I just crossed an item off my bucket list this past week – dinner at Alinea. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but, even though we’ve had sons in school in Chicago, just haven’t gotten there. This time I made the reservation many weeks in advance and actually got a table. The restaurant is, indeed, amazing. The dishes are completely unique, the service is extraordinary and the space itself is stunning. But the story behind all this is equally compelling.
The owner/chef at Alinea is Grant Achatz, who I originally read about years ago in Michael Ruhlman’s outstanding book, “The Soul of a Chef” when he was working for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Achatz went on to open his own restaurant in Chicago, Alinea, which was named by Gourmet Magazine in 2006 as The Best Restaurant in the United States. He got his James Beard awards and his three Michelin stars. He also got tongue cancer.
There’s been so much written about Alinea, it’s amazing. I don’t know if any other restaurant has provoked so much debate and discussion. You could spend hours online reading reviews and dissections of this place. There’s also a beautiful coffee table/cookbook, an award winning blog written by Carol Blymire and gorgeous videos. But after Grant Achatz was diagnosed with tongue cancer, the exposure to Alinea skyrocketed. How ironic – the best chef in the United States was being told by cancer specialists that he needed to get his tongue removed. He refused and kept getting other opinions until he found a doctor at the University of Chicago who tried a different treatment. The treatment left him for a while without any sensation of taste, but he kept Alinea going through it all. He, along with his partner Nick Kokonas, wrote a book last year about that journey. It’s called “Life, on the Line” and it’s a book I couldn’t put down.
After reading it, I was more determined to get to Alinea. The book not only describes Achatz’s diagnosis and treatment and all he went through, but also goes into how they came to build Alinea in the first place. And that story is really interesting. I found Nick Kokonas’s chapters riveting. He not only made Alinea happen for Achatz, but he saved his life in making him pursue different doctors. It was inspiring to read about the attention to detail that went into planning every bit of the experience at Alinea – from when you walk into the front door (there’s no sign out front at all) to the beautiful tables that Achatz refuses to hide with tablecloths, to the fabric on the chairs to the custom made serviceware. And that says nothing about the food and presentation.
Grant Achatz’s incredible creativity with the presentation of food is legendary by now. There is no menu presented to you when you arrive – you have no idea what you are going to have (they give you a printed menu when you leave). Every course is accompanied by a waiter instructing you what the course is and how you are to eat it. We experienced edible green apple balloons brought to our table, vapor pillows cushioning one course, edible snow presented on beautiful real pine bark, tea steeping at our table in a beaker that the waiter lit and a centerpiece of ice filled with an incredible beet juice drink that we were told to suck up with glass straws.
I wish our photos were better, but we really didn’t want to be distracted from the food by spending a lot of time on our shots so I only have a few mediocre ones to post. We had three waiters at our table and a different wine with every course, perfectly paired. It’s very interactive and fun and above all, delicious. An absolutely unique experience.
One of my favorite courses was a gorgeous Sicilian fish and caponata dish with panella crisps. The waiter said the fish was a scup and the recipe was inspired by Chef Achatz having been to Sicily last year. The scup was beautifully cooked, of course, whole and reminded me of the fish my aunt and uncle prepared for us when we were in Sicily. The caponata was unusual and different – a little bit of celery in it and a lighter, fresher texture than the usual caponata. I had to laugh at the panella crisps – they were so brilliant. I’ve made the traditional Sicilian panella before and although they are delicious, they’re also dense and heavy. They are fried cake made from chickpea flour that are served as street food all over Sicily. At Alinea, they are remarkably light, puffed and crisp. I also loved the presentation of this dish because is was served on platters, family style, and was such a departure from the modern, minimalistic style of Alinea. The wine for this course was even served in vintage 100-year old wine glasses, the total opposite of the other serviceware at Alinea. I love how every course has a twist.
The best part of the evening was a surprise to me. Chef Achatz came out and performed his amazing chocolate dessert finale. I was totally shocked and delighted that it was him, even though I had asked a waiter earlier in the evening if he was in the kitchen that night. He, along with an assistant, came out and “painted” on our table with juice reductions, sprinkled the table with marigold petals, and then smashed chocolate globes filled with cotton candy and other delicious edibles, onto the table. It was a delicious, beautiful abstract work of art and we spent quite some time moving our spoons around the tablecloth, exploring all the fun goodies.
And to top everything off – we spotted Nick Kokonas sitting at a table in our dining room, having a business dinner with Sophie Gayot. What a night.
Other dining highlights we hit in Chicago:
The Publican – for outstanding pork dishes and fun communal seating
Grahamwich – all kinds of great sandwiches plus truffled popcorn (thanks, Barry!)
Nightwood – for innovative, terrific locally sourced food