Dinner at Alinea

valerie, chef achatz, and me in the kitchen at Alinea
(blurry photo by the kind hostess)

Yeah, that’s right. I also included this post in my “Arts” category. Because the meal Valerie and I consumed over a perfectly-paced three hours was a masterpiece.

I made reservations over a month ago for dinner at Alinea in Chicago and was immediately giddy at the prospect of eating my first haute-cuisine meal. Each passing week brought the realization that I was ever-so-much closer to tonight, and as I sat down in the upstairs dining room of the stylish and contemporary restaurant (perfectly befitting the Great White City) I had the nervous excitement of a child on Christmas morning who has woken just a little too early for his parents to let him tear away the wrapping paper. I know that sounds a bit cheesy and overwrought, but I’m serious. I felt like kid. Before every course. And the excitement built before each of the THIRTEEN courses.

Valerie and I each had the smaller – yes, there’s one bigger – of the two menus, but we didn’t leave hungry at all. We knew there would be around thirteen items, but with a frequently changing menu we had no idea what would arrive at our table next. One set of flavors transitioned to another with varying intensity of flavor. Amuse-bouches built up to incredible major courses before winding down with three dramatically different yet perfectly complimentary desserts.

I’ll not list the entire menu here – perhaps I’ll update the post with a scanned image of tonight’s menu when I get home – but I’ll share a few highlight items. I can’t begin to describe some of the preparations, though they did include gels, foams, clever service, and liquid nitrogen. Sure, call it “molecular gastronomy” – a cliché at best – but it would also miss the point. The presentation served to delight more than simply the palate. The aromas, textures, and even how we were to eat certain courses made spectacular entertainment out of what was ostensibly dinner. The food wasn’t merely delicious, but it was fun to eat. It was, therefore, easy for me to dive right in to some ingredients that I had until then avoided. Shad roe? Sure! Morel mushrooms? Delicious. Leeks? Absolutely. But there was also sturgeon, confit of pork belly, Wagyū beef, fois gras, and black truffle. It was a culinary tour de force.

It wasn’t cheep, and I’m sure you guessed that. And I’m sure a meal like this isn’t for everyone. I have no problem with somebody wanting to eat what they grew up with, or comfort food, or keeping it simple. But if you’re willing to step outside your gustatory comfort zone, save your dollars and make it happen. It’s worth every penny. Is it wasteful? I’d argue it’s not. There is craft, there is skill. There is visual beauty. Expert execution coupled with extraordinary creative talent. To eat at Alinea is to be a patron of the arts.

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