Picture this. You’re a kid again…
That feeling of wonder is still completely fresh in you and you can’t seem to get enough of the world around you and yet, there is still so much more for you to discover. Not to mention your energy level is uncanny.
You taste a candy you’ve never had before and realize you’re a fan of caramel. A HUGE fan. So you just keep eating it, sneaking it behind your parents back, stealing it from your siblings stash. You just can’t stop. You learn your favorite tricks with caramel, like when you place it in your cheek so it lasts longer or you hold it in your hands before you eat it so it’s extra melty. You are covered in it, your hair, your nails, your clothes. All caramel. And yet, you don’t gain a pound. In fact, you have no idea how people get fat in the first place. They must eat all the time. But all that really matters is how you are going to get caramel again. Or how many candies you haven’t tried yet that could be this good. How many pieces of candy are there in the whole world? Does everyone know about caramel? Does it taste different in other countries? Who invented it? They must be awesome…
That was Chris and I. We were kids again. We tasted food we never even heard of. We smelled things with each bite that we weren’t able to describe. We drank wine that had notes of mushrooms in it and we could cry it was so good. We had bite after bite of food we may never eat again in our entire lifetime and there were 13 courses of this. Each being just as creative and inventive as the last. Each different in taste, smell, texture. Each so unbelievably good we were afraid of what it would do to the foods we already know and love.
We went to Alinea.
If you don’t know what Alinea is, then you probably haven’t seen the Netflix’s original Chefs Table. In season 2 episode 1 they cover Grant Achatz story. An incredible one. An unbelievable one. Honestly it’s such a crazy story that it’s hard to not contemplate how the world works after watching that episode. I think the first time I saw it, I sat in silence for 15 minutes after just staring at a blank wall. I’d honestly go on but you just need to watch for yourself.
However, I was lucky enough to hear about Alinea for the first time when I was living in Chicago almost 7 years ago in 2012. I was working at a magazine called Time out Chicago and was reading about all the incredible restaurants I couldn’t afford to go to each week when a new issue would come out. I was living off of noodles and peanut butter and working paycheck to 2-days-before paycheck. Spending my income on rent and el passes, but finding time to highlight and dog ear all of the pages with restaurants I needed to go to someday.
Alinea had just been awarded three Michelin stars, to which it still holds to this day. The only Chicago restaurant to hold its three star status as of December 2017.
I dreamt of this place. I wanted to go here and experience what it would be like to have the meal of a lifetime. To indulge in food the way we are meant to, like a kid again. Also, I wanted to go out to dinner and not have that panic feeling when waiter walks away with my debit card like it’s going to be declined (that feeling really never seems to go away, even when you are completely financially stable).
Either way, I really didn’t think this meal would happen in my 20s, let alone with my frugal husband Chris. However, that’s the power of a well documented Netflix series. It makes even the most frugal hipsters believe they need to spend money on experiences over a car payment or student loans. And that my friends is what happened to Chris’ beautiful beautiful, hipster soul. He believed.
All things aside I am so thankful for Chris pulling the trigger for us and surprising me on Christmas morning with a reservation to Alinea on February 1st (yes, you have to reserve your table and pay for your entire meal 3 months ahead). I’m not much of a crier, but I am not going to lie that morning, a few tears were shed. I pictured my spirit animal Anthony Bourdain muffling a phallic p-word under his breath if he knew a foodie cried over a dinner reservation. Then I went on my mental journey over the next few months trying to train myself not to get too hyped over this food journey we were about to experience.
The day finally came…
Now, if there is one tiny bit of advice I could give anyone who decides to Alinea, it would be this: if they ask you, once you’ve been seated, if you want to add on another course that features french toast, with gruyere foam, browned butter hazelnuts and shaved black truffles they flew in from France earlier that morning, your answer should be yes. Which we said, before he mentioned it was an extra $95 each. I want to say we regretted it, but that would be a lie.
I believe the exact words that came out of Chris’ mouth later that night when we had our nightcap at MouseTrap were “I wanted to believe that was all a gimmick and that it was a waste of money, but everything we just did was worth all the money we paid”. If there is one passion that Chris and I could share in this entire world, I am so thankful it’s our love for food.
Before we move into photos of the food I need to first say this. I was nervous. Noticeably nervous. That is why you will see I have only some dark blurry photos of the food. It wasn’t until the second or third course when I had enough courage (or wine) to ask if it’s appropriate to take photos of the food. The waiter made sure to let me know that not only is it allowed as long as flash is suppressed but that Grant and everyone else at Alinea strive to make you feel comfortable and have a good time.
