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More on Alinea

alineajpegAbove is the current menu at Alinea, which my wife and I sampled last week in Chicago. While the restaurant has offered a choice of two menus in the past, now there’s just the one and, as I wrote in the previous post, it’s 185 smackeroos.

The menu actually holds more information than the terse descriptions would suggest. Those circles are coded. The darker they are, the more intense the flavors of that course. The bigger they are, the more substantial the portion. The further to the right on the page, the sweeter the food will be.

We decided not to go with the full roster of wine pairings on the advice of others who’ve eaten here. (Not only is it expensive, but we thought too much alcohol would get in the way.) Instead, the sommelier proposed a limited pairing — glasses and half glasses of wine as needed to carry us through. The wines were all Old World and esoteric varietals. They were also fairly priced. Our total bill with two $185 menus, wine, endless refills of Badoit water, a fantastic French press pot of coffee, tax and a 21% tip came to $580. (Gulp.)

I won’t go through the blow by blow and subject you to 20 poorly lit cellphone photos, but I’ll point out a few interesting courses.

photo 1The meal began with this lineup of edible cocktails, which include a couple not detailed in the online version of the menu. The passion fruit shell at the bottom holds the fleshy pips mixed with three kinds of rum (a “Hurricane”). Working up, there’s a frozen and chewy pisco sour, a cucumber cube hollowed and filled with rosewater and gin (a takeoff on the locally famous Juliet and Romeo from the Violet Hour cocktail bar), a froth-capped cherry Manhattan and a piece of kumquat with rye and Peychaud bitters that is not your grandfather’s Sazerac. Maybe Don Draper would find a hostess to hit on if faced with these cocktails, but I thought they were loads of fun. Plus, they cumulatively packed the alcoholic punch of an actual pre-dinner drink. You feel loosened, happy, suddenly famished for dinner. You also guess that realization was placed in your head with “Inception”-like precision. It is your first clue that you should pay attention to the subtext of this food.

photo 2This English pea course was a kind of frozen mash set on the inside of a glass. Some of the peas seemed to be freeze dried; others just melted into creamy bliss in your mouth as you ate. There were all kinds of garnishes: spherified orbs of sherry, melon-balled honeydew, a wiggly gel of Iberico ham, fresh herbs. The waitress suggested we try the peas with one garnish, then the next and see how the flavors combined. It was up to us to make sense of this intriguing disorder.

This dish also foreshadowed the interactive nature of the food here. When you eat, you take an active role in choosing how the flavors go together or stay separate. Do you eat your peas and mashed potatoes together or keep them apart? This is the same thing.

photo 1All kinds of gorgeously skinned and seeded summer tomatoes arrived in of Alinea’s trademark presentations. Though you can’t tell from this picture, the plate is sitting on top of a pillow filled with the “vaporized aroma” of freshly mowed grass that slowly deflates as you eat. Does it feel like being at a picnic? No, but the smell is true and kind of delightful. Again, this plate is very interactive — with all kind of frozen bits of complementary tomato flavors. Fennel, parmesan, mozzarella, caramelized onion, balsamic vinegar (a chewy ring of taffy) and whatnot. I have to say I don’t love the texture of little bitty things that were frozen with liquid nitrogen and have begun to melt in a gluey mass.

photo 3Time to eat our edible centerpiece! In the beginning of the meal a waiter set up little flags of diaphanous rice paper holding edible flowers and herbs between two stuck-together sheets. Mid-meal, we received these thin slabs topped with all kinds of precise garnish. A coconut curl here, a cashew there. Under supervision, we lifted up the top plates to reveal a carved wooden base holding two interlocking “puzzle pieces” that we could set up to make a stand for the rice paper. We each got a spoonful of warm pork belly confit and dressed it with all the garnishes. Then we had to put the whole contraption back together before we could use the provided warm towels to wash our hands.

The constant surprise of the whole thing was really fun in that first hour of “Avatar” way. Our bundles were sloppy but thrummed with lingering flavor –  all that sharp crunch of garnish popping against the warm, rich, soft confit.

But the more I thought about this dish the next day, the less I liked it. Two-ply rice paper is less of a welcome innovation than two-ply toilet tissue. The pleasure in eating rice paper is in its sheer, stretchy tension and self adhesion — the way it holds both rich meat and rabbit-food herbs and lettuces in taut packages.

photo 3This tournedo à la persane is a dish straight from Auguste Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire” — the 19th Century bible of French gastronomy. This medallion of Australian wagyu beef came on a porcelain plate with filegreed silver cutlery and a glass of red wine served in a cut crystal goblet. I half expected my waiter to change into a French magistrate’s powdered wig to serve it.

This dish, of course, was all about its sauce — a sticky demiglace reduction — and it asked the question, “Is this the basis of building flavor on the plate? Have we moved away from this? Do we miss it?” I felt that the preparation of this stunningly reduced sauce, which stuck to the plate like liquid cement, was meant as both an homage and a critique.

(The smarty-pants question I wish I had asked: Was the beef cooked sous vide or seared and roasted?)

photo 4The grand finale was this spectacular assemblage of chocolate served with menthol crisps, fresh hyssop and various coconut dribbles, chewies and thingies.

