As with similar posts, we'd like to issue our standard food snobbery warning before continuing.
Alinea has been on our to-do list since setting up shop at Purdue. Located in Chicago, it’s noted as one of the top handful of restaurants in the US. It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement, which does fairly strange but tasty things with food. We’d previously put some similar restaurants in Japan and Singapore (Yamada Chikara, Narisawa, and FiftyThree) to the test, and wanted to hit one of the big names back home. However, Chicago is a good couple hours away from us and reservations are extremely difficult to get, so we’d been putting it off for a while. A friend of ours from undergrad joined our PhD program this year and finally succeeded in chivying us into going over spring break (we still put in a full week’s work – just from home instead of having to go in).
We drove up to Chicago, dropped our stuff at the hotel, and played dress-up (the restaurant is a required-suit-and-tie kind of place) before getting a fancy black car ride over (our friend insisted) for our early reservation. You get the same course at whatever time you go, but they charge more for later times – we were fine eating early to cut the cost down a little.
We don’t want to go through the food dish by dish because there were too many of them, but the (mostly pretty poor) pictures are on Flickr in order, along with a scan of the menu. One funny thing for us was that the restaurant was on a kaiseki (formal Japanese) kick for the menu we had, which meant that we’d had versions of several dishes before while in Japan…
like the raw shrimp in broth (above) and the tempura miitake mushrooms. Alinea’s versions were superb, but not surprising. One of the pairings was for a Japanese craft beer where Ana had actually visited the brewery with friends while we were over there.
We will mention a few of the coolest other dishes.
The charred parsnip and pork belly dish originally appeared on the table as the ‘logs’ on a pupu-platter-ish presentation for sashimi speared on fresh pine boughs, but then after the fire went out the ‘logs’ were extracted and cut up at the table to be the next course (char-roasted parsnip and seaweed-wrapped roasted pork belly), which was definitely one of the best. I like parsnips a lot, but this particular char roasted one was something else.
These were edible floating candy balloons, with helium in them. The string was dehydrated apple. These were comical to eat and watch other people eat.
The final dessert course was painted onto a rubber mat covering the table in front of us, which was fun, and the frozen coconut milk ice cream was delicious.
The service was really excellent – casual in tone, cracking jokes, but silent and professional when called for, and they adjusted the pacing for our table. Some other tables we could see were moving through the food faster we were, but everything appeared just when it should for our table. I also appreciated that the sommelier kept good track of us and would top off the glasses should our wine consumption outpace the food it was intended to accompany. The wines were all interesting and well paired as well, I found some of them to be more interesting and surprising than the courses they went with.
After discussing it, Ana and I decided we’d be happy to go back for the price (enough to feed us for at least 2 months of regular eating), but we’d wait until they were on a new menu with less emphasis on kaiseki. We don’t mind kaiseki, but it isn’t new and surprising to us after eating it regularly for several years in Japan. For us, Yamada Chikara in Tokyo probably remains the best single dinner out of all time, but we'd be willing to give Alinea another shot at the title.