So on Friday night a big crew of us went to dinner at Alinea in Chicago. It’s a pretty swanky place. Definitely not your local Shake Shack. And it was good. In fact, the food was pretty great. Visually arresting presentations all the way, backed up by awesome flavors and textures, in a very hip, cool, and moodily lit space.
But still, the whole experience left me wanting more. Let me back up a bit.
We started with about eight or so of us wanting to go. We called at the appointed time (you have to call a month ahead) and they informed us that they only seat groups of up to six. After some quick googling, I read that the two six-top tables (rounds) were in the same room and so it’s not uncommon for groups to be put in the same room. So we went ahead and made reservations for the two six tops at 6:30 and 7 pm seatings, thinking it was more likely two large parties would be put together than one six top and a two top. We found a few more folks to join us for a final total of 11 diners.
As the date got closer and the confirmation and dress code calls came out and went in, we again tried to confirm if we would be seated in the same room, patiently explaining each time that we were a party of 11 and giving the names of both parties each time one of us placed or received a call. They, equally patiently, explained they could not state definitively where each party would be seated. We also tried to confirm that the two largest tables, the six tops, were in the same room.
Of course, you see where this is going. Already alerted to the fact that we were a large party that wanted to be seated near each other, we were, of course, placed far apart. Like, different rooms. Pretty much as far apart as they could seat us. So, I kinda already had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because they were just so unaccommodating.
Let me just say, I think the food was amazing. Definitely five-star dining all the way. The 18 courses (all pretty much a single bite) were totally innovative, inventive and playful. Chef Grant Achatz is a genius, no doubt. At 36, he’s got three Michelin stars and he knows his shit. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone, least of all me.
There were some pretty amazing and unlikely flavors (I’m looking at you hamachi with west indies spices, banana and ginger in a tempura shell skewered with a vanilla bean). I seriously, seriously loved this and would have eaten piles of it.
You too, my little black truffle explosion—a piece of ravioli that literally bursts in your closed mouth when you press down on it. Even though we had been warned it would do that, it was still a surprise.
Another favorite of just about everyone was a bite made of Yuba or tofu skin, wrapped and fried into a stick with shrimp, miso and togarashi with a sauce. So cool and no utensils required.
There were also some familiar flavors elevated to new and unexpected heights (cold-potato-hot potato soup with black truffle and butter). This was another one of my favorites and was so, so good. One gulp was just not enough.
That course was especially fun because it came out in a tiny bowl with some soup and a skewer/pin like thing with a few tiny components on it. You pulled the pin out of the bowl and the components dropped in and you drank it. See? Innovative. Fun.
Also fun and interactive was the short rib ravioli which was totally deconstructed and you put the tiny bite together thanks to a special plate that turns into a metal stand to hold your pasta while you construct it. Flavor wise, the rib meat was great. The other components weren’t really necessary and didn’t add much. (sorry, no pic. I was too busy eating)
Another fun presentation was a glass tube of lemongrass, dragonfruit, finger lime and cucumber liquid. You sucked the end which was stoppered with the dragonfruit and the refreshing liquid spilled out. Really, really cool. Very herbaceous.
The final course was the craziest – a chocolate, blueberry, honey and peanut mess featuring all kinds of techniques and textures that you ate literally off the table. A special table cloth is rolled out, they set out all the different ingredients, a couple of chefs come out and pour everything all over the table cloth in really cool artistic shapes and designs – there’s even dry ice! – and everybody grabs a spoon and eats it. Unfortunately, it took 45 minutes for the chefs to come out and assemble it. So we sat there with all the ingredients (mise en plaice) for 45 minutes wondering what the hell was going on. It kinda ruined the whole night. One waiter came by and acknowledged that the kitchen was backed up and said he was sorry for the wait, but that was it.
There were only a couple of misses for me food-wise, including the above mentioned rib dish, which is technically only a half miss. One that I could not get into was this pea dish featuring English peas served about eight or nine different ways in a multi-tiered dish. The first portion had a really good pea puree, and for my taste, it should have stopped there. The second layer had dehydrated peas and freeze dried peas with chamomile and a few other pea-treatments that tasted to most of us like Captain Crunch. Not a bad thing, but weird. Finally, a third layer held pea ice cream with a dollop of parmesan crème fraiche. No thanks. The presentation was total rock star, but it just wasn’t for me.
The same with the tipsy cup of yuzu, or “snow.” It was a palate cleanser, but I wasn’t feeling it.
The food was great and certainly on par with other tastings we’ve done in the past, including Le Calandre in Italy (like Alinea, a three Michelin star restaurant), Mix in Las Vegas (mmm, curried lobster), and my personal favorite, Town House in Chilhowie, which makes sense since one of the Town House chefs came from Alinea. In fact, I might give Town House the edge. That beef cheek pastoral with milk skin, grasses, hay and toasted garlic is without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, still to this day.
HOWEVER, I felt the service at Alinea was just way too fussy compared to how fun and innovative the food was. These guys take themselves very, very seriously. Don’t even try to joke or tease them. Which on a certain level, I get. Folks (us included) are spending gobs of money for a full-on dining experience. It’s definitely not the place to go if you want to have a “fun” time. Maybe it’s not even a place you go with a group of people. Maybe it’s just a two-person kinda place.
The only problem I have with that line of thinking is that I keep coming back to the fact that I thought the food was exceptionally fun, and there was a real disconnect between that playfulness on the plate and the fussiness of the service. I don’t necessarily know why. Like I said, we’ve been to equally fine dining establishments and I felt like the service in the places I mentioned above was very good but not overbearing or fussy. You didn’t notice the service at those places, you just knew that you had whatever you needed when you needed it. It was….unobtrusive.
The final other service note of irritation: on at least a couple of courses, the women at the table were not served first. It’s old fashioned and it’s not a deal breaker, but we did notice it. No biggie, but it was a surprise. Also; they got really irritated when some of us (ok, me) kept going over and checking in on the other table to get their thoughts on some of the food–a situation that could have been avoided entirely by placing us near each other.
And, as I said, a 45 minute wait betweent two courses at a three-Michelin star restaurant is just unacceptable.
Overall, it was a great experience when you weigh the pros and cons. But between the lack of accommodation for our situation and the fussiness of the service, I don’t think I’ll be going back again. There are plenty of other places to try, including a newish and intriguing project by Chef Achatz near Alinea called Next, which offers a tasting menu based on a specific time and place. Think 1906 Paris or futuristic Thailand. The menu changes four times a year and instead of calling for reservations, you buy tickets online. It all sounds a bit fussy, but maybe that’s just me.