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Alinea, Chicago

Last night we fulfilled a somewhat long-time aspiration and went to Alinea for dinner.

I remember when the restaurant opened ten years ago as I was living in New York then. Grant Achatz sent a seismic ripple of excitement through the food community with his unique take on fine dining. Since then his cuisine as continued to evolve, endlessly experimenting with new techniques and new ideas, reflecting the mind of an insatiably inquisitive chef. His kitchen looks more like a science lab than a catering space - very El Bulli. Here's an interesting New York Times blog post where he credits Ferran Adria with shaping the course of his career.

We had a wonderful time. The restaurant's front door opens rather disconcertingly into a dimly lit, narrow tunnel on a slight downward incline, with not a single member of staff in sight. Each uncertain step took us further away from the din of the outside world until very suddenly the tunnel opened out to our left and a smiling face welcomed us in. The atmosphere in our downstairs room was hushed, temple-of-fine-dining stuff. I felt nervous with anticipation. The decor verges on the austere with modern grey walls, a few vases, a few paintings and little else. In contract Achatz's food is pure, joyous, fun. There's a lot of picking things up with your fingers, slurping from straws stuck into fragrant broths, getting sticky candy stuck to your face and a lot of delighted laughing. At least there was for me anyway.

Not every dish worked perfectly on my opinion, but the whole experience was an otherworldly affair, full of eye-opening gastronomic whimsy, delicious new tastes and tantalising mysteries around how they were created. Exceptionally well-trained waiters proffered a few insights, and offered one or two more when pushed, but never gave the game away. I suppose a magician never reveals his secrets.

Getting a reservation was not easy. The restaurant's phone number goes through to a recorded message with no answerphone. Tables are not booked, they are ticketed. You buy your tasting meal dinner (there is only one option, although prices vary depending on date) upfront and there is no refund for returns or cancellation. Transferring or selling your ticket is your own responsibility.

When I first started looking into booking the website showed no ticket availability at all. A little more research delivered Alinea's Facebook page as a way to be notified when tickets come on sale. A bit more digging suggested that tickets for July would go on sale between 11-12 noon roughly on May 15th, possibly May 14th. At exactly 11am on both days my husband and I started refreshing the tickets page obsessively every few minutes, convinced that when the tickets came online they would disappear in a flash, much like tickets for Burning Man or Glastonbury. As it turned out our geeky behaviour wasn't entirely necessary although we were able to choose exactly what time we wanted to dine. The tickets popped up for sale at around 11.26am on May 15th and my husband bought two for $729.30, including 20% service charge but not including wine. We crowed with delight, puffed up with self praise on working out the system and winning. We deflated slightly a few days later when I checked the site again and there were still tickets available for the same July 11 Saturday night.

The main thing is - if you check Alinea's website on around the 15th of each month you should be able to book a ticket or two.

It also looks like the ticketing system has been updated recently and improved. A quick check just now showed plenty of tables available in September.

Enough about tickets. This is what we ate:

On arrival we found a bouquet of ginger, chilli, mint and lemongrass swaying gently above our table, suspended from a hook tied to an invisible thread. More about this later.

Peach bellini encased in a white chocolate and pink Murray river salt shell and topped with tiny basil leaves. A lovely idea but I found the cooled champagne inside stopped the chocolate from melting in my mouth, giving the cocoa butter a waxy texture when chewed.

Surf clam, sunchoke, cucumber and lilac. A clever presentation involving a glass plate with a blown bowl in the centre, filled with fennel, cucumber, lemon and ginger. Our waiter poured a littleneck clam broth into the well and then gave us metal straws to sip the infused soup.

Clockwise starting from the amber coloured jelly at the bottom: An intensely flavoured cube of saffron and clam jelly, a slightly dehydrated slice of Jerusalem artichoke, my least favourite mouthful of the meal, sprinkled with unsweetened vanilla sunflower seeds and tart droplets of lemon gel, a lilac custard with lilac and viola petals that was both sweet and mildly bitter, a (rather forgettable) cucumber sandwich with lemon butter and shavings of mild horseradish, fennel saffron purée and celery leaf, surf clam salad with cucumber dice.

The firm yet tender cubes of clam were delicious paired with anise flavours provided by what looked like fennel flowers and an unidentified little green berry or seedpod. The broth was also richly scented and heavenly tasting, but it was hard to find a thread through this dish as a whole - some kind of link to draw each element together. Perhaps it was just supposed to be a series of bites, but I would have expected there to be one.

Steelhead trout roe, English pea, olive oil, chamomile arrived in a bowl within a bowl that bubbled gently as scented plumes of dry ice vapour cascaded over its rim. The dish was made up of smoked trout eggs, surrounded by a dollop of honeydew melon sorbet, starchy pea purée, fudgy nitro-frozen olive oil crumbs and green jalapeño jelly, with no chilli heat! All topped off with a foamy puff of camomile air.