So now, here is the play by play:
The first course, hands down my favorite. I don’t honestly know if its that it tasted that much better than the other courses, or that it was just the first time I was experiencing this kind of food. Food that kind of messes with your brain. The first time I wasn’t just experiencing taste but texture as well. The texture was like pasta but tasted like coconut, served with a gelatinized fruit flavored crystals inside and topped with cold spheres of white pepper. However, the best part was the coconut sponge. If you look close enough, you can see it peaking out of the back. It was the most unexpected texture, but it worked. Each bite I wanted more.
I found that for each course I really liked to put a little bit of every part of the dish on my spoon or fork and take one bite incorporating all parts together. Really taste all of the flavors and textures together. Then I would follow with trying each individual piece separately on their own. Figuring out what dimension each bite gave. Then finishing the plate the same all together. It was fun.
Sitting down for your first time at a Michelin star restaurant, it is also really mesmerizing to see how it all operates. I read about what makes a Michelin rated experience and the details are insane but what surprised me is how much it also weighs on just the dining experience alone. Everyone works together, checking on each table and just very attentive but little things like the tables being completely level is something you wouldn’t think of, or the comfort level of a booth. The lighting being a particular way or the length of the door entrance to your seat. Everything, every inch, well thought out.
This second and third course were where the sensory overload turned up a notch. They immediately poured lime and coconut dry ice in the center piece and the aroma filled the air as we feasted on a plate of scallop noodles. The crispy straw top was smashed to reveal scallop noodles, yes, noodles made from scallops underneath. Tossed in the most insanely creamy sauce made from mustard and chili. Comfort food at a whole new level. Behind my drink is the second part of this course…
This I would say was the most intimidating part of the meal. Tubes of liquid containing flowers and herbs inside. Served over crushed ice and glowing. Lucky for us, in the room called the Gallery, there were 4 other tables also being served and we were seated and served after everyone else in the room. I loved that. I was able to watch the reactions of everyone in the room when each course was put in front of them, but also watch as they ate first. I questioned how this one would be eaten, but being able to watch everyone else around me first in confusion, then figuring it out or asking the waiters, it made me feel like a pro when it was our turn.
At one end, cucumber is used to close the tube, opposite a pink substance a little thicker than a milkshake enclosed the other end. You place your mouth at the end with the pink substance and suck in. We were warned to be ready to finish it in one gulp. It was definitely one big gulp and it tasted of lemongrass and cucumber. So refreshing after the scallop course but also a great way to cleanse our pallets before the next course. It was here that the lemongrass really tied in the aroma of the coconut and lime dry ice.
This was hands down Chris’ favorite part of the meal. If you are a fan of sushi, those matchstick rolls in the center of the table are for you. They were the sweetest crunchiest wrap filled with the most insane umami flavored Rouille. Typically, rouille is added to a bouillabaisse which is why these two things went together better than any two foods I’ve tasted before.
That bowl of bouillabaisse right there, that was incredible. So simple yet, I could drink it forever. Chris at one point even asked the waiter to “waterboard” him in the bouillabaisse. Don’t worry, he thought it was funny.
The thin paper coming out from the bowl was made from shrimp and used to rip apart and place in the broth. Once added, it became an incredible noodle texture.
The next course I was a little distracted by the wide open flame and Chris’ blatant reaction to it that I forgot to take a photo. I have a short video of the flame where it scans down to the incredible sous vide octopus with scallion and black lime sauce that looks like the octopus’ black ink all over the plate, however it doesn’t do this course enough justice. It was the most tender piece of seafood I’ve had. Perfectly cooked. I now know what octopus should taste and feel like, that I truly don’t know how I’ll survive without it.
While we ate the octopus, the flame was put out in front of us with a juniper branch. The most incredible woodsy smell started to fill the room. It smelled so much of what you would expect of an enchanted forest, that it was hard to not keep making the deepest inhales while you sat there. On top of the branch was an acorn and mushroom flavored lollipop shaped bite that honestly was so earthy, it was hard not to love. It brought up a significant feeling of wanting and feeling connected to the woods and yearning to get back to them as soon as possible. I instantly wanted to go camping.
Served with this course was a tiny shot glass of mushroom and herbed tea. The taste of thyme was overpowering enough to not give you a blatant mushroom tea flavor. The hint of lemon interjected enough to have a powerful cleansing feeling with each sip. Perfect for sipping between each bite.
Finally, in our bowls, a combination of it all served with the most tender pork possible, surrounded by the most earthy flavors of mushrooms, nuts and berries. Either this course was inspired by the outdoors, or a seasoned camping vet who knows his way of living off the land.
Probably my second favorite course of the evening. I will try to do this course justice, however, these textures and flavors are the most difficult to describe as they were the most unreal and different flavors and textures I believe we had all night.
