The past few months have been a whirlwind of epic meals: birthday dinner at Le Bernadin; Nashville Hot Chicken at its birthplace, Prince’s; rabbit and truffles in a cave in Rome; and salsiccia sandwiches from a truck on the side of the road overlooking the Mediterranean. But all of these adventures were trumped a few weeks ago when I sat down to a large candlelit communal table, a block of ice and a bottle of Bollinger, embarking on my first experience at Alinea. Along with my husband and twelve others, we dug into the first of about sixteen courses and wine pairings presented over the next 3 hours in an evening that would never lack in variety, inventiveness, surprise, humor and one or two changes of scenery.
It’s difficult to review Alinea without giving too much away, as the unique and unexpected are so much of the experience, so I’ll be careful with the spoilers. The most lasting impression, and the one thing I always take away from a truly fine dining experience, is the obsessive attention to detail, and in this Alinea really raises the bar. According to my count they have a staff of about fifty, one for each patron, if not more. At least fifteen of them surrounded our little dinner at all times. From the replenishment of your water, to an escort to the bathroom, a dissertation-level explanation of Mezcal varieties and forks dropped off next to my husband’s left hand because, of course, they noticed he was a lefty... it’s all the attentiveness befitting a Roman Emperor, right here in Chicago!
Now, on to the food.
THE FIRST COURSE: OSETRA, KING CRAB, CONDIMENTS was one of my favorite. Served in a solid block of ice with each item dropped into its own little carved ice holder; king crab could be topped with truffle mousse, caviar, egg salad mousse, and a little herb and onion for a customizable snack on brioche. Candle wax dripped on the the table, champagne was guzzled, and then, all of the sudden we were off on a field trip to the kitchen!
IN THE KITCHEN: Never have I seen a kitchen so spotless, so quiet, so cool. Flames glowed blue on countless burners, sous-vide bubbled gently, blow torches and helium tanks emitted a steady hiss and dozens of people calmly went about their work. We all lined up next to a long work station stacked with tiny bowls holding a single bite and empty glasses waiting to be filled. In front of us--The Imperial Shaker--a beautifully elaborate, hand-cranked, double-cocktail shaking, mess-making machine being cheerfully churned by one of the sous-chefs as he explained our next course. CUCUMBER, GIN, FETA, GREEN TOMATO, CAPER LEAF, CHARTREUSE--like running your open mouth through a late summer garden, the cocktail and accompanying bite were refreshing, but the real treat was getting to see the calm bonhomie that reigned in the kitchen of one of the world’s best restaurants.
FULL OF SURPRISES: Upon returning to the main dining room, we found our communal table had been transformed into individual tables for each party in a carefully choreographed total room makeover. Ensconced at our table for two, staff descended from the wings with wine, water and the next of my favorite courses. I love molecular gastronomy. I love the science, the ability to trick the senses and alter our perceptions of what and how we eat. But I also hate molecular gastronomy when it takes something really beautiful and transforms it into something totally unnatural without convincing you that it was worth it. This course truly made molecular gastronomy work for me, elevating all of the natural properties of the food into something exquisite. SCALLOP, SHIO KOMBU, CORN CONSOMME, NORI BUTTER. Scallop and corn are a classic summer combination--the sweetness of each mirroring and magnifying the other. At Alinea, scallops come in the form of crunchy, transparent sheets of glass piled into a dry bowl. Then comes the corn--a clear, concentrated broth poured over the dry scallop sheets, rehydrating them and, through some kind of crazy chef wizzardry, reverting them back into something with the texture of a perfectly cooked scallop. I could have eaten bowls and bowls of it. But alas, there were still a dozen more courses to come.
MAKING SENSE: Another really unique aspect of the dining experience at Alinea is the total multi-sensory overload. No sense is left behind--taste, touch, sight, sound and especially smell are all accounted for and catered to. An APPLE, YUZU, LEMON VERBENA course was preceded by a “nose only” course. A large bowl of cut citrus had been languishing near our table since we arrived. Suddenly, someone appeared pouring water over the fruit, activating blocks of dry ice hidden underneath and creating billowing clouds of citrus infused vapor that spilled across the floor inching up into our noses. Another course, the CHICKEN, was accompanied by a smoking molcajete full of Palo Santo and herbs, imbuing every bite with the taste of the desert, the feel of skin sun-baked into leather and the hint of mezcal brewing under a palapa just over the next ridge.
JUST DESSERTS: As dinner began to wind down, a dozen faces glowed happily under the influence of a generous wine pairing and the anticipation of dessert. One of the more famous offerings at an already infamous restaurant, the first dessert: RHUBARB, STRAWBERRY, ANISE, CAMPARI (or The Baloon), did not disappoint. Held by a pair of tweezers, gripping a candy string, a fully edible pink balloon was presented, floating before each guest. Instructions were to “suck out the helium, talk to your partner and try not to get any of the sticky sweetness stuck in your hair.” I was a kid in the candy store, encouraged to make a mess! But we knew there was even more coming when our server appeared with ladder in hand, climbed up a few steps and began to take down the light fixtures. Laying one large hand-painted plexiglass square on each of our tables, the lights dropped, the music was suddenly bumping and the entire kitchen staff emptied out into the dining room carrying chocolate and fruit and sauces and creams and nuts and a block of nitrogen-frozen chocolate mousse that was then tossed, shattered, slathered, dripped and dropped onto our table with reckless abandon. I wouldn’t want to completely spoil the surprise, so I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Want to cook like a three-star Michelin chef? Don’t we all. Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it could certainly be built in a week with The Chopping Block's Culinary Boot Camp and A La Carte Boot Camp Classes. Learn all of the fundamentals and advanced techniques of cooking and transform your home cooking into a truly fine dining experience.