This is the eighth and final post in the Weekend Trip to Chicago series. Other post include Topolobampo, Frontera Grill by Rick Bayless, Giordano's Pizza, Portillo's Hot Dog, Lou Malnati's, and Girl and the Goat.
"Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."
This is how Michelin defines a three star restaurant.
A special journey is exactly what we did when we secured hard-to-get reservations at the exclusive Kitchen Table at 3-Michelin starred Alinea in Chicago. We built a trip around the restaurant reservation.
I had never dined at Alinea before, and thus had never experienced the "old" Alinea (the one that's showcased in a number of documentaries). Why "old"? In early 2016, Alinea decided to execute a major reboot shortly after its 10th anniversary (its most successful year to date). Co-owners Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas decided they needed a change, and closed the restaurant for close to half a year to implement the transformation.
Alinea reopened May 2o16 with a completely new look and a revamped menu. The dark, modern, and moody decor has been replaced with a lighter, softer, and cozier feel. Chef Achatz had created a brand new menu from scratch, keeping virtually none of the signature dishes that many have come to identify with Alinea.
For one, there is more optionality. Gone is the single $265 Tour Tasting ticket. Instead, you can choose between three different menus, all of which can be reserved as tickets via the Tock system on their website. There's a 12-course tasting for $165 - $225 (includes food, service, and tax) in the "Salon" located on the second floor. There's also a 16-18 course tasting in the "Gallery" on the first floor for $285 - $345, described as a combination of "fine dining" and "experimental moments".
Finally, you can book the most exclusive option - the Kitchen Table - a private glass-enclosed room located inside the kitchen. Each of these tickets costs $385 and it is only available for a party of six. We booked super early and managed to reserve the kitchen table the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend.
So we made a trip out of it.
And our tasting menu itself felt almost like another trip, this time a culinary sensory exploration of tastes from around the globe.
We started with pretty traditional flavors that reminded me of EUROPE. A block of ice appeared in front of us holding several little containers, each filled with a separate ingredient: black truffle cream, Alaskan king crab, pickled onions, chervil, cilantro, dill, caviar, and egg. On the side were perfect little triangles of brioche, which we used to make our own little bites.
Oh, it was heavenly.
I fell in love with the truffle cream and caviar (not a surprise), and I very much enjoyed my own creation, which included basically all five components.
After we finished our first course, the servers ushered us out of our glass box and into the kitchen. Here, one of the chefs showed us a cast-iron hand-cranked cocktail-shaking contraption.
According to Chef Achatz, these machines are extremely rare (only 30 in the world!) and it took them three years to procure one.
We enjoyed a lovely cocktail of gin, chartreuse, green tomato, and egg white. We paired that with a refreshing roll made with cucumber wrapped around herbs and served over olive oil.
After a quick peek in the kitchen, we returned to our glass-enclosed dining room for the rest of the meal.
The next few courses reminded me of JAPAN, and I absolutely loved them. We started with an intensely flavored corn soup (made from corn cooked in a pressure cooker!), which came with these paper-thin dehydrated scallop sheets. When we pushed them into the soup, they dissolved to become scallop "noodles." The flavor combination was downright magical.
We snacked on tiny little nori crisp rolls filled with cream. I loved the rich umami and the slightly caramelized edges of the nori. Sooo good.
At our table, a menu appeared showing us the progression of elements we would experience throughout the meal. Needless to say, it was quite abstract!
Then, a server poured a teapot filled with Sosa essential oils in fruit essence into our fruit bowl. BOOM - out came the dry ice smoke streaming vigorously across the table. As the room filled with the essence of citrus, we nibbled on the next few bites, which actually "paired" really well with the aroma.
We started with a "cone" (or is it a flower petal?) of compressed apple yuzu with lemon verbena. A perfect pairing with the citrus fragrance.
We also took a brief detour to SPAIN where we enjoyed a jamon Iberico (Spanish ham) gelee served with Indian blood peach from Indiana and a green peanut foam.
Finally, we had the yellow tomato soup, my personal favorite. I loved the intensely flavored summer tomato flavors in the gazpacho. The strawberry flavored liquid nitrogen crumble added a delightful textural and temperature contrast, and the flowers added a pop of color.
The next course brought us back to JAPAN with grilled ayu (sweetfish) and icefish (a Japanese delicacy), fried tempura-style. The ice fish, which has a very short season, came straight from Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan. Underneath was a sauce made with Mandarin orange, rice vinegar, and cane sugar. The dish was balanced and very good, though it did not blow me away.
The next course, titled "YELLOW", evoked the Southeast Asian concept of eating out of a banana leaf. In this case, the "leaf" was actually a silicon floppy plate filled with pork belly, a yellow curry with banana essence, banana pepper, banana leaves, and flowers. It was a playful interpretation of the word "YELLOW", where the chef seamlessly incorporated yellow fruits (hello banana!), yellow curry, and other elements of the yellow fruit (namely - all things banana).
Next up came a plate "painted" in abstract designs with sweet and sour blueberry sauce. Interestingly, this was both a sweet and savory dish. Maitake mushrooms sat in the center of the abstract art design covered with blueberry glass, sweet and sour blueberry sauce, and kimchi kale. Not quite KOREA, but definitely borrowed elements from Korea and Japan.