When the juniper was removed, coals underneath were also removed. They were used to cook right in front of us. Laid out in front of us was a bite of squab, drenched in black forbidden rice and a beautiful berry beet flavored sauce. The coals to the left are called Binchotan, also known as white coal. They get up to 500 degrees and used to keep the open flame that was in front of us before. The tenderloin spices also on our plate were to mimic the binchotan as the texture was like ashes, however edible and tasted of white pepper and campfire.
Off to the left, a quick pop of bulls blood beet that explodes in your mouth and ties in the flavors of the squab.
During the squab course, they placed a jar on the table that looked like it contained Madagascar vanilla beans. However, when taking a closer look, it ended up it was vanilla bean flavored beef jerky sticks made from beef tenderloin. Enough said.
And now for the part that really matters. Black truffle…
Served with this course, a glass of Bernard Moreau, “Les Champagaines” Bergendy, France white wine.
You see that look on Chris’ face? That is the look of knowing he did good. Very very good. I don’t think I’ll ever ask for anything ever again in my life from this man. I tasted a black truffle for the first time and I am the happiest girl in the world.
Underneath the savory french toast, a foam of gruyere cheese, topped with the most melt in your mouth french toast, topped with shaved black truffles and browned butter hazelnuts. This was about the time we both started to realize how full we were, but we powered through for this plate and finished every, last, bite.
Cooking underneath that magical flame in front of us, nestled under a bed of salt was a yam. Pulled out in front of us and immediately mixed with salted caramel and placed into a bowl of crunchy museli and a heavy creamed foam. This transition plate meant it was time for the sweeter stuff.
I would eat this bowl of yam and salted caramel for every breakfast or dessert if I had the choice. It had every component of flavor your mouth craves while every texture your brain needs to complete the thought. If and when I decide I want to re-create one of these meals, this will be the one. So simple, yet so delightful. Placed on top, the most delicate little piece of sage. The most well-rounded plate that I always dreamt of.
Another transitional plate. Served with another wonderful tea, this time citrus in flavor. The white torched base of the plate a fluffy chocolate flavor giving off the essence of an over cooked s’more, topped with a extra citrus finish of flavors including pineapple of some sort or maybe that was the hoja santa and leveled off with the spice of tamarind. This plate was hard to put your finger on what flavor came from where but it was so vibrant with citrus and chocolate in all the right places, it was hard to not notice it was perfect.
Now, if you know me, or know of my sweet tooth. You will know that salted caramel popcorn is my favorite dessert of all time. Or as Chris likes to call it, snack. Its the reason I have had cavities in my lifetime and the reason I exist.
When this was placed in front of me, my eyes widened. The waiter gave a speech and prepared us with directions to make sure your lips were closed before you bite down on the chocolatey caramel ball that was sitting on top of the caramel corn, as it will explode. I took him very seriously and followed the rules and they weren’t kidding. I tasted that same caramel flavor I fell in love with as a child. Closing my lips around it as I let the flavor spread all throughout my tastebuds. Bringing back the glory of knowing what the sweetest candy tastes like for the first time. Enjoying as the chocolate that surrounded it melted away in my cheeks. I once again, fell in love with the way caramel makes your whole day brighter, everything around you child-like again and overall, Grant Achatz mind boggling way of feeding into your memories. It is no wonder he titles the last two dessert items nostalgia.
The grand finale of all grand finales. The green apple helium balloon. Place your lips right up to the sugar enclosed helium and suck in. Yes, the helium is flavored like a tart green apple and even better, your voice does change. You get out a few giggles and then finish eating the entire thing, even the dehydrated apple string. All tasting just like a fancy take on sour apple straws or green flavored blow pops. Flavors that bring you right back to where it all began.
I had a blast watching everyone around me breathing in their helium, enjoying everyones first choice of words with their high pitched voices. The laughter got to a point of everyone in the rooms eyes filling up with tears. Chris chose to say “I’m peaking”, a classic Mase move. While I couldn’t keep it together long enough to talk but just a few squeaky chipmunk giggles before i couldn’t stop myself from eating the whole thing.
Needless to say, it was the perfect way to end a meal that I started out so nervous to eat. I was on cloud nine and the most comfortable I had felt all evening. I then understood the purpose of this whole experience right then and there. How Grant and his team strive to make you feel comfortable and enjoy the experience. How they play with your mind as they bring back all the best memories you forgot you even had. I left that night with my mind so raw. Craving flavors and textures more than I thought I ever would. Inspired to move in my own direction with my own cooking but most of all creating my own way. Using my memories to build upon, starting with this one.