Alinea: A No-Star Person’s Experience at a Three Michelin Star Restaurant
Back in 2017, I had the bright idea of celebrating my 30th birthday the following year at one of the most exclusive and acclaimed restaurants in the United States – Alinea in Chicago. Turning 30 wasn’t a prospect that upset me, it just felt like something that should be marked with an occasion. I wanted to do something special to say goodbye to my 20s and usher in my 30s. After mentioning the idea (briefly) to my accommodating husband, I penciled it into my calendar even though it was etched in stone in my mind.
The reservations for Alinea only open two months in advance, so I waited months and months before I could even try to book a table. With a small kerfuffle at the beginning, I got a table for four in the Gallery for my 30th birthday. Luckily for me, I have amazing foodie friends, Ashleigh and Alex, who were willing to plan a trip to Chicago on short notice. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to eat at Alinea and get to share it with Kody and our dear friends. I felt very lucky to be turning 30.
Alinea is on a residential street in Chicago. The front is dark grey brick with black accents and there’s no sign. It’s a few buildings down from The Second City’s theater, so we had actually parked near it the night before when we attended a show there.
When we walked in and were shown to our table, we were a little disappointed. The table was directly inside the restaurant on the first level with a long stairway next to it. It was communal seating with eight other people and we were seated in the middle. Our fellow eaters for the evening included a family that was simultaneously obnoxious and bored the whole time and a group of four guys also celebrating someone’s birthday. Each table setting was different, but mine was the prettiest. There were huge flower arrangements on the table and artsy naked lady pictures on the walls. Overhead were rows of brightly colored discs. Looking down the table, you could see straight in the kitchen which was amazing. The lighting was dim and moody and I was so excited I felt like I was going to throw up.
When we got our first course, I didn’t even hear what the server said it was. I had so much nervous energy due to the yearlong anticipation of eating there. All I heard was “lime snow.” The dish had a white powder (the aforementioned lime snow), a green mousse with little green balls in it, clear jello-like cubes, and edible flowers. It was apparently a salad.
The mousse was avocado and the little balls were cucumbers. The clear cubes were kiwi. I ate the flowers – no one told me not to. It was so funny to watch everyone else eat because no one knew quite how to do it. Some people were using forks, others spoons, everyone was confused. I was just trying to savor each bite and settle into the moment so that I wouldn’t miss anything else. I realize this is a very intense reaction to be having to a restaurant and you should know it happens to me a lot. We’re all obsessed with something.
The server announced that we were going to take a field trip for our next course and then we went INTO THE MOTHERFLIPPING KITCHEN OF ALINEA. This did not help me achieve zen. I get it if you’re not a foodie person, but this was a surreal moment for me. Chef Achatz has such an inspiring personal story and this kitchen is where he makes magic happen. I was astonished at how impeccable every surface was, it was all so clean and orderly. Every person in there (save the dozen diners who had just arrived) were moving with purpose and efficiency. It was quite a thing to behold. Kody, Ashleigh, Alex, and I kept sneaking excited glances at each other. We could barely contain ourselves!
We were lined up at a long table and in front of each person was a small bite pastry. Two chefs prepared cocktails for us using an antique shaker machine. The small bite was crispy pastry filled with a white mousse that was made with pepperoni, Parmesan, and tomato. That’s right; it was a fancy ass pizza roll. The cocktail was made using sarsaparilla ice cubes and basil so the whole effect was like eating a bite of pizza and having a sip of root beer. I was all in.
Here is a smug picture of me in the kitchen at Alinea.
When we went back into the dining area, they had separated the communal table into seating according to our parties. We had been so immersed in the shaker machine situation that no one noticed what was happening right next to us. I ended up with a view of my friend, Alex, and the exit. At first, I was kind of upset about this, but it meant that I was surprised by everything as it came out and didn’t see it first on someone else’s table.
Our table now had a different centerpiece – a large wooden bowl filled with limes, coconut, and lemongrass – and a word search. I immediately found so many (read: four) words because I am incredibly (read: barely) talented at searching for words in controlled settings.
Our next dish was made of sunflowers and had the consistency of flan. On top, edible flower petals were arranged with caviar to look like a sweet sunflower and there were drops of lemon oil. The caviar was definitely enjoyable, but the dish as a whole was not entirely delicious.
Our fourth course was one of my favorites: noodles made from scallops with a crispy potato top, adorably called “scanoods.”
