At the end of July, Mr. Cupcake and I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a trip to Chicago for an indulgent meal at Alinea. It really wasn't as carefree as it sounds. You see, we had these reservations since May, but were on the fence as to whether or not we should go. With airline prices so high and a looming trip to Australia, we were planning to cancel. However, I found a pair of fairly reasonable tickets last minute, so we decided to say to hell with it, let's go.
You may be wondering what kind of restaurant would cause anyone to jump on a plane just for a meal. Alinea is a relatively young restaurant (opened in 2005), but is well known for its usage of molecular gastronomy. It was named the number one restaurant in America (2006) by Gourmet Magazine, ranked one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by the S.Pelligrino people, and earlier this year, Grant Achatz (owner and head chef) won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. I've been hearing about this place off and on for the last couple years, and while all the accolades are great, what's even more amazing is how Achatz overcame mouth cancer while at the height of his career.
OK, so enough back story. Now to the food. There are two options when ordering at Alinea: the 12 course tasting and the 24 course tour. We tried to get the tour, but it was booked and they put us on the waiting list. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be, and we had to settle for the tasting. Since this meal was almost a month ago, my memory is a bit hazy, so please bear with me.
It's really hard to mess up anything that is deep fried. Seriously. It's the perfect way to start off a tasting menu because who is going to say, man, that deep fried crab sure tastes terrible. Not going to happen. This deep fried ball was attached to a bay branch that functioned more as a utensil. The batter was light, and it was filled with crab, avocado, and sudachi. The first thing Mr. Cupcake noted was the strong citrus flavor mixed in with the crab. Sure enough, sudachi is a Japanese citrus fruit.
After most courses, a guy would come around and serve us bread. Each serving of bread was different. Being the carb lover that I am, I looked forward to seeing what would be served next.
Our server came out with plates of maitake mushrooms and a smoked date. He then took the beef and laid it on top. Another guy came around and drizzled the plate with Blis Elixir. Blis Elixir is a special sherry vinegar from Spain (?). This dish was as tasty as they get. The beef just melted in the mouth while the mushrooms and date complimented the entire dish. It was lovely.
Mr. Cupcake asked our server if the liquid nitrogen served any real purpose, and he told us it was so we could watch the evolution of frozen beef to not. It turned out that Mr. Cupcake was correct.
I had Mr. Cupcake take a picture of his plate just to show the difference in presentation since they did it in front of us. His picture is a little clearer too.
As they took away the dish, our server asked us if we liked the Campbell's soup. Cute. :)
It was basically a soft bar of chocolate that encased pieces of duck. The strange thing about this dish was it didn't taste very good with just those two components. However, there were other layers of flavor including white and green purees that represented the parts of a green onion. There was also blueberry and a hazelnut puree. Mixed together, the flavors completely changed the course and made it surprisingly good.
The whole wheat dish was easily the best dish of the entire night. There really wasn't anything too fancy about it. It was a wheat cake that looked like and had the consistency of a fluffy piece of wheat bread. Surrounding it was a scoop of almond ice cream, sliced almonds, caramel sauce, and an apricot sauce. There was apparently some chervil. The server presented the dish and then proceeded to pour something on it which I believe was a warm foamy milk. The whole dish was dreamy and I could have eaten 10 more. Mr. Cupcake and I were in agreement that this dish was perfection.
Remember the duck and chocolate dish that I failed to show you because I pretty much woofed it down before I remembered I was suppose to take a picture? Well, this is the dessert version of that dish sans duck. It was a shot glass filled with a freeze dried (?) version of the key elements. We were instructed to take it as a shot. The chocolate flavor was rich and we could taste the blueberry and hazelnut, but we didn't really get a good feel for the Thai pepper. It pretty much didn't exist. That's OK, because we had just experienced perfection, and it's really hard to go up against that.
Our total bill including meal, 2 glasses of wine, a glass of sparkling cider, and tip was $454.10. I'm not sure what the breakdown was because I never looked at the bill.
And that concludes our 12 courses at Alinea. It was a beautifully prepared meal... one that I won't forget for a long time. In the end, Mr. Cupcake and I were actually glad we didn't get the tour because over three hours, we were full. We also agreed we liked it more than our experience at the French Laundry. Why? It was the combination of interesting flavors and the fact that the staff was knowledgable while being pretty laid back. One of the things I really didn't like about the French Laundry was I felt like I was being watched the entire time. Don't get me wrong, some courses were like a revelation (and some weren't), but at the same time, I felt that having someone constantly watch me takes away from the experience. Then again, some people really love the attention in that they don't have ever ask for anything. Alinea's staff does a good job of making people feel welcome while still maintaining the flash of a top tier dining establishment.
So what does one do after a meal like that? We changed into our play clothes and headed off the Martini Park to meet up with my fabulous cousin, Julie!
Except, they wouldn't let us in the door. They were like, "we have a dress code". Apparently they didn't appreciate Mr. Cupcake's selection from his fine t-shirt collection (he reads tshirt blogs you know), or perhaps it was my mary jane crocs. Whatever the case, the doorman was a douche bag and I recommend staying away from this über lame establishment.
No worries though. We ended up giving our money to an Irish pub that was next door to Pete Wentz's new hipster bar. Since we ate dinner at 5:15pm, we found ourselves hungry again come 11:30pm, so we did what any normal person would do:
We ordered cheezy tator tots with bacon and jalapenos. Yep, a perfect way to end an already decadent evening.