Fair warning: this post will be extremely photo-heavy. I wanted to document every detail of our meal, and my friends did as well. The photos used come from everyone at the table. Any of the smaller images can be clicked on to see full-sized.
For my birthday this year I wanted to go back to Chicago, a city I love but haven’t been to in years, to eat all of my favorite things as well as to try things I’d previously missed. Hot dogs, pizza, Italian beef, my favorite sandwich in the world, Tanta, XOCO, Avec – we definitely didn’t hold back on the food consumption. But the shining star, and the real reason for the trip, was the ultimate food splurge: the kitchen table at Alinea.
I had to buy all six seats for about $3,000, but I didn’t think it would be hard to fill them. And while it came down to the wire, we got it done: my girlfriend Kaitie bought a seat, of course, and my best friend Ray’s wife bought him one. My good friend Brett and his girlfriend Michelle took two, and the final seat was taken by a random person on Reddit, who actually turned out to be great to hang out with.
After meeting at Goose Island and having a few beers to calm our nerves, we all walked through the cold Chicago winter to the unmarked, unassuming grey building that houses Alinea. We turned in our coats and were taken to the table, already giddy that we could see the entire kitchen and, most importantly, Grant Achatz.
After we were seated with a welcoming glass of champagne, we were brought cloches filled with smoke.
The cloches were removed to reveal osetra caviar and sturgeon.
Which was then topped with the heaviest, creamiest, most delicious parsnip soup I’ve ever had. We were then given a banana-flavored meringue to accompany the soup.
Following the soup, we were asked to leave our table and to enter the kitchen – Grant Achatz’s actual kitchen – for the second part of our meal. Here, one of the chefs constructed a pomegranate cocktail in front of us using The Imperial Shaker – a hand-cranked cocktail shaking machine.
It was accompanied by a sponge cake with black walnut sauce.
Once done, we were invited to head back to our table. Having watched the Chef’s Table documentary on Alinea, we knew to keep our eyes opened and immediately noticed that the light fixture had been removed.
There was also a bowl of oranges at the center of our table, as well as a mysterious card filled with letters.
Once we were all settled back in and had time to examine the card, we were presented with a small covered bowl and a lime with a wedge of compressed romaine. Inside the bowl was “wet snow” that tasted of Asian pair with roe and shiso. The romaine was topped with avocado and tosaka.
Next, we were brought a leaf of dehydrated cabbage that covered spanner crab, coconut, and curry.
To accompany this, liquid was poured into the bowl of oranges, which began to smoke as the scent of orange filled the room.
We also had glowing plates with small one-bite spheres that contained spiced orange juice.
After the orange course was finished, the oranges were removed. After seeing the documentary, we had all assumed there was something hiding in the bowl, but there was not. However, another bowl was brought out, filled with salt and grain alcohol, which was promptly lit aflame.
We were presented with a large rock-slab plate, which contained squid with black garlic and chrysanthemum, and also contained squid ink.
Next to our plates, we were also presented with a dish of rocks. As our server noted, “You’ll also see a dish of rocks. Some of them are squishy. Eat those.” They were flavored with olive oil and artichoke.
Next, a large branch of juniper was brought out and placed over the fire, so we could experience its aroma for the following course.
With that, we were brought out some small crunchy nori rolls.
We were also brought a bowl with what looked like rice paper.
This turned out to be a piece of pressed langoustine, which when combined with a broth, turned into the consistency of a noodle. A delicious noodle. We were then instructed to drink the broth straight out of the bowl.
Oh, but that wasn’t all. Remember the decorative balls on the juniper branches?
As it turns out, these were savory donuts filled with pork and venison.
But, in true Alinea fashion, that wasn’t to be the only surprise. The juniper branches were removed, and a few accoutrement were brought to the table.
As it turns out, there was a potato cooking in that flaming pot the entire time. A potato that had previously been sous vide in butter for 10 hours.
The potato was then dusted off and mashed table-side, where the bacon and onions and celery were added.
Once divided into bowls, the potato was then topped to make a velvety clam chowder, which is what the house-made tobasco sauce and Old Bay oyster crackers were for.
