Wow. We had an impressive food weekend in Chicago recently for our anniversary. Since it was sort of a big one (10!) we decided to go whole hog and finally get to Alinea. It has been on our list since we moved back to Indy, but with its minimum of 12 courses and hefty price tag (not to mention a more challenging reservation to get then some others), we saved it for a special occasion.
Before I start, can I just vent about something? How come none of the cabbies in Chicago know where any of the restaurants are in the City? I mean Alinea is one of the top ranked restaurants there and the cab driver had no clue. And every time we go there, it’s the same. Once we actually had to get out and walk the rest of the way because the cabbie was so clueless. My advice: if you aren’t totally sure where you are going, and you’re taking a cab, make sure you have the address, phone number and ideally written directions. Makes me long for the cab drivers in London who would be seriously offended if you even told them the address—they had to take a detailed test in order to even get their license.
Anyhow, once we got there, you walk in, into a hallway that is sort of like a little rabbit hole which is sort of cool, and then the metal doors slide open into the restaurant. You can look to your right and see a somewhat open kitchen (which I attempted a picture of). I have to say, the staff is all very friendly and not at all snooty. This is one of my favorite things about Chicago restaurants, the lack of pretension. We were seated and started on the adventure. This is a set menu, no options (well, unless you tell them you don’t eat certain things or have allergies, etc). With 12 courses, we figured we should just go with the wine pairings too, because it just seemed overwhelming to come up with your own stuff. And if you aren’t familiar with the style of this restaurant, this is a chef who likes to play with his food, so to speak, and you will find familiar flavors disguised in things you might not expect. Like cucumber infused lettuce. That was part of the Thai-inspired pork belly. He also incorporates scents and textures more so into the food than most—for instance one of the first things that happened after we were seated was a large piece of rosemary was placed at each of our seats, allowing for a beautiful scent before we had eaten anything. The rosemary was later incorporated into the lamb course. But if you are like a friend of mine who said she avoids restaurants with things that are “foamy” or “smoking,” this is probably not the place for you.
My overall impression of Alinea was that it was really good. The thing about a set menu is you are likely to get a few things that might not be up your alley and a few things that are awesome. And that was the case here. I’m not going to go through them all, because it would take all day, but probably my favorite 2 courses were the trout course and the “hot potato” course. The trout course was the chef’s interpretation of a traditional recipe. It was amazing. The trout was so tender, rolled up and had been cooked in a rich, very Fall-ish sauce. There were 3 little “boats” (all edible of course) filled with other yummies, 2 with trout roe and one, my favorite, lined with truffles and then with a plump quail egg yolk that had been poached in red wine. Mmmmmm…. He also used antique plates and etched wine glasses to carry the classic nature of the recipe. Very cool. (Here's a link to one of the Chef's twitter pictures showing the fish being rolled up: http://img132.yfrog.com/i/805p.jpg/.)
The other favorite (although now I am thinking about the caviar course too that came first—a fun one with foam flavored like bread and gelatin with the vegetable flavors infused. It was whimsical, but still really good) was the potato/truffle course which was a small piece of potato and a truffle skewered on a little pin that you pulled out and dumped into a little wax bowl full of a rich creamy sauce that you then drank in one gulp. Really tasty (can you tell I have a thing for truffles?).
An example of one of the other courses, just to give you an idea of the playfulness, but one that I didn’t think really actually tasted that impressive was the Pheasant course. It was a little tempura battered ball of apple, pheasant and shallot and skewered on a little oak branch that had the leaves slightly burning. A nice aroma of Fall to be sure, but the food itself on this course wasn’t that great. A little too chewy and not a lot of flavor in itself.
Also pictured here is the pork belly course which was served with Thai seasonings. his was also where the cucumber infused lettuce came in that I mentioned above. There was also a shot of “Thai distillation” which was a shot glass of a liquid that looked like water but was infused with various Thai seasonings which you were instructed to drink before you ate the food. This was very pretty, but for me, the flavors just weren’t that impressive. Hubby liked it better than me, but would’ve chosen a different flavor combination too.
This place is an experience for sure, and if you are really into food, a totally worthwhile one. And the wine pairing was spot on. The wines were all great (there were 8 small pours throughout the night) and many were unusual from smaller producers in the world. The meal and wine is almost shockingly expensive (the only other equivalently expensive meal I have had was the French Laundry in Napa), but there is certainly an inordinate amount of thought and passion going into the food. I actually would love to go back in the Spring and experience those flavors, as they are probably my favorite. But I’d better start a savings account for it now!
1723 North Halstead
Chicago, IL 60614