Dates Visited: 6/2/16, 6/22/16
Meal Length: 3 hours 15 minutes
“We’ve…come to understand that the best moments of creativity come when we are uncomfortable and uncertain. So we are starting with a blank slate on the cuisine…
…Some people are calling this iteration Alinea 2.0 or the Alinea Reboot. We just call it Alinea. Because all along we’ve always desired to embrace innovation and change as our core identity.
‘Alinea’ means the beginning of a new train of thought.”
– Alinea, www.alinearestaurant.com
Why should you be interested?
Alinea, in the first 10 years of its life, won a reputation as the crown jewel of Chicago dining. Grant Achatz cut his teeth at Charlie Trotter’s (foie gras traitor, may he rest in peace) and The French Laundry. That culture of excellence–mingled with the revelations of a few weeks working at elBulli–followed him to Trio, the inventive Evanston restaurant Achatz made his name. That led to Alinea, his own restaurant, in 2005, which quickly won acclaim from the food press and tire companies and planted itself as a fixture on the William Reed Top 50 Restaurants list. A recent James Beard Award win for service and appearance by the chef on Netflix’s Chef’s Table (a well-shot show but one whose artfulness its foodie viewers take for gospel and endeavor to cite in any discussion) have kept the restaurant in the “foodie consciousness.”
For a long while, I’ve felt that Next–the restaurant group’s dressed down experience offering three distinct themed menus during the course of the year–outshone Alinea in the pleasure of its food and warmth of service. My first meal there (funnily enough a menu honoring Achatz’s time at Trio) trumped any of my previous visits to Achatz’s undeniably more highly praised establishment. Alinea’s food could be intellectually thrilling–perhaps for a bite or two–but ultimately too abstract and disjointed to leave one feeling full. And more so, everything proceeded with a tacit smugness that made the experience far from comfortable, far from satisfying even across many repeat visits with a wide variety of parties. So the stakes were high when appraising this reboot, for if a complete transformation couldn’t finally hit the mark, when would it?
How easy is it to locate?
Alinea sits behind the same black facade it always has on a proud stretch of Halstead (next to the also-excellent Boka). There’s no obvious markings, so keep an eye out for the valets, who are often kind enough to guide and beckon you through the doorway.
How do you feel when you enter?
Not as unsure as you used to, when a quasi-optical illusion brought you down a hall and spit you out in a slim demilitarized zone between kitchen and ground floor dining room. Now there’s a real host stand and separate chamber for all those pleasantries. Depending on your menu you’ll either step up a slender white staircase or take a seat at a communal, candlelit table (there’s also a private table overlooking the kitchen, but we won’t get into that now). Though the decor has certainly remained modern, there’s a nice grandeur and openness to the space as one walks throughout. Nonetheless, one’s seated view remains more modest, attuned to drawing attention, as always, to the food.
How should you order?
The new Alinea, rather than a common multicourse format across the entire space, stratifies their menu into two distinct experiences. There’s “The Salon” ($175-$225 depending on reservation time), a “10-14 course tasting menu, innovative & satiating for mind and body.” And alongside that, “The Gallery” ($295-$345), “a multisensory 16-to-18 course menu that combines fine dining with experimental moments.” Pairings are offered in tiers as well: non-alcoholic ($65) ranging to standard, reserve, and a “limited availability” Alinea wine pairing. I think both menus, in truth, are approachable and rewarding for first time diners. It’s more a matter of your time commitment and willingness to pay, but they are rather nice to provide such a clear set of options.
What are the notable dishes?
Contrast: Though the spellbinding temperature contrast of hot potato/cold potato retired along with the old Alinea, this yellow tomato soup captured some of that magic. The liquid itself came chilled, and–like a good gazpacho–the temperature drew a nice sweetness from the yellow tomatoes further complemented by crystals of watermelon. And floating in it all, a goopy yet pleasantly warm, soft, and savory “parmesan pillow” that brought eye-rolling umami and that beloved temperature contrast (again with two kindred flavors: tomato and parm).
Paper: Shaved scraps of “paper” sit in your bowl and are subsequently enlivened by a warm broth of sweet corn. The paper transforms into a gossamer-thin noodle and–oh yes–somehow they’re made of scallops. Not in any empty way either, they strikingly taste of that deepest, sweetest piece of scallop sashimi and then earthy, buttery sweet corn. A two component dish that screamed flavor and elicited nods of approval around the table.
Glass: A, I must admit, comically large plate provided the menu’s nicest presentation–and some of the most deeply satisfying textures of the evening. Succulent, meaty morel mushrooms covered in a sauce of foie gras coated the tongue with a supreme savoriness. And then crunched against thin, tart shards of blueberry.