Following the clam chowder, we were brought beautiful (and large) plates containing black truffle and maitake mushrooms covered in blueberry “glass.”
We were also given a tea made with matsutake mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. It was like drinking pure butter and is the best tea I could ever hope to have.
We also had some liquid poured into small bowls of lavender, once again to present a pleasant aroma as we ate.
Oh, but in case you hadn’t noticed (and I hadn’t, as I was too busy looking at everything else), there were small “sandwiches” of black truffle and foie gras mousse perched in the lavender to eat at our leisure.
After this progression came our last savory course, which I found odd because it felt like we had only been there for about an hour (though we had been there longer) – but Grant has mentioned that no one wants to sit through a four-hour meal anymore, so it made sense. I guess it’s true what they say about time flying when you’re having fun. And this meal was extremely fun.
For this course, we were brought a piece of squab with a white-hot coal (known as binchotan) on top to sear it while it was brought to the table and accompanied by forbidden rice.
Along with this was a tightly-wound spiral of beet in a sauce made of mustard and chili.
We were also presented with jars of vanilla beans.
But, as our server said, “It looks like vanilla. It smells like vanilla. It ain’t vanilla.” As it turns out, they were pieces of beef jerky fashioned to look like vanilla beans.
Following this, huge bowls were placed in front of us for our first dessert course, which included the flavors of sweet potato, miso, and chocolate.
As we were told, the “river rock” was filled with liquid chocolate. Even as someone who hates chocolate, I found it delicious.
The next dessert course, which was labeled “Nostalgia,” presented us with a very Alinea take on pumpkin pie, which turned out to be tiny and invisible.
As well as “s’mores,” which was dark chocolate wrapped in marshmallow – which was, of course, cooked – and served on birch branches.
After everything we’d been through, we weren’t sure if the branches were edible or not. Ray tried it out. They weren’t.
After this, finally, came the course that we had all hoped for but didn’t want to get our hopes up for: the balloons. If you’ve seen the documentary, you know all about it. It’s a special kind of taffy that is inflated with helium and is 100% edible – “string” and all. This one was green apple flavored, which just so happens to be one of my favorite flavors.
As you can see, we were all delighted by our balloons.
But, as happy as we were for the balloons, they were not the end. Next came the grand finale. It began with our server climbing a ladder and taking down one of the pieces of art hanging above us, which would become our “plate.”
The folks sitting nearest the two entrances to the room were asked to shuffle their seats a bit, and we were then told that a few chefs would be coming into the room.
Then, suddenly, all the lights turned off – including those in the kitchen – except for the light above our table. Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” began to play throughout our room and the kitchen. Grant Achatz led off the proceedings.
We were awestruck. It was quite the finale, and left us with flavors of coconut, mint, cinnamon, almond, and raspberry, which we were invited to dig into.
And, since you only live once…
To finish, we were also brought a small tray of chocolate truffles wrapped in gold leaf. The entire presentation was edible, and is officially the first time I’ve eaten gold.
But wait, there’s more. I did say this was my birthday dinner, and I made sure to let Alinea know when I booked the reservation. Why wouldn’t you? After all was said and done, I was presented with a candle, which I blew out. The smoke was caught in a champagne glass, which was then filled with champagne.
The sommelier explained that everyone had to have cake on their birthday, and at Alinea they’d made just a plain old Duncan-Heinz chocolate cake. Only, the cake was distilled into a liquid – which he then poured into my glass of champagne. The end result was a glass of champagne that tasted of chocolate cake and had the remnants of candle smoke, as you would usually get at any birthday party. It was absolutely perfect (and you can see Ray’s delight).
After we settled the tab for the drink bill, we were given actual copies of our menu. The back also included the key to the mysterious card of letters we’d had on our table the entire time: it was a word search that had the menu on it.
Finally, since chefs are my rock stars, we requested to have our picture taken with Grant, where he shook all of our hands.
One million thanks to Kaitie, Jeremy, and Brett for allowing me to use their photographs and videos. Check out Brett’s website, and if you’re in the Chicago area, he’s a great photographer. Also many thanks to my friend Matt Spade for editing together our different angles of the dessert presentation.