An almost post apocalyptic scene of wildflowers bursting through slabs of sweet and salty black truffle meringue 'concrete'...

Sprayed with carrot juice graffiti. Underneath we discovered asparagus spears, baby broad beans and purée with more truffle, pea shoots and chewy shards of dehydrated carrot. Overall the dish was too sweet for my taste, but beautifully presented.

Things kicked up a notch with deliciously charred roasted lilies (I didn't know lilies were so tasty!), aji amarillo, jackfruit and yellow tomatoes. Ginger foam gave the dish a Thai spin.

At this point our herbaceous chandelier was brought down and use to infuse a teapot of curried Darjeeling tea, made with roasted aubergine, ginger, garlic, shallots, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek and brown sugar.

The broth was then poured into a bowl with pickled Japanese aubergine, banana purée, roasted cocoa nibs and fried white and black mustard seeds, garnished with Fresno chilli, banana shallot, crisp slices of shitake mushroom, fried garlic ginger, mint, coriander and lime zest. The flavours here took me to Malaysia, but were a little too sweet again due to the banana and the eggplant too sour. An overabundance of mustard seeds gave the dish a bitter, gritty finish.

Back to Thailand again with a little custardy round of crab roe and rice, flavoured with green curry, topped with a cube of orange candied ginger and a segment of lemon.

This little mouthful was pure heaven - tamarind and young coconut milk caramel with a little ball of reduced nam prik num (fish sauce), a flake of sea salt and tiny pearls of citrusy finger (or caviar) lime. It was salty and sweet, sour and chewy all at once. I wanted to keep chewing and chewing. Definitely my favourite bite of the night.

Siam sunray on a pin was icy cold from being plated on an anti-griddle and had to be eaten immediately. The base contained ginger, lemongrass, Thai pepper and vodka. The second layer was coconut liqueur and the top was kaffir lime. Garnished with a sliver of kaffir lime leaf and a curl of Fresno pepper.

Percebes, smoke, seawater, ash pudding, served with seaweeds and samphire. These crazy goose barnacles look like dinosaur feet and taste out of this world. They are hands down my favourite seafood, and so, predictably, are incredibly expensive and hard to harvest. Unsurprisingly I loved this course.

It also came with 'sandwich' of roasted tororo kombu (pickled, softened kelp that is layered, pressed, and thinly shaved) on one side, ice fish cracker on the other and smoked foie gras in between.

Fatty cubes of lightly smoked yellowtail came speared on a pine twig with shishito pepper, pickled green bean and lime zest.

A charcoal brazier was lit, allowing us to cook our fish if we wished.

A shiso and celery juice palate cleanser.

Two charcoal logs from the fire turned out to be something quite different. A sharp knife revealed a slab of tender pork belly...

And a blackened parsnip.

Pork belly, parsnip, black trumpet, kombu. This was so inky black it was impossible to photograph. To accompany our meat and veg there was black garlic and roasted seaweed purée, soy sauce and cuttlefish jelly over miso and carrot purée. Kombu and black trumpet mushrooms also featured, but how I can't remember.

Moving along a little wax bowl arrived containing a chilled black truffle and potato cream. A tiny metal skewer piercing its rim offered up a warm ball of black truffle covered confit potato along with chive, butter and Parmesan dice.

Rabbit, morel, ramp, mastic was our final savoury course. There was rabbit loin, belly and mousse, crispy carrot 'bark', morel mushrooms (somewhere), wild garlic or ramp bulbs, sorrel leaves and an unravelled fiddlehead fern.

Our first sweet course, cheesecake, was a riot of colour and flavour that managed to convey its theme surprisingly well. There was a hibiscus pate de fruit, hibiscus jelly - frozen with liquid nitrogen, shattered and then defrosted, fresh, pickled and puréed blueberries, a sheet of raspberry cellophane, strawberry butter cream, sweet cream, powdered matcha and dehydrated vanilla meringue.

This was followed by a thin slice of sweet butterscotched Wisconsin bacon, as translucent as tracing paper, with apple thread, black pepper and thyme.

Then a helium filled apple taffy balloon tied with apple leather string. We literally inhaled this so quickly there was no time for a photo, just high pitched giggling at the end, so here's the official video.

Our final course was painted onto a silicone tablecloth by the head chef and centred around a ball of nitro-frozen coconut sorbet that he theatrically cracked into smithereens.

Starting from the bottom right and going up and then left: three 'paint' pots with rum and vanilla molasses, mango purée and allspice pudding, then kaffir lime candy, freeze dried pineapple and dragon fruit. Finally caramelised banana nougat, lychee sugar cubes and sour cherry balls. Passion fruit jelly and a chocolate tuile on the oval plate finished the fruity collection.

Alinea

1723 N Halsted Street

Chicago,

IL 60614

Tel:+1 312-867-0110

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