Toast: I always enjoy the playfulness of offering such a simple bite further into the meal. Yet I found it a discount version of Atera’s own truffle cracker. Less technique, less attention to detail, taste, and texture. The toast–supposedly pumpernickel–tasted dry and lifeless. Gruyère, strangely muted. And the cloak of black truffle, clunky. I’d like to try this bite again because I have a hard time believing it left me so wanting.
Cloche: The “cloche” in question came in the form of that proud piece of well-seasoned lettuce. It concealed an excellent, drippingly tender piece of veal cheek (my apologies for neglecting to capture it). Chamomile was incorporated, I forget how, but it stands among the heartiest pieces of meat I’ve had across any meal at Alinea.
Elysian Fields: I knew the title of this dish meant lamb was coming. When it came with blackberries–and black garlic–I thought, like the toast, it couldn’t go wrong. But the prized, pure bred, and perfectly pink meat–while its mouthfeel was superb–didn’t climb to the same savory heights as the veal. The pieces didn’t add up to a cohesive, satisfying serving. Another very pretty plate though.
THE BREAD BASKET
Lamb House Rolls: Dry, cakey. Not very redeeming, and (given the failings of the larger lamb dish) I would’ve been happier had they not brought them to the table.
How does the service make you feel?
They still, sometimes just a bit, speak to you like your lack of “culture” makes them deeply nervous, but at least that’s now mingled with a lot more sincere enthusiasm (rather than thinly-veiled disgust). Upstairs’ more casual menu unfolds with a prevailing sense of calm. The servers seemed relaxed and themselves in such a way one rarely sees indulged in this style of dining–though that doesn’t mean the mechanics or mood are just right yet. Downstairs, where the theatrics demand a bit more unerring focus, the mood was more tense and professional. The more shared nature of the experience might demand this as well. Nonetheless, downstairs was a marked improvement in tone from the old Alinea. Shards of smugness remain but there was largely more joy and sincerity. Special praise, however, goes to the friendly wine service. The restaurant does a nice job of situating their sometimes-esoteric (often excellent) pairings in the larger world of winemaking, clearly and concisely illuminating just what makes the bottles special. And the descriptions convey a sincere enthusiasm for sharing the wine rather than a recited, required spiel. I think even the most vin-illiterate would find shreds of information fascinating.
Was the meal satisfying?
My two meals at Alinea since the update have been the best I’ve had at the restaurant, and that includes both their 10th Anniversary menu and pre-renovation NYE menu. And I’m not just talking sustenance. Where I once felt meals at the restaurant proceeded like a patchwork of various laboratory inventions, the technique now shown, dazzling as it is, fits into a larger tapestry. An abstract, highly fluid one that ties its food closer to modern art. A tapestry that steps into exploring other traditions but does so with a wink and a nod that keeps the food playful and approachable rather than confounding like it so often once was. And, yes, in pure terms of food–dish for dish–Alinea has grown. The most mind-blowing techniques are grounded with familiar, nostalgic flavors. And those elements you know are brought to you with a rewarding, renewed depth and excitement. I feel more comfortable recommending the restaurant without worrying, as I often did before, that friends would be met with a polarizing menu that, beyond confusing them, made them feel unworthy on top of it.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
Alinea is now, rightfully, closer in identity to Next. Not in format, but in culture and attitude of the experience. Compared to the free-wheeling energy of Next (always backed up by expert, deeply satisfying food), the old Alinea felt stilted and impressed with technique in a smarter-than-you style that often, ironically left your stomach wanting. Now, there is much of the same fun. And even more dramatic heights and frills [I’ve looked to avoid spoiling the most dramatic flourishes during the meal, especially for the The Gallery menu]. Most of all, there is a prevailing identity and style that can be traced through the dishes. That, mingled with some really wonderful food and improved service puts it among the nicest and most distinct fine dining “experience” restaurants in the country. No restaurant in Chicago so thoroughly curates and controls its atmosphere.
Would I go back?
I still have not left Alinea with the same contentedness I invariably leave Next. But I now, undoubtedly, enjoy the experience. And I do still feel like I’m learning something. The mood makes the prospect of repeat visits a little exhausting, but I’d endeavor (and be lucky to) dine at the restaurant once per season.
How hard are reservations to get?
Reservations are sold as tickets through Alinea’s tock site, where you are able to choose between the menus (and select pairings as well). Weekends are predictably hard–and even flexible diners should start looking around a month in advance. Nonetheless, the restaurant is open and rather egalitarian about releasing the tickets, so I’d recommend following them on social media to be alerted in advance to their sale. Additionally, small numbers of same night tickets are released through social media for those who are quick on the draw (and open to a last minute, multicourse feasts).
Reservations (tickets) can be bought at alinea.tocktix.com