When they served the dish, they also poured hot water into the centerpiece. It started billowing out coconut/lime-scented steam and it smelled amazing. We were given little test tubes filled with lemongrass juice. One end was capped with a strawberry-flavored gelatin and the other end was closed with a cylinder of cucumber. You were supposed to put the red end into your mouth and suck the contents out. Scroll down for a picture of how terrible I was at this. It got all over me. The theme of this night was truly how I should not be allowed in places like this.
Here’s a gratuitous shot of Alex because it looks so cool and he made it look so much easier than it was.
Our centerpiece was removed and replaced by a container with a few wood coals and lots of rock salt. A few moments later, they set that mothertrucker aflame.
The lights were turned really low at this point and I could barely see anything. The next course seemed scary and dark. It was an octopus leg that was placed on a warmed piece of dark stone with a sheet made from squash covering it like a monster under a blanket. Nestled next to the octopus leg was a deeply charred scallion. The server grated black lime over the whole thing. It had a spooky vibe accentuated by the flickering flame in the middle of our table and it was extremely tasty – exactly like Korean barbecue except terrifying. On the plate it looked like an oily scorpion, something to be squashed and not eaten. But eat it I did and I would eat it again.
By this time, the fire had burned itself out and only the wood coals were still smoldering. A bundle of fresh lavender was placed over it and the room was quickly filled with the scent. On top of the lavender were four little dumplings made from red snapper. Alongside the dumplings, we were served a bouillabaisse broth that had a sheet of paper made from langoustines (big shrimp) in it and crunchy nori rolls filled with seafood mousse. We were eating a lot of seafood so far. The server told us to push the paper down into the broth so that it would dissolve. We drank the broth, ate the seaweed sticks, and devoured the dumplings. (Two of the following photos are examples of how difficult it was to get good pictures due to the lighting.)
After a short break, our server came back to the table with a tray full of accoutrements. There was a little hot sauce bottle, a bowl of enormous oyster crackers, a mixing bowl, and a few smaller bowls full of ingredients. The fire in the center of our table had gone out completely and the server dove into the salt and pulled out a potato. Yes. A potato had been hiding in our centerpiece. He explained that it had been braised in butter for EIGHT FULL FLIPPING HOURS prior to being buried in a salt fire. He mashed it up with bacon, buerre blanc, and celery, then he separated the potato between our four serving bowls and sprayed beige foam on top of it. This, he claimed, was New England style clam chowder. The littleneck clams and soup base had been turned into the creamy foam on top. It was so good.
My friends and I were pretty excited at this point. It’s what we were waiting for! Cook some stuff that’s been hiding right in front of us without us knowing! Confuse and delight us!
The chowder was really good and, as you can see, the portions were nothing to sneeze at. We were getting comfortably full. Fortunately, we only had one more dinner course before moving on to ALL the desserts.
A chef came through the dinning room after the chowder was completed and showed us a steaming, glorious tenderloin of Wagyu beef. He then set up a table and cutting board and sliced it into pieces for everyone. It was served with a demiglace, a woodear mushroom wrapped in a slice of black truffle, and a sauce made of French fries. The beef was amazing – it was so tender and flavorful – but my favorite part was the French fry sauce. It was savory and really tasted exactly like fries! All I could think was, “Why hasn’t anyone ever thought of making a sauce out of fries before? Wait … is this just baby food? Did we pay all this money for baby food?” But I didn’t care. I just ate my pampered steak with my French fry sauce and let them take all my money. The steak came with a mushroom broth to sip on that some people thought was alcohol and were shooting down like shots. Plebians.
This concluded the dinner portion of our meal. Our next plate looked less familiar and more like what we were expecting at Alinea. It was a dessert plate with a frozen green foam, more white “snow,” edible flowers, and an orange puree. It was nasturium foam (a plant that people only eat in schmancy restaurant which tastes like a plant) with begonia snow and a peach and heirloom tomato puree. This was … not great. I didn’t really like the components on their own or in combination with each other. We truly wanted to like it, but it was too fussy. It was pretty beautiful, but looks can only take you so far. Let’s just say it was no fry sauce.