It begins with the waiter spreading a silicone sheet over the table and placing several dishes of garnish on bowls on top. Then a chef comes from the kitchen and spends a good 10 minutes creating patterns of kaleidoscope beauty that shift and change. That coconut milk forms perfect round-edged squares as it spreads on the silicone weave. That disc of chocolate in for foreground begins as hot liquid poured into a glass cylinder and sets before your eyes. Those crumbles of honeycomb chocolate come out as a smoke-pluming brick of liquid nitrogen frozen mousse that the chef crumbles. (Here, the texture is just right — it melts in your mouth, not on the table.)

Food is a process. Flavor is a process. How you choose to interact with it says everything about how you taste it.

19 comments Add your comment

Food Fan

August 18th, 2010
3:28 pm

Sounds like a great experience. I’ve found that any time you have a tasting menu like that, you’re gonna have some hits and misses. Maybe some of the things they offered didn’t taste the best, or could have been improved, but you have to be impressed by any kitchen that is willing to push boundaries, take risks, and not be afraid to serve something that they’re proud of.


August 18th, 2010
4:35 pm

I’m in awe. Looks like a lot of fun….


August 18th, 2010
5:59 pm

Wowie. I think that’s a spectacular splurge and thanks bunches for sharing.


August 18th, 2010
6:10 pm

I love the thought behind the menu…


August 18th, 2010
6:19 pm

Thanks for the recap John. I think the coded menu is a really cool idea and some of the dishes sound amazing. I find it interesting that such indulgences incense so many people. I’m not sure if it’s because they can’t afford it and want it or they think it’s inappropriate because we’re in a recession therefore no one should indulge or what? I’m particularly intrigued why people who rant against such foodie indulgences are reading a foodie blog in the first place. I guess the whole thing just vexes me. I don’t know who said it first but there are those that eat to live and those that live to eat. I’m definitely in the latter. Much like you did a few years back, I think you should convince your boss at the AJC to let you do a tour of THE restaurant destinations in the U.S. I would love to have you write about the French Laundry and Daniel Boulud’s place in NYC. BTW, how’s the kitchen coming along?

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajcdinecritic, John Kessler. John Kessler said: More on Alinea [...]


August 19th, 2010
10:44 am

Oh, the edible cocktails are right up my ally. Please tell me about the Bubble Gum dish. I love hibiscus anything…

What a wonderful food journey!


August 19th, 2010
11:38 am

Love the menu layout and secret codes. If we tried that in Georgia no one could go because they all lost their secret decoder rings years ago.


August 19th, 2010
12:10 pm

Was it worth it? Now that you have written about it, can you put it on the AJC expense account?


August 19th, 2010
1:57 pm

Did you take these photos?

I’m curious as chefs are apparently annoyed the increasing food paparazzi. I would think that they would see this as a form of flattery in how seriously people take their dishes.


August 19th, 2010
1:58 pm

Assume if you did that it was a non-flash camera.


August 19th, 2010
2:40 pm


I went to Alinea last year and had an amazing experience. Like Grant Achatz, I am a cancer survivor and tweeted him that I was celebrating my 5 year clean bill of health. He tweeted something back like “congrats, can’t wait to see you” Our reservations were several months after that and he remembered and actually showed up at our table twice. First, to greet us, and second to personally mat plate our dessert. Our waiter told me that the Chef had not mat plated any orders himself in several weeks. Overall the food was exceptional, playful, and thought provoking. I found the hot potato, cold potato to be absolutely incredible and I loved the yuba.

John Kessler

August 19th, 2010
4:02 pm

Kar: I took the pix with phone camera, which explains their, um, curious lighting, composition and resolution. I would not have brought a camera with a flash.

Darren: Agreed. The potato soup was incredible. Just a zen moment of deliciousness.

Monica Ricci

August 19th, 2010
6:08 pm

Wow. The cuisine photos on their website are positively mouth-watering, if not a bit mysterious. Oh my GOD I must go there!


August 19th, 2010
8:06 pm

We ate there year before last. I’ve eaten in many great restaurants around the world and I rate Alinea in the top five meals I’ve had in my life. Their truffle explosion alone was almost worth the price. We raved about it to our waiter and he came back after the next course, placed a spoon in front of each of us and said “encore.” I can’t wait to go back.


August 20th, 2010
9:52 am

Sounds like such an awesome experience. Thanks for giving us more details. Regardless of the economy, a meal this expensive is always going to be a stretch for a lot of people. That said, if and when I’m at a point in my life that I can afford a “once in a lifetime” meal like this you better believe I’m going to do some research. John, I always appreciate your opinion and insight as I decide to spend my dining dollars, whether it’s $50 tonight or $500 further down the road.


August 20th, 2010
1:55 pm

John – Were there any dishes that contained ingredients that you ordinarily do not care for? Did it change your mind about the ingredient or ruin the dish for you?

John Kessler

August 21st, 2010
9:03 am

Art: Kitchen renovation (of course) stalled for a couple of weeks. I am so sick of eating out all the time

Pika: Not really. The menthol crisps with the chocolate dessert reminded me a little of the More cigarettes my mom smoked back in the day, but they were easy enough to take or leave.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gwen Ashley Walters and Vivian Boroff, GourmetGirlMagazine. GourmetGirlMagazine said: RT @chefgwen: Alinea fans, here's a recent dinner recap from AJC critic: [...]