Alinea – Chicago

No flashes permitted at Alinea - hence the dull yellow hue to this picture.

There are surprisingly few restaurants open for dinner on Sunday in Chicago but luckily Alinea is one of them. “Why go there,” asked friends in Toronto. “Okay, it’s number seven in the world according to the San Pellegrino charts, but everything has already been written about the place.” And about Grant Achatz, its chef and co-owner, a man still in his mid-30s whose artistic energies were honed at Charlie Trotter’s and the French Laundry and then molecularly realigned (so the story goes) by a trip to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Catalonia. He created Alinea five years ago and has not yet opened his next Chicago venture or ventures – The Aviary and/or Next Restaurant – which may or may not be the same place – despite a staggering amount of prescient press pressure that has been going on for months… Such are the games this chef plays with the world.

The Sunday in question was spent walking round Oak Park’s leafy avenues admiring Frank Lloyd Wrighteous architecture, humming Paul Simon’s beautiful song and agreeing that FLW was indeed a precociously modern genius of both arts and crafts (like Chef Achatz) and a man dictatorially determined that his vision and his taste should completely surround and envelop his customers (like Chef Achatz).

Our heads were full of Wright’s visual rhythms and melodic lines as we dressed for dinner in the hotel. Then – suddenly – sapristi! Where the devil were my cufflinks? Egad… Still in a box in Toronto. A potential disaster was only averted by some swift MacGyvering, twisting four bobby pins into makeshift links like anorexic spiders to grip the snowy cuffs. Robert Tateossian’s preeminence was in no danger but I was rather proud of myself for taking something commonplace and turning it into something strange and unlikely but satisfying and successful (again, just like Chef Achatz).

Alinea looks like a regular house from the outside – a black façade with modest signage. Open the door and you are faced with an introductory moment of theatre, a black corridor lit by concealed pink lights that narrows dramatically so that for a fraction of a second it seems very long, until your eyes correct the mistake. Some might call it a cheap trick, a moment borrowed from a carnival haunted house, but it made me smile.

Take a left turn and now you are in the building proper. A glimpse of the kitchen to the right – dozens of cooks bent in concentration over their work stations – a lounge to the left, another salon perhaps – but our table is up the glass-hedged stairs in one of three or four small rooms. This way. The staff here are dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna – bussers and waiters in the sporty Z-Zegna line, sommeliers and maitre d’ in the more formal Sartorial suits and ties. They are polite but firm and they will be with us all evening, explaining, instructing, hovering, listening (once commenting on something my wife had just said to me – which was a step too far). For the first 15 minutes, we find ourselves bridling at such a bossy tone and longing for a moment of privacy, but gradually we are won over, coaxed and seduced into the Alinea experience. It isn’t the house that is responsible – the décor looks lovely on the web site but is banal in reality with dull paintings on the wall – it’s the food and the clever wine choices and the quirky eccentricity of the servers (our wine waiter has hair like Edward Scissorhands and the mannerisms of David Tennant’s Doctor Who)… But mostly it’s the food.

Our research had implied there are two menus at Alinea, one longer and even more expensive than the shorter version. On our visit there was only one. It consisted of 21 courses, some very small, others not, all of them fascinating – and it cost the earth. From the outset, there is a palpable insistence that the customer should give up all sense of independence and go with the program. We were offered our choice of waters but it was the last moment of freedom. Before I could form a request for a cocktail, one was set in front of me – a frozen, chewy Pisco Sour, like a mixture between nougat and ice cream in terms of texture but tasting intensely of a real-life Pisco Sour.

Course two was another cocktail, called a Juliet and Romeo, or so we were instructed. Its texture was similar to compressed watermelon or even the crunchy jelly of sea cucumber – it was a green gelatinous cube and it tasted, miraculously, of Plymouth gin, cucumber, rosewater and mint. I felt a little like an adult confronted by an accomplished conjuror. I could figure out how he did it but that didn’t detract from my admiration at how skillfully he pulled off the trick.

The third cocktail was a play on a Manhattan – half a macerated cherry topped by a foam – tasting just like a Manhattan. Achatz has been to Barchef on Queen Street in Toronto and tasted some of Frankie Solarik’s work. We’re talking kindred spirits.

Course four is the one that blew the last vestige of doubt and cynicism from Wendy’s mind. Picture a chilled pea soup garnished with drops of olive oil, a little Iberico ham, some honeydew melon, fresh basil and a trace of sherry. Got that? But here it came in a tumbler and the soup was a very cold powder, soft as talc, and packed like yesterday’s snow, with some crunchy round green moments, some salty, hammy flashes, some sudden jellies, etcetera… But tasting like the real thing as the textures melted and adjusted on the tongue. Was it better or more satisfying than an actual bowl of soup would have been? Nope. But it was no worse. Just different and clever. And it was unlike our experience at L20 the night before because the tricks were working. The wow factor was there – five out of five – because there really was an awesome flavour of pea and ham and all the other elements in that glass of powder.

