Commence foodporn now

Hooray James sent me his pictures from the dinner of our lives!

Are you ready for the 23-course touring menu at Alinea? Of course you are! Hang on now, this is going to be a looong ride.

I can’t be bothered to link all these photos individually, so visit the flickr album for enlargements and more details!

Alinea is unmarked from the outside, its only signpost the numerals of its address. When we entered through the nightclub-style heavy black doors, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. We walked uncertainly down an artsily lit minimalist hallway, not knowing where we were going nor who or what would meet us.
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(This photo courtesy of the Alinea website.)

We soon arrived at an imposing pair of handleless silver doors, which glided open without warning. Inside, a gracious hostess met us and took our wraps. We caught a tantalizing, shining glimpse of the kitchen to our right and a luxurious-looking dining salon to our left,
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(These photos courtesy of the Alinea website.)

before the hostess escorted us upstairs.
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(This photo courtesy of the Alinea website.)

She seated us at an equally gorgeous table upstairs, and the waiters approached with water and greetings.

Then we had just to wait for the party to begin!

The first course arrived shortly: a tiny croquette with smoked steelhead roe, filled with sour cream and other tastiness.

The perfectly fried croquette was an exciting start to a long meal.

Next, the waiters handed us white bowls on which forkfuls of octopus were balanced. The bottoms of the bowls were perfectly round, so they would not balance on the table until they were empty.

I don’t usually eat octopus, or shiitake mushrooms, but this was a delicious mouthful.

You’ll have to go here [link broken] to view a video of the next course, a chanterelle mushroom purée topped with foam and filled with goodies.

Course3 - Chanterelle

The next course was our initiation into the wonders of encapsulation, which means thin shells of something filled with intensely flavorful gels or liquids. They burst in your mouth and are simply fabulous to eat. This one was a horseradish shell filled with tart Granny Smith apple juice.

The waiter had given us a little lesson on how to eat the ball, so we were all a tad apprehensive before starting. James went first, and as soon as he bit, he got an indescribable expression on his face. Then Jackie ate hers, and made similarly indescribable noises. Finally, when I tried mine, I too felt incapable of describing the sensation. Your mouth is filled with so much flavor, but there’s not a hint of it until you bite. It’s quite extraordinary.

Next course: a tasty combination of monkfish cooked in different styles.

I still crave those little crunchy bits on top, which were fried crumbles of monkfish tail.

The next course may have been the most conceptually weird, but it really worked. A plate of duck (or hamachi, in my case) was placed on top of a large linen pillow filled with juniper-scented air.

As we ate, the weight of the plate gradually depressed the pillow and released the scented air. After five intensely flavored courses, the juniper air was extremely refreshing.

Course #7 was my second favorite, and it only missed being #1 by a fraction of a hair.
A black truffle liquid-filled raviolo topped with shaved black truffle and Parmesan. I could eat these every day. I could breathe in the aroma for the rest of my life.

I should pause at this point to say the the service at Alinea was by far the best treatment I have ever received anywhere. We wanted for nothing during the nearly five-hour meal. Our drinks were refilled before our glasses were even half empty. Our napkins were replaced with fresh ones each time we got up. Not one of the five or so servers who waited on us during the course of the night made a mistake, ever, even though our glasses all looked the same and my food was slightly different from the others’. They also explained each course thoroughly after serving it, and answered all our questions kindly and often humorously. At the end of the meal, we left them as big a tip as we could afford — 29% — which still wasn’t as much as we wished we could give.

The attention to detail, and willingness to accommodate guests, were the most outstanding parts of our evening at Alinea, even more amazing than the food — recently rated best in the nation by Gourmet. When we made our reservation, they asked whether we had any dietary restrictions, so James explained that seafood is the only meat I eat. Every dish that had meat in it, the chefs changed for me, substituting seafood, vegetables, or fruit in a way that was not only tasty but thoughtful (in one case, pine nuts and black pepper for bacon). The waitstaff never brought me meat by accident, and they always explained my dish as well as Jackie’s and James’s — I never had to ask. In fact, I felt that our experience at Alinea was even more special because of all these substitutions, because we got to see a greater range of the chefs’ imagination and skill.

That said, here is course #8, a Guinness-draped piece of braised short rib for Jackie and James, perfectly cooked beltfish for me.

None of us adored this one, though I hear the short rib was very tender.

