Finally, we were ready for our fancy-pants dinner at the famous Alinea restaurant. According to Alinea’s website:
Alinea has been named the Best Restaurant in the World by Elite Traveler magazine, three times been awarded the title of Best Restaurant in the United States by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Gourmet Magazine, and has appeared in hundreds of publications around the world. The venerable Michelin Guide awarded Alinea their highest rating, 3-stars, a ranking held by only 12 restaurants in the United States. Alinea has won James Beard Awards for Best Service in the United States and holds 5 Mobil Stars.
I’ve become somewhat of a television-cooking-show junkie lately, and after watching three mouth-watering seasons of MasterChef UK, I decided I needed a bucket list of Michelin-star rated restaurants to try. What better time than our ten-year wedding anniversary to mark the first one off the list?
When the taxi dropped us off, Rupak didn’t even see the restaurant. Luckily, I’d looked the place up on Google Maps, so I knew that there were no markings or signage on the outside of the building. We walked up to a nondescript black door tucked away down a small outdoor hall, where a bouncer opened the door for us. It felt like we were going into some kind of top secret Prohibition-era speakeasy!
Once inside, we were greeted by the hostess, and asked to wait while they prepared our table. While waiting, we met a glamorous foreign couple who were dining there for the second time. They raved about the restaurant, with the gentleman saying it’s the best place he’s ever been to in his life. They graciously offered to take our picture in front of the kitchen.
We were then shown to our table and greeted by one of several people who would be our servers for the evening. He explained Alinea’s dining concept: a seventeen-course dinner, with all courses selected by Chef Grant Achatz. In other words, you don’t know what you’ll be eating until it arrives at the table. The chef’s amazing story is documented on Alinea’s website:
In 2004 Grant began building his dream restaurant, Alinea. Partnering with restaurant neophyte Nick Kokonas they sought to redefine fine dining in America, questioning not only culinary concepts but also the guest experience, tableware design, and restaurant bookings.
In 2008 Grant was diagnosed with Stage IVb cancer of the tongue. The recommended course of treatment by multiple experts was a complete amputation of his tongue followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Even then he faced dismal odds and was told that he likely only had two years to live. Instead, he sought out an innovative protocol at the University of Chicago, which after a grueling course of treatment has left him with no evidence of disease since 2009. Grant and Nick documented this story in the New York Times bestselling memoir Life, On the Line which they personally wrote. The story is also featured in the nationally released documentary movie Spinning Plates.
The documentary, Spinning Plates, is available to order here.
We selected some champagne and anxiously awaited our first course.
Because I’d called ahead and requested a vegetarian menu, some of my food was slightly different than Rupak’s. His first course contained osetra caviar garnished with brioche (foam), egg custard, capers and onions, and mine was the same, minus the caviar. The foamy stuff on top reminded me of soap (but it was a delicious soap)!
Our second course arrived hidden in a giant bundle of twigs. Seriously. We had to poke around until we found a twig with a softer texture than the rest. After a few minutes of searching (and being too afraid that we were actually going to eat sticks) our waiter pointed the correct twigs out to us. (Hint: it’s the reddish one on the top right of the twig pile.)
The “twig” was actually a salsify (root vegetable) jerky, and it was salty, chewy, and delicious. (I have a feeling I’m going to be using that word quite a bit. Need to go find my thesaurus…)
The third course was my one of my favorites of the night. For Rupak, it was skate (fish) with brown butter, lemon, and herbs. For me, the skate was replaced with fennel. The dish was served on a plate made to resemble a cocktail napkin.
The waiter cautioned us to hold the plates with one hand while we ate with the other. (Good advice, because the oddly-shaped plates were extremely wobbly, and I wouldn’t want a single bite to fall to the floor.)
The next course was called Graffiti, and came to us on a concrete block. The course consisted of a roasted carrot, various sprouts and herbs, and “edible concrete” – I’m not sure what that was, but they were slightly sweet and dissolved quickly. (No, the actual concrete was not edible.) The waiter presented the course, then “tagged” the plate with carrot juice from a spray can (hence the name “Graffiti”).
Our fifth course came to us on long, warm pieces of charred wood. Rupak’s dish was gurnard (fish) with white pepper, Vietnamese coriander, and broccoli. Mine was the same except the fish was replaced by Romanesco cauliflower.
The next course, Sunchoke, was one of my least favorites. The sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) came to us on a large, round stone plate with hazelnut brittle and a white truffle vinegar. The brittle was so dry and powdery, and the dish left an overall bitter taste in my mouth. Next.
