“Best Restaurant in Chicago” – Alinea (Chef Grant Achatz) Act 2/5

Restaurant: Alinea – Act 2/5
Cuisine: Modern American/International
Last visited: June 16, 2012
Location: Chicago, IL (Lincoln Park)
Address: 1723 N Halsted Street
Transit: Halsted & Willow
Where I stayed: Hyatt Regency Chicago (Taxi recommended)
Price Range: $50+ ($210 Tasting Menu + $150 optional wine pairing)

1Poor 2OK 3Good 4Very good 5Excellent 6FMF Must Try!

Food: 6
Service: 6
Ambiance: 5
Overall: 6
Additional comments:

  • Chef/Owner Grant Achatz
  • 3 Michelin Star
  • Mobil Five Star Award
  • AAA Five Diamond Award
  • #7 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2012
  • #6 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2011
  • “2nd Best Restaurant in US” (World’s 50 Best)
  • #1 on 40 Top Chicago Restaurants Ever (Chicago Mag)
  • Best Chef (James Beard 2008 & 2012)
  • Multiple award winning
  • “Best” fine dining in Chicago
  • Opened 2005
  • 64 seats
  • Reservations required (2 months in advance)
  • Standard 18 course tasting menu only ($210)
  • Optional wine pairings (+$150)
  • 18% auto gratuity
  • 3-4+ hours dining experience
  • Other restaurants: Next, Aviary (bar)
  • Sun, Sat 5-9:30pm
  • Mon-Tue Closed
  • Wed-Fri 5:30-9:30pm
  • Alinea – Act 1 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 3 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 4 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 5 of 6
  • Alinea – Act 6 of 6
  • Alinea – Grand Finale/Encore

**Recommendations: Tasting menu (only option) with wine pairings. Wine pairings are optional… but do it. If you have his recipe book, the things I would say you should really consider making is the famous “Hot Potato” and “Black Truffle Explosion”. They really are as good as you’ve heard or seen.

It’s arguably an alpha world city famous for its arts.

From performing arts (The Lookingglass Theatre Company – Photo by Sean Williams)…

… to architectural art.

From comedians… (The Second City – Photo by Kristen Barker)

to classics. (Chicago at Broadway in Chicago – Photo by sdparadatemporal.blogspot.ca)

From “no-name” street performers…

… to world renowned chefs.

This is a city full of influential artists of every type.

And this is the Mother post of Follow Me Foodie to Chicago. Welcome to Alinea.

If this picture makes your knees weak, or gives you butterflies, or simply makes you feel like you are floating on clouds… then picture perfect. These are just some of the feelings I had before and after my dinner at Alinea. It was an unforgettable 6 hours (dinner here usually takes 3-4 hours, but I took 6) that I captured, savoured and documented every minute of.

You know those moments in life you can’t stop thinking about? The ones that make you feel so good and so happy that you go to bed dreaming about them and wake up thinking about them? It’s the times when you’re walking alone and you suddenly smile or smirk just thinking about that moment. This is usually followed by pursing your lips so you don’t feel like an idiot laughing by yourself. But in this case I just let it out because I wanted to relive those beautiful moments. I wanted to relive the joy and taste the food from this legendary dinner all over again. It was a moment I cherished and one that’s best shared.

Those tingly and giddy feelings have won me over for the last few weeks and I feel like I’m on a cloud I can’t come down from. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I hope to have happen more than once in my lifetime. This is Alinea.

If the name Alinea or Grant Achatz draws a blank stare I almost want to pull a “What?! You don’t know what Alinea is?! Or what?! You don’t know who Grant Achatz is?!”, but I won’t… although I kind of just did. (Sh*t Foodies Say). To sum it up, a visit to Alinea is likely on every food lovers “Must Dine Before I Die” list. It’s a 3 Michelin Star that was #7 on the World’s Top 50 Best Restaurants 2012 and it has more accolades and prestigious awards than I know of. It was basically my main reason for coming to Chicago and I made it my last meal. (Actually a Chicago style hot dog at the airport was, but let’s pretend this was).

Chef Achatz worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for four years before opening Alinea. Being trained by arguably one of the best chefs is only part of what makes Alinea world class. Chef Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer on his tongue in 2007 and during treatment he lost his sense of taste. Therefore at one point everything he cooked was reliant on memory, sight, sound, smell, feel and help from his supporting staff. He is now cancer-free and has regained his sense of taste, but that life changing experience has made him even stronger. It’s an emotional story that has translated to what Alinea is now, and it gives a better understanding of his culinary vision for it.

