the kitchen called it "crack rock" and I know why! If I would have had just course after course of crack rock, I'd have been happy! It was insane.
Course #8: Sweetbreads. I had planned on not telling the girls at the table what sweetbreads were but then they started guessing WORSE things, so I put their minds at ease when I said it was just the thymus gland of a calf. When you cook sweetbreads you typically poach them in milk and then remove the outer membrane and then fry it. As much as I could tell, that's what was done here, but what set these apart from others I've had is how tender and how flavorful these were. Instead of using traditional chopsticks with our "chinese takeout" presentation, we received cinnamon chop sticks that were burning on the don't-put-in-your-mouth ends, which gave some nice aromatics to the dish.
My dude Wiley above to dig in with his cinnamon burning chopsticks...
During the next course we received two items, seen below. When was asked about the fire, they said, "oh don't worry about that right now." So we were left there with Course #9: Matsutake. I'm a fan of mushrooms, but many people aren't. Of these many people, Meredith is one. I'm pretty sure she didn't even try this course. If I'm being honest, she wasn't missing much. This was my least favorite course. While it looked pretty (even dessert like), it was mushroom on mushroom on mushroom. I like Mushrooms as an accompaniment - not a course.
Course #10: Lily bulb. This dish was absolutely beautiful. Paired with rambutan and distillation of caviar lime, the dish was light and delicious. Mere pointed out that this was probably like a palate cleanser before our next course (kind of like sorbet would be), and we all agreed.
Course #11: Pork Belly. What went down as my favorite dish had actually been on our table for about 20 minutes before it was revealed to us. I like to point out that I made the guess to our table after the fire had been there that "maybe our course is inside there!" but then said that there probably was no way since it didn't look like there was room for food for all four of us. Well, it was. As our fire died out, our server came over and carved the most melt-in-your-mouth pork belly table side for our viewing pleasure. He also carved up the charred parsnip on top (which looked like it was part of the fire... just staring us in the face!). It was served with black trumpet and kombu.
After it had been plated and presented to us. Beautiful.
Course #11: Hot Potato-Cold Potato. Well, here it is! The dish that I did a decent job recreating a few weeks ago to get us ready for our restaurant experience was in front of us. When I made it, everybody loved it. But then, I don't have access (or money) to get real fresh black truffle. This little thing made a huge difference, taking something that was already extraordinary to well... extra-extraordinary. To have something that is both hot (the potato ball) and cold (the soup) in your mouth at the same time was pretty genius. Why does food have to be hot or cold? Why can't it be both at the same time? Well, Chef figured out a way.
Course #12: Duck. I'm a huge duck fan. From confit to breast to foie gras. I was quite happy to see that the duck course at Alinea included foie gras, breast, and heart. Presented with "dragon's breath" for aromatics, the course was rockin. This was a great way to end our savory courses.
Course #13: Blueberry. By this time I was ready to get some sweetness. I joke that this dish was like "blueberry 13 ways." From the bubble gum (that even felt like bubble gum in your mouth for about 2 seconds before it melted into nothingness) to the lemon puree to the dish was perfectly balanced and had multiple textures to play off each other. Quite the treat. But read on, it gets better.
Course #14: Baloon. I had mentioned a few minutes before that I didn't think we were going to get the famous Alinea balloon. I hadn't seen them anywhere else in the dining room and we were nearly finished with dinner. To my surprise, they brought them out and we were all so happy I was wrong!
Here's a little video of Mere and Adrienne eating their helium-filled candy apple balloon. So fun!
Course #15: Tropical Fruit. Our final course almost pained me to eat. After we finished our balloon silliness, our serving team came over to lay down a table cloth... well, not cloth, but more like rubber. Yeah sure, our table rubber. Then they brought over bowls filled with all sorts of unknown objects and said our chef will be out in a minute. When the chef came out we were given a show as he (and another chef) created a piece of art on our table.
And here is their creation. How's that for plating?!
It was obviously delicious. These kids couldn't get enough.
Alinea was a total trip. While I think it ate more like a 8-9 course tasting menu, and there were a couple course I'd pass on a second time around, it was inventive and definitely delicious. The atmosphere (and serving staff) was better than most restaurants I've been to (more FUN and less stuffy). While it was definitely in my top three all-time restaurants, it is my #1 in terms of ambiance, and creativity. Definitely a bucket list restaurant, go there if you get the chance!
Talk to you soon,