The server then brought over a huge sphere of flowers and asked us to "forage" for the onion sandwich. It wasn't too hard to find the sandwich, which looked more like flat onion chips with an onion cream center. We were told to enjoy the onion sandwich together with some of the purple flowers, which should have inevitably come along for the ride while we were "foraging."
Our next course brought us to AUSTRALIA.
"You're lucky" our server told us. Australian black truffles had just gone out of season but Alinea had procured a bunch right at the end of the season.
A plate piled with Australian black truffles appeared. The server took one and started grating it over a slice of pumpernickel bread topped with Gruyere cream. Interestingly, I couldn’t taste the truffle flavor strongly. It was there, and definitely earthy, but not as strong as the white truffles I've had in Alba. I wonder whether the truffles suffered from the facts that (1) they were end-of the-season and (2) they had to travel such a far distance.
For our next course, we traveled to MEXICO. The server brought a Mexican stone bowl and began making a fire inside.
The server put out the fire and what remained was the smoke, which filled our little private dining room. We "paired" the smoke aromas with several Mexican-themed bites.
Out came a stone topped with three items. The first, chicken topped with a red ancho chili sauce on one side and a cilantro sauce on the other side.
Second, a skewer of pineapple wrapped with a sassafras-like leaf and topped with agave syrup. Finally, huitlacoche (a Mexican delicacy of a fungus that grows on corn) served with chicken liver mousse.
And then we were transported to THAILAND, where we experienced our own private version of southeast Asian street food.
Shrimp came individually skewered onto a piece of lemongrass.
On one side - a pot filled with bourbon maple syrup barrel aged fish sauce from BLiS ("Because Life is Short); on the other side - crushed peanuts, lime, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, ginger, Thai chili, and coriander seeds.
And then the sizzling began. All of those fragrant herbs and spices went into the center along with the fish sauce. We watched as the fish sauce and lime juice slowly reduced down into a lovely caramelized sauce. The aromas were intoxicating and totally transported me back to Thailand. They finished the dish off with some Hawaiian lava salt.
The shrimp was delicious, surprisingly not overcooked considering how long it cooked. The texture was perfect, and the flavors were fantastic. I absolutely loved the fragrance of the herbs.
The next course, another nod to THAILAND, was one of the best courses of the night. It looks simple, but the flavors completely blew me away. The dish consisted of veal cheeks, seared just enough so that it was crispy on the outside, served with green curry, basil, cilantro, and fish sauce in a butter based sauce.
It was simply phenomenal. It was unanimously everyone's favorite dish.
Even Bryan, who NEVER likes curry, loved this dish. There's something about replacing coconut milk with butter that seems to make Thai food perfectly OK for Bryan.
I also loved our last savory course, a play on nigiri but with A5 Wagyu beef and bone marrow rice "crispy" treats. The crispies definitely had a hint of sweetness, but was more "buttery” (probably from the bone marrow fat?). All it all, it was excellent and another favorite bite of mine.
For our first dessert, we enjoyed a Fennel ice cream "Klondike" bar with a chewy cookie inside and lemon sabayon underneath.
Meanwhile, we started to observe something very cool in the kitchen. YES, the edible helium balloons, one of the few remaining items from the "old" Alinea, was here. The balloon is strawberry flavored with helium inside. The "string" is made out of apple. To really appreciate what it was like to eat these balloons, check out the 3-minute video I made at the bottom of this post.
The dessert was an entire show. They dimmed, the lights, and one by one, each chef came out to "paint" the plate with chocolate, vanilla, dry ice, mango, blueberries, or a number of other flavors. You'll have to watch the video to fully appreciate the effect.
Finally, I chose to end with tea. Others had coffee.
For dessert, we started with gold covered peanut (or sesame) feuilletine, thin crispy cereal-like flakes that add a lovely crunch to the candy.
For our final bites, we nibbled on these gorgeous chocolate truffles painted in beautiful abstract designs.
What a meal! We really did travel around the world.
It was definitely one of the most memorable meals I've ever had. My personal favorites include the corn soup with the scallop "sheets", the wagyu beef "crispies", and the green curry veal cheeks. I loved how Chef Achatz incorporated so many concepts and ideas from so many different cuisines and cultures around the world. He is a master of flavors, and there were some transcendent food moments.
In a lot of ways, this new Alinea reminded me a lot of other 3-Michelin starred restaurants I've visited - excellent service, flawless execution, and creative, sophisticated flavors. No doubt the meal was unforgettable and ranks among the top meals I've had. However, I came away thinking that Alinea lost a bit of what set it apart from many other 3-Michelin starred restaurants. The meal was less edgy, less unconventional, and surprised me less than I had expected.
Nevertheless, I have absolutely no complaints. It's a phenomenal experience, and the Kitchen Table is really special. I would highly recommend making a trip out of this with five other friends, which is exactly what I did.
Below is a fun video that includes a few dishes that I felt were better represented by video versus photos. Please enjoy! It's less than 3 minutes long.
1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614