What came out next was VERY weird, but, ultimately, my favorite dish of the night. It was completely based around a tree. First, our server brought out a charred and fragrant piece of wood. It was holding four small bowls that he filled with a clear liquid. Then we were served a dessert in a bowl made from stone. It was an ice cream made from the sap of the Hoja Santa tree along with candied leaves from the tree, some very finely diced pineapple, and a tamarind meringue. The smaller bowls were filled with a spiced tea that smelled like Christmas. It was so good! The pineapple was the best I had ever tasted and the tree ice cream was sweet and interesting. Everything mixed together was especially tasty and I wanted a whole freaking bag of those leaves. I was like a Hoja Santa junkie. “Are you gonna eat your leaf? Because I’ll eat that leaf if you’re not going to eat.”
Our next dessert was a caramel popcorn flavored truffle served in a carton that actually had caramel popcorn in it. They were so worried that we would eat the caramel popcorn that they warned us twice that it was real, but ornamental (read: old AF) and then whisked it away immediately after we had each grabbed our truffle. The truffles were very liquidy inside and exploded when you bit into them in a not entirely pleasant way. There was shaved butted on top, so they were very, very rich. I think I would have preferred the old AF ornamental caramel popcorn.
And now, for the moment we were all waiting for: The Taffy Balloon of Alinea.
First, I need you to know how much anticipation I had about this particular part of the evening. The Alinea taffy balloon is legendary. These guys took sugar, flavored it, and filled it with helium in a way that seems so simple, but was really revolutionary when they first did it. I mean, it matters so much to Alinea that they serve it to every diner at every dinner. The taffy balloon is Alinea and Alinea is the taffy balloon.
The balloons are escorted out of the kitchen by the servers with tweezers. They hand them to you and you can hold onto them by the string like a normal balloon. You’re instructed to “give the balloon a kiss” and pull all the helium into your lungs. The balloon will collapse as you do this and then you can eat the taffy – string and all. This is the proper way to enjoy an Alinea taffy balloon. This is not what I did.
The server handed me my highly anticipated and incredibly fragile taffy balloon and I asked my husband to take my picture. I swapped the string from one hand to the other (to pose with the balloon on my good side, of course) and smiled. Then, the balloon shifted ever so slightly – a little breeze perhaps, a breath from the Devil himself maybe – and attached itself to the front of my hair. As soon as I realized, I panicked. I put my free hand up to push the balloon away like you would do with a normal balloon, but this was not a normal balloon and soon it was stuck to my hair and my hand. A small hole was created and the balloon began to collapse. People were noticing at my table and beyond. I couldn’t stop laughing. The balloon was stuck to my hair, my hand, my face, and I was crying (“with laughter” is my official stance). I panicked again. I wadded the whole time up and shoved it fully into my mouth. I chewed. I laughed. I cried.
Depicted below is the exact moment I realized the balloon was stuck to my hair and my dreams were dead. There is also a redeemingly cute picture of me laughing at myself and trying not to be devastated because it’s just a damn taffy balloon after all. I mean, I wasn’t in the market for a life lesson at that particular moment, but whatever, it’s fine. As our server said, “It’s just sugar, so it’ll come out with hot water and soap.”
There are no other pictures of the balloons. I was too sticky and preoccupied to take pictures of Kody or our friends. Please note: the man in the background of the second photo is, in fact, laughing AT and not WITH me.
Between the final two dessert courses, a man came out from the kitchen and brought me a lit birthday candle. He didn’t say anything, so I just stared at it for a minute, waiting for someone to sing. Nothing happened, so I blew it out. The man immediately put a champagne flute over the top of the candle to “capture my birthday wish.” He then “trapped it with bubbles” (sparkling apple juice) and poured in a clear liquid that was essence of birthday cake. He said it was a birthday with from the kitchen and I loved it. So, screw that guy for laughing at me because it was his birthday, too, but the kitchen didn’t know and he didn’t get anything except a taffy balloon.
The servers then got up on chairs and pulled down the colorful glass discs that had been hanging from the ceiling throughout our meal. They placed them in the middle of our table and had us move our seats so that we were all grouped around one side. The lights were turned off and music began to play. A smoke machine sent out bursts of cotton candy scented smoke. The table dessert was about to began! Chefs began to descend from the stairs behind us and drop, drizzle, and dab things onto the disc. Confectioneries were smashed, scattered, and sprayed. It was so exciting!
The flavors were white chocolate, key lime, grape, raspberry, and coconut. An absolute carnival of tastes. In the middle was a fluffy piece of cotton candy. Every component was different, but they were all so lovely. So many textures!
At the end of service, our server brought us souvenir menus. Mine said “Happy Birthday” on it. The word search was completed for us as well and it revealed the names of all the dishes we had eaten.