July 13, 2013


On our last night living in Chicago (this past January), my husband and I decided to try for last minute Alinea reservations. Alinea has been on my to-eat list since we moved to Chicago, it's in the molecular gastronomy category (think liquid nitrogen and centrifuges). It's definitely a splurge (we decided to eat in for the next month) but it was so worth it. 

They normally take reservations for several months out, however, if you like them on facebook, you can see when they offer last minute tables. We were extremely lucky to score a table that evening.

And yes, they will do a full vegan menu upon request.

I'm going to do my best to describe each dish, but this is in no way a comprehensive list of ingredients. There were so many things going on, I didn't get a chance to take it all in. Also, they completely change their menu every few months. 

When we arrived, we walked through a hallway filled with pine trees, a really great sensory experience. We were greeted with hot chocolate for my husband and reduced mulled wine for me (the alcohol was cooked out and the flavor was mellow but still perfectly rich) and allowed to look in on the kitchen...

We started with a glass straw filled with fruits, microgreens and a very tasty liquid, sitting in a large chunk of ice. We were instructed to take one large slurp to get the full effect. I'm not sure exactly what was inside, but it was fruity and sweet and delicious.

Next, we were presented with a tray full of kelp. It smelled so good, so fresh and salty and in winter a very welcome change. Here's what I caught from the very lengthy description...daikon, vegetable pudding with roasted red pepper and oyster leaf.

There were four different bites on this tray - each was unique and delicious, but the smell of the kelp was my favorite part. 

Then it was onto one of my favorites...Thai banana, kaffir lime, sea salt foam and cucumber mixed with bits of ice. The textures were so unique and the flavors so tropical and fresh. I wish I could describe this - it was so salty, yet light and refreshing and very complex. 

Then, wakame, avocado, popcorn sauce and baby radish greens. This was so earthy, buttery and rich.

Hen of the woods mushroom soup with puffed rice cereal followed - this was one of the best soups I've had and I'm not even a huge mushroom fan. The consume was left on the side to be mixed with the liquid so it was super concentrated and flavorful.

Hot potato/Cold potato - I actually first saw this dish on the Food Network. Alton Brown raved about it. It came out so quickly and we were told it was a time sensitive dish, so I did not get a picture. But I did find a lovely image online...

The dish is served in a wax bowl with a hot potato, cold potato soup (or something like it), butter (vegan for me) and chive. I have to admit, I've never been that into truffles or truffle oil, but it's scarily growing on me. Truffle or no truffle, this was such a great bite. You pull the pin out of the wax so that everything combines and just take one big bite. 

Another favorite...a large plate full of different flavors, paired with roasted root vegetables to create your own concoction. It was so beautiful and I got to try some really stellar flavors, flavored salts, dried fruits, nuts, a chalk-like rosemary oil, and all kinds of flavored gels.

The truffle explosion was exactly that - it was a bit much for me (see truffle note above), but if you love truffle, this would be the highlight for you. Even though it was a whole lot of truffle, I appreciated it. A truffle liquid was encased inside of a romaine leaf with a black truffle sitting on top. It was wonderfully salty, which I quite liked.

Then it was onto turnips with turnip foam, ramps and fried basil. Again, very complex and earthy, with really great textures. If you've never had fried basil, seek it out. I don't love basil, but when it's fried the flavors relax and the texture is light and crisp.

In between the savory and sweet dishes, we were offered a cleansing palette full of five different takes on ginger...

Then, the sweet courses - the first consisted of carrot sorbet, banana ice cream made with rice milk, rice milk foam, edible flowers, a vegan marshmallow cream atop a lovely citrus herb tea sitting in the bottom of the glass vessel, to be drunk through a metal straw. There's no way to explain how delicious the tea was. When I think citrus tea, it sounds so basic. This was anything but basic. It was bright and elegant.

The second dessert course came out as balloons. Completely edible balloons - the string and all. The flavor was green apple and the balloon was filled with helium. The idea is to kiss the balloon to burst it and at the same time suck in the helium :) This was so fun and a great idea to not take your food or yourself too seriously. It was ridiculously fun.

 This lovely metal pin is how they anchored the balloon.

For the final course, a chef will come out and prepare the dish right on your table (no plates). Liquid nitrogen is poured into a chocolate sphere, and while that settles, the chef beautifully arranges several kinds of fruit purees around the sphere. When he's finished, he cracks the sphere and everything explodes onto the table. You're left with bits of frozen goodness, cotton candy, chocolate and fruit. It was so much fun to eat and the textures were crazy together (in a very good crazy way).

The couple next to us had their dessert just as we were having our 2nd or 3rd savory course, and we couldn't help but stop and stare when Grant Achatz (owner and head chef) came out to prepare their dessert.

This was truly an amazing experience and I enjoyed every second of it. Every detail is spot on and so well thought out. I mean come on, edible balloons filled with helium. How much better does it get?

P.S. Alinea is owned by the same people as Next, which I just posted on for their all vegan menu. 

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