Believe the hype and secure tickets—yes, tickets— well in advance. Chicago's most exciting restaurant demands an adventurous spirit and a serious commitment of time and money. If you have four hours and $265 to spare, the 18-course tasting menu that showcases Grant Achatz's stunning, cutting-edge food is a fantastic experience. The gastronomic roller coaster takes you on a journey through intriguing aromas, visuals, flavors, and textures. The menu changes frequently, but you might find green beans perched on a pillow that emits nutmeg-scented air, sweetbreads served with burnt bread and toasted hay, and Earl Grey paired with caramelized white chocolate. Though some dishes—they range in size from one to four bites—may look like science projects, there's nothing gimmicky about the procession of bold and elegant tastes. The hours fly by in the windowless bi-level dining room, aided by the effortless service and muted decor.
Aug 30, 2011
My spouse and I ate dinner at Alinea in mid-August 2011. We called for a reservation on June 1, 2011, when the “book” opened for reservations in June, July, and August. This reservation was the most difficult that we’ve ever secured (and we’ve dined at The French Laundry, Per Se, and Momofuku Ko). Both my spouse and I telephoned repeated over a period of SEVEN HOURS before finally getting through and making a reservation, and even then, we
weren’t able to reserve the exact date or time that we requested. Because we were visiting Chicago for only one weekend (three nights), we had only three dates that would work for us - Saturday, Sunday, or Friday (in that order of preference). After getting the busy signals for seven hours, Saturday evening was completely booked, but we made a reservation for Sunday night, our next choice. I chuckled to myself as the hostess was proud to tell me that she could take us “at any time we desired, up to and including until 5:45”! How generous! So we had to choose between 5:00, 5:15, 5:30, and 5:45, and we chose 5:45. Our greatest “regret” (and our most fervent suggestion for future guests) was in not taking the earliest time slot available - we would have benefited tremendously from not seeing what other guests ahead of us were eating. We felt like we had to keep our “blinders on” so that we didn’t look at other tables and wonder what they were eating, instead trying very hard to focus on the course on the table in front of us. It would have been a complete surprise if we had been the first diners of the evening. We were seated upstairs in the room towards the front window of the restaurant, which we felt was the choicest seating area for the entire restaurant, but none of the tables/rooms/floors is truly unfavorable. There were lots of “food paparazzi” dining on the night we were there; I had read that Chef Grant Achatz forbids this practice, mainly because in the time it takes to photograph the food, the temperature can drop below what he originally intended for you to consume. But on the night we were there, diners were happily “snapping away”, some with HUGE camera lenses, and no one mentioned it. The meal was phenomenal and worth the time, money, and effort it took to get there. I won’t ramble on about the food, the preparations, or the presentations, because they frequently change, but be assured that all were creative, delicious, and stunning! The ingenuity and innovation in the presentation is what sets this restaurant apart from any other. The service was excellent, and the 18 courses came out in just the right amount of time - not too much waiting between each course, nor too little. Don’t be afraid to ask how things are meant to be eaten, although usually the servers are forthcoming with instructions without your having to ask. Some of the dishes are even a bit messy, but the table settings have been well thought-out and designed to be minimalistic. After dining there, we completely understand the need for no tablecloths, but it just surprised us in a Michelin 3-star restaurant. We did the wine tasting, which we didn’t love, although it was done well and the “pours” were generous, even refilling our glasses during a course so that we would have enough to complement the entire dish. We aren’t experienced wine drinkers, but we thought that if we were to fully appreciate a wine tasting anywhere, this would be the place! Because you are never presented with a menu until you leave the restaurant, you are told ahead of time that the cost for the pairing is about 2/3 of the menu price (which you probably know ahead of time is $210 per person), with an even more expensive pairing of reserve wines available. Although we wouldn’t do the wine pairing again, other diners with more knowledge of wines may feel differently. We did feel a bit “nickle-and-dimed” by the charges for the $8 bottle of Evian (when asked “Sparkling or flat?”, we requested flat, expecting tap, but perhaps that was our mistake) and the $5 glass of (unlimited refills) iced tea. There was absolutely no attention paid to the iced tea service (as opposed to the previous night’s dinner at L2O, which did an amazing presentation with their iced tea). A lemony simple syrup was served, but after discovering that it wasn’t sweet enough, I began to use a packaged sugar substitute, and surprisingly (not in a good way), the sweetener wrappers laid on the table throughout the ENTIRE meal, growing in size with each glass that I drank, which seemed a bit out of character considering the otherwise great service and attention to detail. The restaurant is located near the Steppenwolf Theatre in Lincoln Park, and it is surrounded by a few other restaurants should you arrive early and need to “waste” a few minutes having a drink somewhere (there’s no bar or lounge area at Alinea). We stopped at Vinci, which was a Mediterranean restaurant, but we also saw one called Boka that looked interesting. From the downtown Loop area, we took the red line to the North/Clybourn exit, and then walked about a block to the restaurant. We got an ironic sense of satisfaction in that we arrived via public transportation at a cost of $2.50 per person en route to THE most expensive dinner that we’ve ever eaten! It was also, admittedly, one of the most memorable dinners that we’ve eaten, but we can’t say that we liked it any better than The French Laundry, Per Se, and Momofuku Ko. We love that Alinea was so different than those other unforgettable meals; it seems that every truly fine restaurant has some unique way of distinguishing itself from others. For Alinea, the phenomenal food presentations make it shine!