What Chef Achatz does is avant garde style New American or Modern American cuisine. He uses global and local ingredients and experimental cooking techniques. It’s typically referred to as “molecular gastronomy”, but that term is often misused and methods abused. Experimental cooking is a modernist way of cooking. It embraces cooking as an art form that is led by science, and just like any song and dance this craft stems from passion, and is rehearsed in a timely and technical manner.

At Alinea, it is not just about the food but the complete dining experience. I was living in this heavenly moment that felt created especially for me. I didn’t care that all the other tables were getting the same 18 course tasting menu (only option), I felt like the experience was mine. I didn’t notice anything else and I was enchanted and fascinated by what was in front of me.

I’ve seen his recipe book, watched his videos and gushed about his culinary brilliance with many chefs and food snob friends and now I finally experienced it. I had an idea of what to expect and I was still in awe. Every bite I took I didn’t want to let go and every flavour in my mouth was near impossible to describe… even for me. It was just so beyond what I know. It left me enough to feel satisfied, but also so much more to be curious about.

As “modern” as the menu is, the way I experienced it was as if I was a child. It was eating the food of the future, yet I felt like I was the one going back in time. He creates a sense of discovery with every dish and I have no doubt he is inspired by his life experiences and kids. The dishes are sophisticatedly playful and every dish is made with a plethora of ingredients, but the way they came across is not confusing.

He encourages you to create your own flavours and to be inquisitive. He stimulates all your senses and reminds you to value them while enjoying your food. His vision keeps me interested and entertained and it is sensory overload in the most tasteful way. He brings out emotions while creating memories that I remember by touch, sight, sound, feel, smell and of course taste.

Chicago is known for its performing arts and I consider Alinea one of the venues. It’s not listed under “Performing Arts”, but it is a culinary production. I was invited to play along in his dream which is a playground full of fresh ideas and new beginnings. This is the craft of a truly talented and passionate artist who is driving the modernist side of the culinary world. There are other chefs doing similar things, but each one has their own voice. The impact, influence and inspiration Chef Achatz has on many chefs of today is the mark of a culinary legend.

 On the table:

See – Alinea Act 1/5

This is Alinea Act 2/5

The name Alinea is the Latin name for the pilcrow (), a typographic symbol that is used to start a new paragraph. In Old English it would be used to start a new idea and that’s the guiding philosophy and the character of the restaurant, literally and figuratively.

Chehalem ‘3 Vineyards’ Pinot Gris, Willamette 2011 (Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA) – Oregon is known for their pinot gris. This had high acidity from lemons and lemon zest, a medium body and still some richness from pears. There was a mineral quality and maybe a little bit of spice and it was more dynamic than most pinot gris wines.

Otoro4/6 (Very good)

  • Thai banana, sea salt, kaffir lime
  • They placed a rubber white ring on the table and then brought out this half fish bowl. The bowl was placed on top of the ring to hold it in place.
  • It was basically eating fish in a fish bowl and the kaffir lime leaf “ocean surf foam” just attributed to the whole “ocean” theme.
  • This foam was not citrusy, but fragrant and sweet and I could taste coconut in it.
  • It was very well made foam that held its shape and it was dense foam rather than a watery one. It didn’t disappear or liquefy quickly.
  • It was foam that was used for presentation and purpose and it was the sweetness to the dish.
  • It also added texture and I felt like I was in the waves of the ocean as the bubbles faded away like a sweet tropical mist on my lips.
  • The dollop of cream on the side was supposed to be the ocean air, and it was a bit salty and almost neutral in flavour.
  • It smelled like a fruit Thai curry made with cucumber juice and it was surprisingly fragrant for being a chilled dish with water components like foam and ice.
  • The presentation reminded me of the Pumpkin Soup with Cold Smoked Salmon, Apple Curry Foam served in a fish bowl I had at C Restaurant.
  • Otoro comes from blue fin tuna which is near impossible to get in the US since it is near extinction, so this one was farm raised from the Malta Coast.
  • Of course I was happy to hear it was farm raised which also meant it had less mercury content which large blue fin tuna in Japan would have.

