When you arrive at Alinea, the first clue that you're about to experience something totally out of the ordinary appears pretty quickly. The entry hall, which runs the depth of the small Lincoln Park townhouse, is a Wonka-like construction, becoming drastically narrower and shorter as it progresses, ushering you into Grant Achatz's world-famous culinary funhouse/wonderland.
The real fun, however, starts once you're up the stairs and settled into the spare, dark dining room. (Very dark, so I apologize for the grainy quality of the photos!) Alinea serves two tasting menus: a 13-course and a 24-course. Our reservation was for the 13-course meal, and we started off with a bang.
Our first course was Osetra caviar, served with all of the traditional accompaniments - sort of. The caviar and crème fraiche were their usual selves, but the red onions came in jelly form, while the buttered brioche appeared as a foam. The foam was incredible - I felt like the Wonka theme was continuing, and the foam was Violet's gum. Even though the foam was light as air and vanished in my mouth, it was so well-flavored that I felt like I'd eaten a piece of toast.
The next course was a big hit with everyone at the table. Pork belly confit served between two lightly warmed leaves of iceberg lettuce, accompanied by cucumber (Yum!) and a Thai basil seed vinaigrette. I thought this was awesome, but it wasn't my favorite dish of the night - that was still to come!
Next up was a symphony of mushroom goodness - one ingredient, matsutake mushrooms, prepared in several different ways. Creamy tiles, ice cream, a sort of crumbly pastry, and one fresh specimen, dead center. Mango sauce made an appearance, as did a delicious morsel of otoro. This was delicious, and a really great example of chef Grant Achatz's ability to make you think differently about an ingredient by playing with it in an assortment of ways.
According to our server, Chef Achatz likes to include one traditional dish in each menu, in order to remind us of where we've come from, and of the fact that though he may play with foams and gases and burning leaves (Just wait!), he's a classicist at heart. Achatz likes to challenge and delight you, but never fails to create something delicious. He doesn't sacrifice flavor at the altar of surprise.
The evening we dined, the traditional dish was Escoffier's trout monseigneur, a tour of the fish featuring roe, poached trout, and trout mousse. I could recognize the beauty of the techniques at work here, but am by and large not a fan of trout. Others at the table who are, though, reassured me that they loved the dish.
After the trout, we enjoyed my very favorite dish of the evening. A series of oak branches, their dry leaves still attached, arrived at the table. The leaves were smoldering, scattering tiny bits of ash around the dining room. Speared on the bottom of each branch was a fritter filled with roast pheasant, cider jelly and shallot confit. I picked up the branch, inhaled the unmistakable scent of burning leaves, and ate the fritter in one bite. All of my senses were flooded with the taste, smell and sight of autumn. The crunchy tempura batter didn't overwhelm the filling at all - the whole thing was a bundle of perfect flavor. I. Loved. This.
After the pheasant, I could have died happy - but there were still nine courses left to go! Our next dish was another single-bite course. Like the truffle at Tru, this ravioli, filled with black truffle, romaine lettuce and parmesan, exploded in the mouth. As I've said before: no matter how prepared you are (we received another "lips together, teeth apart" warning), food bursting in your mouth is never something you expect. It's awesome. I would love to serve something that explodes at my next dinner party. It makes you giggle. I like to giggle.
When we first sat down at the table, our servers had set a sprig of rosemary at each place. Our next course was a series of lamb loin medallions served on a sizzling strip of iron. The rosemary branches were placed in holes at the far end of the hot metal, and soon the air around our table was perfumed with rosemary. This scent was as much a part of the dish as the three different garnishes on the lamb. From front to back, they were pickled quince, pumpkin, and smoked eggplant. My favorite, somewhat predictably, was the quince, which I'd wisely saved for last.
Our last savory dish was a home run - like the mushroom bonanza, this duck presentation was a tour of preparations. We had foie gras, magret, and what I think was kidney. Along with a few, peppery brussels sprouts leaves, this was served with an orange broth and mace-scented foam. Mace! I never think to use mace (a spice made from the coating of nutmeg seeds), but I love it, and hereby resolve to use it as often as possible.
Peanut butter was chosen to usher us into the sweet courses. In this case, the peanut butter was dried to a powder and spiced with chiles. Placed on the tongue, it first crumbled, then reformed into that signature stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth texture. Too cool, and so delicious. Josh has decided that all peanut butter should be spicy.
I seem to be missing photos of the next two courses, both of which were small bites. The first featured another exploding sphere! A grape-like ball sat atop a small glass, and we were instructed to take all elements into our mouths at once. The ball burst instantly and, it turned out, was flavored with Concord grapes and filled with a watery juice that tasted lightly of Maytag blue cheese and walnuts.
The next course, a one-bite combination of ice-cold Thai banana, beer, mustard and pecans, was delicious, even for those at the table who don't typically love bananas.
The third sweet course was fun in a completely different way. Before the plates arrived at the table, servers placed a linen pillow in front of each of us. The pillows were filled with nutmeg-scented steam, which was released little by little as the weight of our plates, placed on top, gradually pushed downward to the table. On the plate was a delicious combination of coffee and huckleberries, topped by spun burnt sugar.
The chocolate course was a big one, featuring chocolate frozen with liquid nitrogen, applewood bacon (bacon and chocolate are an excellent combination of salty and sweet) and, surprisingly, a crabapple juice. The juice was contained in that little sphere in the middle of the plate. Like an egg yolk, all you had to do was prick it to spread its goodness throughout the dish.
The staff heard us talking about Louisa's birthday, and brought her a little treat to celebrate. This is Alinea's version of birthday cake. The chocolate cake came ensconced in a little ball of tempered chocolate and was revealed by a stream of hot pastry cream poured by our waiter.
Finally, it was time for one last science lab touch. This being Alinea, this test tube filled with hibiscus jelly, crème fraiche and bubble gum-flavored tapioca, and stopped with a disk of long pepper jelly, was not only cool as hell - it tasted great, like the best bubble gum ever. It was also tons of fun to eat. You had to suck on it like a straw to pull all the goodness out of the test tube and into your mouth.
If the rest of the meal hadn't yet turned us into excited little kids, this would have done the trick pretty damn nicely. As I left, this was all I could think of:
1723 North Halsted (at Willow)