The most refreshing course of the evening was a welcome change from all the savories: a small morsel of chewy frozen yuzu whose bright flavor lingered on the tongue long after the bite itself had disappeared.

This next one was, to my surprise, one of my favorites: a miniscule round of frozen chestnut purée filled with maple syrup and crushed star anise.

We ate it off tiny pins.

Yet another beautifully plated sweet course: frozen persimmon, puddinglike “brioche,” a ginger-tea “pearl,” grapefruit, and mace gelée.

Jackie really loved this one.

More fun videos for course #12! Watch us eat the hands-free licorice cake here and here. [links broken, alas!]

Here we are back to savory courses. This course was another almost-#1, except that I didn’t like half of it. King crab leg in rice wine aspic with seasonings, paired with sushi rice and fresh seaweed.

The crab was incredible. I’m craving it right now. But the rice was memorable only in its unmemorableness, loosely clumped together and without flavor.

Tachiuo, or beltfish, was served in this course with bananas, haricots verts, and powdered versions of traditional fish garnishes: caper, lemon, and brown butter.

I had a good time with this one, but Jackie was less than thrilled with the powders.

There was another one-bite course between the tachiuo and the next course, but no one got a picture of it. It was a square of powdered pineapple wrapped in a hard, translucent pineapple shell. It looked like a little gift. Jackie’s and James’s had smoky bacon, mine had pine nut powder and black pepper.

The next course was another stunner in presentation. The waiters brought out sizzling-hot metal bricks with three bite-sized portions of meat on them: lamb for the other two, tuna for me. They then removed the rosemary sprigs that had been decorating our table all evening and transferred them to the hot bricks, where their fragrance wafted toward us as the leaves burned.

We were at course #16 by that point and getting just a wee bit weary, so we really welcomed the rosemary scent to help reinvigorate us. It totally worked, too, giving us the energy we needed for two more savory courses!

Alinea’s website has a striking photo of the next course on their website:
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but we have video! Go here and here to watch us eat the renowned “hot potato, cold potato,” definitely one of our all-round favorite courses of the night (and my personal #1). [links broken, alas, and my photos are not good]

Last protein here, venison for Jackie and James, celery root for me.

I think it looks like a little house. Celery root was a great substitution, but by that time I was just eager for the desserts.

The next course, a “gift” from the chef, launched the dessert courses for me (Jackie’s and James’s were filled with foie gras).

Chicago has recently banned foie gras from being sold in restaurants, so they had to “give” us this course instead of putting it on the menu. Jackie and James enjoyed theirs, but I also savored my little meringue, which was filled with apple butter instead. This course is tied for my #5 favorite with the very last one.

On to desserts! Are you getting tired by now? Imagine eating all this! It was a marathon — but a glorious one.

This was Chef Achatz’s take on the classic Creamsicle, orange sorbet paired with olive oil ice cream.

There were some surprising flavor combinations in almost all the desserts, and not all of them worked. I relished the basil gelée and powdered olive oil and vanilla bean in this one, but could barely stand to try the green olive powder.

This attractive course had a nice blend of coconut, saffron, kiwi, and corn flavors.

They roasted the kiwi. Interesting. It was good, but I liked the cornmeal pudding best.

The chocolate course was probably my least favorite of the desserts, mostly because I found the soy sauce gelée so unpleasantly salty, and it was touching almost everything.

I did like the chocolate ganache, but even I can make ganache.

And now we come to the end of our lovely voyage, my tied-for-#5-favorite and the perfectíssimo finale to a nearly perfect meal:

Deep-fried caramel with cinnamon. It’s the most perfect churro you’ve ever eaten, deified. If only we had been more hungry! At the time we weren’t able to fully appreciate it, but I’ve thought about this dessert almost every day since.

The entire experience of eating at Alinea, from making the reservation on the spur of the moment (actually, Jackie and James made it while I was asleep, the first morning we were there, but I had mentioned the restaurant the night before), to hastily buying tights and skirts to wear there, to making our confused way through the entry hallway, to eating all these twenty-three courses over the span of four and a half hours, was without a doubt the best time I have ever had at a restaurant, and one of the most memorable events of my life thus far.

That’s my menu! It even has all the substitutions on it, so mine says “tuna” where Jackie’s and James’s say “lamb.”

Will I go back? You betcha!

Don’t forget! More photos and descriptions here.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]