Alinea – Chicago, IL

1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614

I first got reservations at Alinea in August 2007 for our wedding anniversary. I’d made them months in advance to coincide with a trip to see the in-laws in Chicago after attending a friend’s wedding in Minnesota. That trip became quite the adventure (involving a unexpected road trip to House on the Rock and Neil Gaiman) but that’s a story for another time. If you’re really interested, leave a comment and I’ll write it up–although it’s not about food!

Anyway, long story longer, I was terribly sick when the day came I I couldn’t make it to dinner. My husband took his dad instead and to this day we’re not entirely sure the staff there didn’t think it was their anniversary dinner–Sugar daddy?

For various reasons since, I just haven’t gotten reservations. Maybe our trip was too short. Maybe it fell on a Monday or Tuesday when they are closed. Last year my son and I watched the episode of Chef’s Table profiling Alinea and Chef Achatz. He wanted to go–Sugar Balloon–DUH!

This trip to Chicago was a brief one but I looked at the Tock site the week before we left and couldn’t believe my eyes. I got a Thursday night reservation for the three of us. We added some fancy duds to our packing list– and I hoped my son hadn’t outgrown his suit that was less than six months old (almost but not quite).

I have a serious and long-time anxiety disorder. It is socially triggered by things I am really excited to do–like go to Alinea. It’s highly inconvenient for someone who loves to dine out. I’ve been dealing with this since I was 15 and it hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve truly accepted that this is a mental illness and I can’t talk treat it openly and talk about it freely. The common response is, “Why are you worried? There’s nothing to be anxious about.” or “Everything is fine, just relax.” This comes from a place of love from people who have never had their brain chemistry override all logic thought.

Needless to say, I need a metric f-ton of my anti-anxiety meds to get to and through this dinner. I’m took more that day than I typically take in a week but I made it. I even fought off a course-two rush that I thought would do me in.

So now that I’m through a long Forward, how about we get to the restaurant. First off we were ten minut

es late because of rain and traffic–not good for the panic attack-prone! They got us seated right away and we relaxed into our dimly lit upstairs table. I popped some more meds as soon as we got water. I opted to add a half bottle of white burgundy to my evening. My hubby got the Alinea wine (et al) pairing, my son got some sparkling apple juice.
There was a card on the table and my son was the first to notice–it was a word search! No list of words to search for, just a jumble of letters. We started scanning. My son had the distinct advantage of young eyes in that dark room! We started finding words: BUBBLES, CORN, STEM, TEA, INK, WHITE, TRANSITION.

We were off to a beautiful start: white asparagus, jamon iberico *powder*…seriously…SO GOOD! My husband and I got a few extra cubes of asparagus because my son doesn’t like asparagus–even at Alinea. I didn’t mind and he would return the favor of not sending food back to the kitchen later.
Next a gentleman came up and asked us if we were ready to go on a field trip. We headed downstairs with the patrons from two other tables. They made sure we were lined up in a particular order and once they described the dishes, I knew why. My husband’s had bell peppers and cheese. My son’s had cheese and no bell peppers. Mine had neither. My list can be complicated but they accommodated. They were serving a drink with tequila out of a giant liquid nitrogen-looking fountain, pouring it over a bell pepper ice. For my son and I: carrot ice. For my son, no tequila!

At this point, things nearly went off the rails. I popped that beautiful bite in my mouth and my throat said, “Nope! No swallowing for you!” I didn’t think I was going to get that bite down. Panic was rearing it’s ugly head. I was afraid I was going to puke in the Alinea kitchen. I managed, with a lot of chewing and sips of the tequila drink, to finally swallow. Now my heart was racing and my stomach was somersaulting and we were only on course two. I got back to the table and took more anti-anxiety meds and waited, fingers crossed, that I would, for maybe the first time ever, recover from an attack mid-meal.

The next dish was not going to happen for me. KAENG: Scallop ‘noodle’ in a yellow curry wht a scallop tuille/cracker on top. It was gorgeous. I immediately handed mine off to my son and hubby to split while I sipped my white wine and bubbly water, breathing, tingling, waiting. I told the server that if I didn’t eat something, it was due to my wicked anxiety and not the food. I used to make excuses, now I’m honest. The next course was a gift sent from the calming gods: a tube with cucumber, mint and I think pomegranate? The instructions were to put the red end into your mouth and suck all the contents down. You know, like those test tube shots you can do out of waitress’s boobs in New Orleans? (ok, they didn’t tell us that, that’s my addition!) That concoction cooled my body to the core. I stopped tingling, my heart slowed. I was going to make it to another course and not have to go sit outside in the rain.

Now it really gets fun. There’s fire. There’s dry ice. It’s a party. The servers set alight a pot in the middle of the table and tell us to not worry about that for now. And then the gave me the course I can’t stop thinking about. INK: A black polished stone with an octopus tentacle, some gelatinous (but not in a gross way) slices that I can’t recall the ingredients of, and a black scallion. I was glad I took a picture of this in the kitchen–not knowing what I was photographing–because at the table it was just dark. My picture captured nothing. This was an umami bomb. The closest familiar flavor I can compare it to is teriyaki but it wasn’t anything like that–not really. It was so many flavors concentrated into each bite, I had a hard time distinguishing what was going on. The scallion was cooked in a pressure cooker inside another pressure cooker–I mean, who thinks of that? And although it was black, it wasn’t burnt or charred, just caramelized.

The morel course was an upside down world of mushrooms. The puree was intensely morel-flavored. The morels tasted fried, a little crispy, and didn’t have much morel flavor. The pot heating in the middle of the table was then removed from the flames and pork was taken out and sliced and served with savory mushroom tea.

BUBBLES: little freezy bites of yuzu and shizo to cleanse the palate because the next course is the richest combination of bites you can put on one plate. ROSSINI: Wagyu, foie gras, and truffle–together–in one dish. I actually gave a couple of bites of Wagyu to my son. I twas too much for me! He was all over it.

Out of the salt that had been on fire, they unburied a yam that had been roasting. It was served with apricot and cookie spiced crunchy bits and for me a soy-based foam, for the other two, a brie-based foam. It tasted like fall and Thanksgiving.

NOSTALGIA: The course my son was waiting for. Not only dessert which was caramel corn and spheres which burst open immediately in your mouth, filling you with the flavor of caramel corn, but…THE SUGAR BALLOON!!

I was instructed to remove my glasses. My husband could not remove his beard, so that was a mess! The instructions were: suck the helium out of the balloon and then eat it and the string. It was green apple flavored. Somehow, over 14 years of his not-sheltered-from-fun life, my son has never breathed helium! I’m a terrible mother (she said as she’s writing about taking him to Alinea). What a unique first helium experience. We did it. We talked like munchkins. We ate up the balloon and string. We lived Chef’s Table.

What a fun meal and adventure. I’m often disappointed by meals when I get something I can make at home. Not only could I not recreate a single thing in this meal, I couldn’t even conceive of where to begin. It was like having a Martian dinner. I could barely identify anything in front of me and I enjoyed every moment of the alien encounter.