Alinea, Chicago

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Alinea was an afterthought. Back in January I had been planning my trip around America, trying to figure out where to go and eat, and had taken an evening to meet Jonesy and Larry for a drink at the club. Somewhere in between the first Skittles Vodka cocktail and the third, Jonesy had asked, “What about Alinea?” What about it, indeed. That night I got on the phone to Chicago and within an hour I had a reservation for two in March.

Photography (c) Mara Rosenbloom

Alinea, open for six years and the brainchild of Grant Achatz, has already gained three Michelin stars and regularly features in the top 10 of the World’s Best Restaurant ratings. Famous for its molecular gastronomy and ground-breaking food experimentation, it has had a lot of hype, but I couldn’t help be dubious, especially as I kept being told this was going to be the “best meal of my life”. I would just have to wait until March to see for myself.

There had been no sign outside the restaurant and inside was a long corridor with a closed metal door with no handle. My friend and I stood in front of it and looked at each other, raising our eyebrows. A flashing red light, a whoosh and the doors slid open – a smiling hostess was standing in front of us. “Welcome,” she said, and it had begun.

The room in which we were seated had only three other occupied tables. There was no menu: we sat down and then the food started arriving. First up, ‘cocktails’…which were solid…and presented on small pedestals and discs. I gingerly tried a jelly cube and it dissolved instantly on my tongue, releasing a strong flavour of apple brandy. I started giggling.

Next up, steelhead roe, harvested by a personal friend of the chef’s, creamy and salty with ‘pillows’ of dijon mustard floating in a rich sauce; later fresh sea urchin encased in gelatin, served on top of watercress broth in a round-bottomed vessel. I couldn’t stop giggling hysterically; what were they putting in the food?! Every component had a different texture and flavour, all of it surprising, all of it delicious. As fast as we could eat, more was arriving.

The infamous ‘Hot Potato, Cold Potato’ dish arrived, a tiny wax bowl filled with cold potato vichyssoise with a skewer of parmesan, chive and a hot potato ball topped with a truffle stuck into it. We were instructed to pull the skewer out slowly and down the contents like an oyster shooter. The sensation of hot and cold together in the mouth with the creamy potato, earthy truffle and salty parmesan was perfect. The server pulled out a small magnetic stick and deftly picked up the metal skewers with them. “That’s clever!” I exclaimed. He gave me a funny look and I blushed, muttering an apology. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m amazed every day working here.”

For some courses we used our fingers, others we had special cutlery brought to us; some were huge, some tiny, and I felt like a child in a sweet shop: full of joy and wonder. A raviolo filled with truffle liquid, topped with a thin shaving of more truffle and parmesan was presented to us. The server told us to put the whole thing into our mouths and bite with our lips closed. I did exactly as he said and still almost ended up spitting the entire thing all over the table. It burst open in my mouth, the liquid filling my mouth and trickling down my throat: amazing.

The last two desserts were Achatz’ signature pieces, the first combining butterscotch-candied bacon, wrapped with apple and thyme on a wire with a dehydrated Nutella ‘explosion’ and lychee and jasmine candied thin. The three separate components were placed in front of us with the instruction to “play and have fun”. The lychee thin rocked back and forth on a disc, icing sugar floating in the air around us.

For the last dessert a rubber tablecloth was spread over our table; then a chef painted on it with blueberry purée, honey crème, peanut nougat, cold chocolate, herbs, crumbles and cream, creating an artwork in front of us. Dehydrated honeycomb frozen in liquid nitrogen was thrown down and cracked, the cold smoke creeping across the table and freezing the honey crème rounds. We were handed two spoons. “Enjoy,” the chef said, smiling, and left.

The servers’ friendly natures were greatly appreciated, especially as I looked like a nutjob who kept laughing into her food, and at just over $200 per head it was worth every penny. I would fly back to Chicago in an instant just to go again; Achatz was a regular Willy Wonka.

Later, as we ate the last of the chocolate from the table, I still couldn’t stop smiling. “I think,” I said carefully, licking a finger covered in blueberry puree, “that was the best meal I’ve ever had.” My friend nodded. “Pure joy and wonder.”

Alinea, 1723 North Halsted, Chicago, IL 60614, USA. Website.

Additional photography by Mara Rosenbloom.

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