  • “Toro” is known as tuna belly which is the fattiest and most valued part of sushi or sashimi. It’s my favourite.
  • “O-toro” is the most precious part of the tuna belly that is closest to the head. This is the most valued part of tuna belly and what was served in this bowl.
  • Otoro is equivalent to beef tenderloin and in this case it was almost treated like it too. It was being executed as a tartare.
  • For such a highly prized cut of fish, I probably would have just wanted it as is, but I appreciated this artistic interpretation of it.
  • The fish is best in the Winter months, although this one could have been frozen.
  • It would make sense as to why he chose to serve it with green curry ice if it was though. It ended up freezing the tuna a bit.
  • The tuna was light pink as it should be and the bold white lines is the fat which resembles the marbleizing of a steak. The whiter, the more fat.
  • I would actually prefer the tuna less cold so that the oils would release which could help me taste the flavours of the actual fish.
  • Nonetheless it was still very buttery with a clean flavour and it was lightly marinated in Thai basil, Thai banana, Thai cilantro and Thai lime. 
  • The marinade tasted like a cold clear green curry and cucumber juice that was made in an evaporator and then distilled. It had a very pure flavour.
  • It was salty and aromatic with lemongrass, basil and citrus notes, but I couldn’t really taste the Thai banana.
  • The green curry ice was surprisingly not crunchy ice, and it was almost slush like.
  • I was so pleased that it wasn’t crunchy or it would have just ripped through the beautiful texture of the otoro.
  • The ‘ice’ was a bit salty and melted nicely with the texture of the tuna. It gave the toro some brininess and a bit of heat as well.
  • It was a very light and refreshing dish and the components were very delicate. The mineral and lemon flavours of the wine paired nicely too.

Descendientes de J. Palacios ‘Petalos’ Bierzo, Spain 2009 – It’s made by a famous Spanish family and this medium bodied wine was ranked #26 on the 2011 Wine Spectator Top 100 wines. This was a great wine for the next dish, but it tasted much better after airing out. It was a bit oaky and woody with dark fruit flavours like cherries and tart berries. It tasted like being in a forest with a bit of mushroom flavour too. It was perfect with this next dish.

Burn Morels5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • Ramps, fiddlehead fern, miner’s lettuce
  • I know! Are you crying yet? It was gorgeous!
  • The stones weren’t edible; although I’m sure he could have made them edible.
  • I’ve seen Chef Jefferson Alverez at Fraîche Restaurant use black sesame seeds and toasted rice powder to make polvoron cookies that resembled clay or even stones.
  • The stones came out on a heavily charred oak plank and it was symbolic for how morels appear after forest fires.
  • Even the choice of plates he uses hold significance. This piece of burnt wood was from the forest fires last year.
  • This course really brought out the kid in me.
  • When I said in the intro “I experienced it… as if I was a child” and “he creates a sense of discovery with every dish”, this is the dish that shows my feelings most.
  • The idea of foraging (searching for food) is considered one of the “food trends” of 2011-2012 and this course used all foraged ingredients.
  • It’s not really a “trend” because this is how humans and animals always ate since the beginning of time, but nowadays the grocery store is just too convenient.
  • Foraging is a messy and dirty activity and once again he brought the outdoors indoors in the most beautiful way.
  • This was the salad course, and I rarely get excited about salads because I find them things I can make at home, but this salad was very intricate and I was excited!
  • It was kind of ironic because foraging tends to be a hands on local concept, but I bet each ingredient in this was sourced from a one of a kind purveyor from somewhere around the world.
  • The presentation reminded me slightly of the Albacore Tuna dish at Diva at the Met.

  • He asked the diner to also “search” for their food as they ate because each rock had a different sauce and different ingredients.
  • There was no particular way to eat the dish, but he left you to discover and create your own flavours.
  • The first stone had morels which were found in the Pacific Northwest (who knows? Maybe in Vancouver? My home.)
  • There was also a piece of Surryano smoked ham from Virginia which was air cured for 400 days.
  • The Surryano ham was hickory smoked, sliced ultra thin, a bit chewy, buttery and rich and it tasted like a prosciutto, but more delicate.
  • The ham sat on a poached quail’s egg, and that egg yolk seemed almost sous vide or smoked. It was a well contained yolk, but still creamy and thick.
  • That pop of rich egg yolk and buttery salty ham with the earthy mushrooms was so simple, but just unforgettable in texture and flavour.

  • Each rock had its own unique sauce, and this brown dollop you see above was the best one. This was amazing!
  • This was a smoked onion puree and it tasted like caramel.
  • It was so rich and intense with flavour and I couldn’t put my taste buds on what it was.
  • It was sweet, thick and creamy and it wasn’t smoky as much as it was savoury, sweet and almost nutty.
  • It was an outstanding puree and it was also joined with some crunchy pickled red onion and sweet and spicy red onion marmalade for contrast.

