“Your experience”, prospective diners at Chicago’s newly reopened Alinea are warned against tardiness, “may begin without you.” Pedant for semantics, all I could think about when this email arrived a couple of days before my reservation was that no experience of mine really could, by definition, commence without me, except for my own funeral.
As it happens, of course, the Chicago transport system is against me and I do get there an agonising half-hour late for my 5pm. (Alinea operates two sittings, something like a matinee and an evening performance). Appropriately, therefore, I arrive mortified.
The room is dim, the conversation among diners terse and murmurous
My dining companion and I are seated at opposite sides of a large central trestle table, in front of a setting already laid with a plate of toast points and five small glass jars containing various ingredients. No explanation of what we’re to do with these is given. There is no clue from the other diners, some of whom are prodding tentatively at the jar of parsley or enthusiastically spreading caviar on toast. The room is dim, the conversation among diners terse and murmurous. Maybe, it strikes me, I wasn’t wrong – because this feels like a wake.
In the end, this stifling start to the evening proves to be a bit of a jape. While all dozen-plus guests are in the kitchen, lining up for a gin and green tomato cocktail at the pass, the dining room is being swiftly and silently transformed: we return to individual tables (thank God! – communal dining really requires advance notice), a less sepulchral way with lighting, and staff who will actually converse with us. I like the idea of wrongfooting the diner, but I like even more the fact that I’ll actually be close enough to my companion for us to converse. Also, I will not be within striking distance of the man who takes a mobile phone call midway through a course, which is best for us both.
Alinea reopened finally in May after a lengthy (and seemingly unending, much to the worry of those of us who’d booked flights to Chicago solely to eat there) reworking in which pretty much the only elements not thrown out and rethought were its premises and its owner, the preternaturally focused Grant Achatz. In bringing Alinea to life, Achatz has overcome more than the customary depredations and difficulties faced by any high-end restaurateur, as noted in the Netflix Chef’s Table documentary on Alinea and Achatz’s own memoir, Life on the Line. The intensity of his purpose is clear: Alinea is very serious business indeed, and while a number of the elements and courses we enjoy are culinary coups de théatre, startling and delighting, there is at times a certain air of Enforced Fun about proceedings.
Your eyes will widen, or perhaps roll wildly – hard to tell the general reaction
I am loath to describe some of these moments in any detail; as with any piece of theatre which relies for its effect on surprises and sudden reversals, you don’t want to spoil it for anyone yet to see it, but it’s worth noting that a denouement dessert plays on a significant artwork in the Art Institute of Chicago, takes advantage of one of the more distinctive features in the otherwise comfortable but beigely tasteful room, and pushes dinner-as-theatre to its limits of slightly beyond. No spoilers, but as the table is being laid for this final course, diners are told to stay absolutely silent throughout the plating process. Your eyes will widen, or perhaps roll wildly – hard to tell the general reaction, as the lights have been entirely extinguished by now – but it’s likely a bit of theatre unmatched by any other restaurant you’ve eaten in. It has flair and pomp to burn, but it’s also a po-faced enactment of good humour that sits a little uneasily in so solemn a setting.
Fortunately, though, it’s also delicious. All of it is: there are subtle combinations on the plates, but often this meal goes for big, bright flavours: literally so in the case of a “Yellow” course of yellow carrot, butternut, sunflower seed, honey, jicama and mustard, and in a no less vital-tasting dish of fried Tokyo icefish, radish and sunshine-pickled kumquat vinaigrette, sharp, spicy, and gleaming on the palate. Morels with lapsang, foie gras and shards of sweet blackberry “glass” is pleasingly deep and savoury in flavour – an autumnal offset to some of the brighter, spring-season flavours – and a piece of veal cheek with green curry flavours and compressed watermelon is among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Actually, it’s all delicious – while the innovations sometimes seem deceptively obvious (curried veal – why have I never had this before? – or fennel and strawberry in the first of two desserts), flavours are consistently bold, direct and pleasing. Dishes are served on rubbery hand-held plates, or in extraordinary outsized bowls, or surrounded by wafts of smoke or dry ice that embellish rather than mask flavours.
Technique, too, is on show without always being too showy: our old friends nitro-freezing and spherification make appearances, but these elements are integrated into dishes for textural effect rather than being straightforwardly showcased as achievements in themselves. At times, of course, it is purely showy too: the only item on the menu to have survived into Alinea’s new location is a floating balloon of ultrafine elastic sugar, which the diner “kisses” to deflate into a chewy, sweet mouthful, like blowing bubblegum in reverse. It’s helium that makes the balloon float: your exclamations of praise afterwards come out much more squeakily than you expected.
The other 5% of me is an ultra-harsh critic
Chicago’s more notable restaurants – Alinea, Acadia and Elizabeth among them – have sensibly introduced an advance payment system (Tock – set up by Achatz’s business partner Nick Kokonas), which makes absolute sense when one sees restaurateurs on Twitter frantically trying to fill seats on a Saturday night after rafts of same-day cancellations. It means a significant outlay in advance of dining: this is by some distance the most expensive meal of my life. The cynic in me – that’s 95% of me – wondered about the psychological effect of the “sunk cost”: do you expect more or less from the thing you have paid for in advance? The other 5% of me is an ultra-harsh critic and notes that the staff’s failure to provide water on my arrival, tardy though I was, and later attempting to clear a dish before I was quite finished with it are irksome slips when I have paid a hefty, mandatory service charge in advance.
Achatz’s purpose in reworking Alinea was to reboot a restaurant which, simply by dint of its having been open for a decade, might risk being part of the furniture on the Chicago scene. (This is something to bear in mind for that dessert – don’t overlook the furnishings of this room.) Notably, none of the dishes for which Alinea was previously known have made it onto this new menu: it’s as close as one might get to opening a whole new restaurant, while still retaining the reputation of its previous incarnation. This takes some confidence, not to mention some stamina – clearly Achatz lacks neither. Clearly, too, his talent outweighs both. This is one of the great meals of my life. C
Alinea, 1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 USA
(312) 867-0110; alinearestaurant.com
British Airways operates two direct flights from London to Chicago O’Hare International every day with economy fares starting from £541 return