Alinea- a ground-breaking establishment that led the way on ticket-based seat sales and broke a whole bunch of culinary rules on their way to the 3-Star Michelin Guide rating they now hold. Here was my experience;
CHICAGO, IL, USA
PRICE PAID: $298 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
Right out of the gate, Grant Achatz starts with a very strong first dish of Osetra-grade caviar, a type known for its creamy walnut taste. Unlike most caviar I have had, it wasn't strongly saline or ocean-y- the creamy texture matched up nicely with a toasted brioche and egg yolk custard. They even gave us a mother-of-pearl spoon with a "landing pad" to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. 10/10, an outstanding dish.
What's an elite fine-dining experience without a Jesus reference, am I right? Just kidding- this second course was served to us in a crown-of-thorns-esque assemblage of twigs that had "branch camouflage" of Salsify jerky (a root vegetable in the dandelion family). The jerky was cooked in soy and garlic then dehydrated, giving it a smoky, earthy flavor but too small to be very satisfying. The waiter said that some people compared its flavor to oyster- I would have said more like dried beets. 5/10, with -2 points for the bizarre religious reference.
Course 3 was a colorfully-presented skate wing poached in brown butter with parsley, oxalis, and lemon. I'd call this the botanical garden plate- fun textures, beautiful hues, not terribly memorable taste but great crunchy mouthfeel from the flowers that paired nicely with the wing. Extra points for the clever presentation- a plate shaped like a folded napkin. 7/10.
Dish 4 was the "pebble dish," so named for the fun textural interplay of the hard beans (the pebbles), the soft Hawaiian sweet prawn with Ogo (seaweed), and the softer still custard. I liked the framing of the plate as a small-scale diorama of a beach- the flavors recalled the ocean and the tropics in a cool and original way. 9/10.
Though its difficult to make out in the photo, the fifth dish was served on a long black bourbon barrel plank (a cool touch) with two people served at once on either end. A fish from New Zealand called Gurnard was served alongside watermelon, broccoli, and a fish sauce aged in the selfsame bourbon barrels. A big and filling dish with tons going on- the Gurnard had peanut-y and sesame flavors that matched well with the actual peanuts, the fish sauce imbued a seriously rich taste. Quite a lot to take in and led to feeling a bit full as of the fifth course, but a solid 8/10.
The sixth course provided a nice break from the seafood in favor of a hearty vegetable dish- eggplant poached with pickles and banana puré, gin and tea, lemongrass ginger, Fresno chili, and mint. The chili had some serious kick- they're hotter than jalapeños by far- which really danced up this veggie-heavy dish. The eggplant texture provided an excellent base to enjoy the mustard seeds. However, the lemongrass flavor shows up suddenly and pounds the broth and mustard into the dirt- an overwhelming flavor that doesn't let up. Great concept, but I'd humbly recommend a smaller lemongrass serving. 6/10.
7 was a fun "Tour of Italy"- three single bites including chicken skin, a tamarind, and then a "cocktail" of lemongrass, chili, and soda. The coconut and lime flavors of the tamarind were perfect, and the caramel chunk gives it a fun texture interplay. 9/10.
Course 8- some Hamachi (also known as Japanese yellowtail, but with a more refined taste) was served skewered on a pine branch with Shishito peppers and beans. The peppers weren't particularly hot, and the presentation style was clearly interesting- a pile of logs sat unsuspectingly in the center of this woodsy dish. We'd find out the logs' role in a few moments... 8/10
Course 9 included some tempura of abalone served with dashi (dried kelp that forms the backbone of many Japanese dishes) and shiso, a cilantro-like mint also from Japan. What was really cool was that the next course was cooked for us in the middle of the table as we enjoyed these small skewers. 8/10. Quick video:
Inside the fire was... some absolutely incredible pork belly. Course ten was not only wrapped in kombu (a type of kelp) and cooked and cut on-table, but served with parsnip, black trumpet mushroom, some delicious cuttlefish ink with julienne. This dish was truly outstanding. 10/10!
Our waiter told us that Course 11 had been on the menu for almost 9-and-a-half years; certainly a confident comment. Suspended above a warm broth was a cold potato with black truffle and a small cube of butter. The butter melts quickly, so the recommendation was to withdraw the small metal spike holding the ingredients up and eat it all in one go. The hot and cold mixed together brilliantly and this -certainly a bit salty- dish made it easy to see why one might continue to offer it for almost a decade. 9/10.
Course 12 was certainly one of the most colorful of the evening- squab liver mousse with beets, roasted orange, and a bunch of flower petals. Some of the petals weren't terribly fresh, but the squab was absolutely exquisite. I wasn't 100% sure why the orange was roasted/burnt, since this heightened the already strong flavor and didn't pair terribly well with the squab. But, the squab itself was a total delight- wonderful texture, incredibly fresh (almost on-the-farm) taste, perfectly cooked. 8/10.
The 13th course was super fun and interesting- looks like a block of ice, right? The small shavings in the center were exploding with the flavor of minty dark chocolate! Another fun trompe l'oeil where the appearance and the taste were at odds. I also noticed how the kitchen moved back and forth on the color spectrum- bland, bright, bland, bright. 9/10, great surprise, wonderful palate cleanser.
As we headed into the final few courses, the 14th "Graffiti" course of hazelnut, perigord, and balsamic were served in the shape of broken asphalt with a spray can of liquid applied on top. The reference was a little bizarre, but the creativity of the presentation said a lot. 8/10.
The 15th course, known as "Quince," was an almond-heavy dish cooled with dry ice. It reminded me of those awesome fruit and nut cereals I used to enjoy as a kid. It had a fruity kick from the grapefruit, and wasn't terribly memorable but a great approaching-the-end dish. 8/10.
Someone in the back of the house has the (not terribly enviable) job of creating green apple taffy, carefully crafting it into helium-ready balls, filling those balls, and connecting them to a rope of candy without breaking them or unleashing a bunch of helium into the kitchen. This person, needless to say, is a master craftsman at their job. Eating the balloons leads to all sorts of cartoon-voiced hilarity, a thoughtful way to get people laughing together and cementing great memories at the end of the meal. 9/10.
The very last statement starts with a large, grey latex that gets laid on top of the table. Then, small bowls of ingredients are brought out. Finally, a member of the kitchen emerges and freehand-paints a gorgeous mural of dessert, like so:
Creative, unique, delicious. 10/10.