  • The third stone had brown butter poached asparagus, asparagus purée and an earthy Maitake and Black Trumpet purée.
  • It let you experience the asparagus and mushrooms in different ways and textures and each rock was a new discovery.
  • Each leaf and morel I turned over was a fresh start to a new sauce.

  • The greens included salted ramps, fiddlehead fern and miner’s lettuce and they were crispy, charred and smoky like that had been near a forest fire.
  • I’ve had lots of fiddleheads before, but have never seen them unravelled like this. They were more delicate unravelled with less crunch.
  • They were long and stringy and they taste like asparagus meets broccoli.
  • Miners lettuce I’ve tried at Fraîche before, but the flavour was more likable here.
  • It’s a crispy wild green which tends to have a grassy flavour with a bitterness at the end. It was similar to spinach or watercress, but grassier.
  • This one didn’t seem as grassy and perhaps it was because it was a baby Miners lettuce leaf and used so sparingly.
  • This course was earthy, grassy, and woody in all aspects and the choice of asparagus and mushrooms just enhanced those qualities.
  • I would have loved to see a random berry or even a piece of fresh honeycomb to top off the whole nature/forest aspect, but it was truly a stunning salad.
  • I valued this beyond its presentation and flavour. The concept was brilliant.
  • Essentially, I was seeing the beauty after a fire or a natural disaster (forest fire).

**Hot Potato 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • Cold potato, black truffle, butter
  • I knew what this was as soon as he brought it out!
  • It’s one of Grant Achatz’s signature dish at Alinea commonly called “Hot Potato, Cold Potato”.
  • This was freaking amazing and it’s a standard on every tasting menu here.
  • It’s a time sensitive dish and it plays a lot with temperature hence the name.
  • The dish it is served in is actually made of paraffin wax and it’s especially made for this course.
  • It looked like frosted glass and it was a classy upgrade from a “shooter glass”, but you treat this course as if it were a shot.
  • You gently pull the pin out and all the ingredients slide off and fall into the cold and creamy truffle potato soup. And no, the soup doesn’t leak out of the hole from the pin.
  • The pin holds a very hot (in temperature) Yukon Gold potato confit in clarified butter, a shaving of black truffle, a chive, a cube of butter and a cube of parmesan cheese.
  • The lightest thing on that magical wand was the chive which was undetectable, so just think how rich this one bite was going to be. In that ratio too! It was a small bite.
  • I’m not sure what particular kind of black truffle it was, but it was a nice thick shaving.
  • The Danish Lurpak butter is a premium butter made from the purest Danish cow’s milk and that just melted immediately as soon as everything mixed together in my mouth.
  • The Parmesan cheese was from a region in Italy so it was technically a Parmiggano-Reggiano.
  • It’s a hard cheese with a natural saltiness and nuttiness and it actually melted rather quickly too. I was surprised since it was a pretty big cube that needed to melt fast.
  • After all these very high quality ingredients fall into the soup you shoot it back.
  • @#$%!!!!! As soon as it hits your tongue it’s pure decadence and intense flavour!
  • It’s not just salty, but savoury (umami) flavour!
  • It’s the richest and one of the most luxurious textures and flavours that I didn’t want to swallow. Heaven!
  • This is followed immediately with a sudden hit of this weird temperature contrast that happens in your mouth. It doesn’t matter if you’re expecting it, it’s still crazy.
  • The potato is very hot and the soup is very cold and they were almost fighting each other and it was such an unforgettable sensation!
  • The potato is melon ball sized so it retained a lot of heat. It didn’t burn your mouth and the chilled soup just cooled it down right away, but I could feel both temperatures equally.
  • The natural heat in my mouth just helped melt the cubes of cheese and butter, but you’re still chewing the potato and mushroom.
  • Potatoes, butter, cheese, and mushrooms is really a no brainier and they are flavours you’ve likely had before, but just not in this unique context.
  • Also with such highly sourced ingredients for something so simple, it’s likely going to be the best combination of those flavours you’ve ever experienced. It was mine for sure.
  • I honestly would remake this recipe and have 100 of them one after another for my dinner… and be very happy… but with heart issues.
  • It was a de-constructed mushroom soup and/or potato soup, but 100 times better and with a sick mind game (by “sick” I mean cool). It was honestly a toe curling experience.


See – Alinea Act 1/5

See – Alinea Act 3/5

See – Alinea Act 4/5

See – Alinea Act 5/6

See – Alinea Act 6/6

See – Alinea Grand Finale/Encore

Alinea on Urbanspoon


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