Next came a very crispy wand like a tiny caduceus with serpents of raw white shrimp twsited around it. It was made of dehydrated soy milk skin but it tasted like a cross between very fine pastry and ethereal pork crackling. The shrimp flesh was real, sprinkled with black and white sesame and the whole thing was stuck into a tiny inkwell filled with a rich miso dipping sauce. Part of the same presentation was a fibrous morsel of sugar cane that had been infused under pressure with shrimp stock. “Chew it then spit it out like gum into the paper provided,” were the orders.

Now came the dish that won my curmudgeonly heart. It was almost the first thing we had eaten in Chicago that had some local provenance, some geographical relevance – a presentation of heirloom tomatoes from Michigan (almost as good as their Niagara kin) some very thinly sliced, some tiny and blanched and peeled, surrounded by eight mounds of different powdered condiments, some chilled, some crunchy – things like pine nut or fennel or basil or balsamic. Great ideas. And the whole plate was set down gently on an inflated pillow filled with air that had been carefully scented with the smell of freshly cut grass. The weight of the plate gradually pressed the air out of the pores of the pillowcase, adding a new aromatic dimension to the dish. I loved the idea.

And so on – and on… Here a roto evaporator had been used to create a low-temperature “distillation” of Thai flavours. There we were invited to build a structure of metal legs that could support a tiny flag, glossy as latex, emblazoned with flower petals that were once things like mustard and mango, and to load it up with dried garlic chips, a kind of belly pork rillettes, cucumber spheres, lime zest jelly, red bell pepper coulis, young coconut ribbon, etcetera etcetera. Such a lot of work for one slightly sticky bite in which all the flavours and textures combined into a single mouthful.

Then there were games with crabmeat and plum or with a piece of pheasant fried like tempura with walnut, green grape and sage to be eaten in one bite while oak leaves smolder and smoke.

Another dish showed off the flavour of a local lamb with such props as the fat from the saddle fried in panko crumbs (the size of a bean), fried green scallions, a maple bourbon gastrique…

A hot confit of potato with a slice of truffle was poised like a brooch on a pin over a spoonful of chilled truffle and potato soup. “See how we contrast hot and cold textures!!” the dish declared. (Yes dear, very clever.)

There was a main course. It was a cylinder of Australian wagyu tenderloin beef cooked according to a classic recipe from Escoffier, circa 1902, surrounded by morsels of fried banana, grilled green chilies stuffed with foie-gras-enhanced rice, peeled tomtaoes and a little classic Chateaubriand sauce. It was intended as a moment of respect and antique purity (and a reminder of the labour-intensive techniques of the past) and we were given antique cutlery to eat it with and an antique wine glass to accommodate the supersmooth wine – an Anima Negra An 2005 from Mallorca. Then a black truffle explosion (“put it all in your mouth and close your lips when you bite”). Then a scrap of bacon wrapped in apple and hung out to dry on a wire frame (“pull off the bacon and eat it in one go”). Then it was into the five dessert courses, one of which necessitated the spreading of a pale green silicone cloth over the bare wooden table so we could dispense with plates and mess up chocolate mousse frozen to crumbly honeycomb in liquid nitrogen and dressed with all sorts of candy sauces and menthol whipped cream and crispy herbs and micro-anise-hyssop. But let us draw a modest veil over all of them (it’s late, they were great).

Indeed, the whole experience has a greatness to it. It is very carefully choreographed and constructed – so precisely that there is no room for any improvisation from the customer (if I had embarked on a five-minute chat with the wine waiter about the relative merits of blaufrankisch or pinot noir in an Austrian bubbly the whole kitchen might have imploded). It is theatre. It is Cirque du Soleil and the fact that the miracles will be repeated later in the evening for each and every customer – and again tomorrow and again, hundreds of times, in the months to come – does spoil the show a little. If you like jazz – in other words, if you like improvisation and risk-taking in real time – you will hate Alinea. If you like avant-garde architecture – blending art and science and engineering to create an art form that is repeatable and spectacular (the first time you see it), this is the restaurant for you. Do expect to be amazed by the technical excellence of the dozens of cooks in the kitchen and by Chef Achatz’s vision – and by the quality of the cooking and ingredients and wine matching. Real gastronomy is happening here, not just smoke and mirrors. Do not hope for even a single minute when you can actually talk to your wife before the next course comes.

 Alinea (rhymes with Lavinia) Dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday. 1723 North Halsted, Chicago. 312 867-0110.

  1. And Achatz rhymes with “rackets”!

    A wonderful explication of your experience, James. I have not taken of the Alinea adventure, but it sounds a gastro-architectural one (and fitting in such a marvellous city of architecture).

    I really like the Escoffier “labour-intensive techniques” comparison.

    (Could I just humbly note that readers will no doubt be interested in reading about Achatz’s journey through the tough terrain of cancer some years ago in The New Yorker: that is a truly poignant and moving read when you stop to consider one of the world’s great chefs stricken with tongue cancer. Sobering.)
    Andrew Coppolino,

  2. We ate at Moto, of course another of Chicago’s great “modern” restaurants, with similar results. I was hesitant when we sat down to dinner — after all, so many gimmicks — but it was the flavours that won me over. Yes, there were powders and illusions and parlour tricks…but the food still tasted like food, and further, it tasted great.

    It’s always been about the food, and still is. But how strange to be reminded by restaurants at which everything else gets the press.

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