The unpleasant taste of the sixth course was completely rectified by the seventh course. The whole time we had been sitting at our table, I had been wondering what this mysterious bunch of plants and stems was doing hanging above our heads.
Our waiter brought over boiling water in a teapot, reached up and snapped the bunch from the ceiling, and crammed it into the pot.
Another server brought us our dish – eggplant with banana, cocoa, and curry – and poured the simmering broth over the plate. It was delicious (there’s that word again)!
Our eighth course consisted of a trio of small bites. For me, the first bite was crystalized ginger with green curry and coriander. For Rupak, it was crab with rice, green curry, and cilantro. The second and third bites were the same for both of us – a piece of chewy tamarind (reminded me of caramel) and Siam Sunray, a miniaturized version of a Thai specialty cocktail. We were instructed to eat the three bites in the order they were given to us, but I would have preferred to start with the cocktail, then the ginger, then the tamarind. But I guess that’s why I’m not a three-star Michelin chef.
At this point, I’m getting pretty full, and there are still nine courses to go.
For our next dish, our waiter brought over a lit stack of charcoal accompanied by daikon (radish) for me and hamachi (fish) for Rupak, served on a pine branch. We also received a bowl with lobster for Rupak and fried tempura for me, shishito peppers and white beans, and a cup of apple cider.
After we finished this dish, our waiter brought over a rolling cart and removed several items from the fire on our table: rutabega for me and pork belly for Rupak, along with two pieces of parsnip. Turns out we had been cooking our next dish at our table all along! The server cut off the charred edges while another server brought us our “plates” – two giant charred logs – topped with tapioca, black trumpet (mushroom) and kombu (kelp). This was easily my least favorite dish, as it was quite bitter. It was the only course that I didn’t finish.
Luckily, the next dish completely compensated for the previous one. It was easily my favorite dish of the evening. This one came to us with very specific instructions: eat it right away! I got out my phone to take a picture, but the waiter seriously got agitated that I wasn’t eating it that very instant, so I didn’t get a very good shot. The dish was called Hot Potato Cold Potato, and consisted of a hot potato chunk topped with a black truffle on a pin, all suspended over a cold potato soup in a specially-made wax bowl. We were instructed to pull the pin out, dropping the potato into the soup, and throw it back like a shot. It. Was. Delicious. Warm, buttery, potato-y.
Here’s a much better picture of the dish that I “borrowed” from the Internet. Mine looks so sad by comparison.
Our thirteenth (13! I’m so fat!) dish was turnip for me, and squab (pigeon) for Rupak, artfully arranged on a black plate with beet, orange, and “dark flavors” – whatever that means.
Finally, we moved on to the dessert courses. First up was an insanely delicious white chocolate, served on a bed of distilled ice. I’ve never seen ice so clear in my life.
The fifteenth dish was aptly named Quince (“fifteen” in Spanish, and also a pear-type fruit). It came with almond, grapefruit, and oxalis (a flowering plant). The dish was served in a triple bowl – the second bowl for aromatics and the third for dry ice. The presentation was beautiful, but the dry ice was hard to capture with a cell phone camera. (It was right about this time that I decided I needed to get a good camera and learn some photography skills!)
The next course was one of the highlights of the evening – not so much for the taste, but for the sheer ingenuity of the dish.
Yes, a balloon. Helium and all.
The balloon is made of some kind of taffy-like substance, filled with helium, and “tied” with a edible fruit leather string. The waiter brought them to us with a nail attached to the bottom for weight (and for poking the balloon if you’re not adventurous enough to stick your face in it). He stated that the nail was the only part that was inedible. Good thing he told us, given the number of weird things I’d eaten that night. I wondered how many people tried to eat the nail before the restaurant decided to tell people up front not to do so. He set the balloons down in front of us, and while I reached for my phone for a picture, it began to float away. He grabbed it out of the air and told me that he’s never seen that happen before. I guess I needed a bigger nail… or a little less hot air! (rimshot)
I was able to convince Rupak to let me take a video of him eating the balloon (and yes, that is him laughing, not me)!
And here’s a little video on how they make the balloons:
Last, but certainly not least, was the final dessert course. The waiter unrolled a mat across the table and set out various small bowls of fruits and sauces. We also ordered a dessert wine to accompany our last dish.
The chef himself comes up from the kitchen to prepare the final dish at the table. Or, should I say, on the table:
Our waiter offered to take our picture with the dessert before we jumped in.
You’d think we were so full from all the SIXTEEN previous courses that we wouldn’t be able to put another bite in our mouths.
You’d be wrong.
After we demolished dessert, our waiter returned to clear away the mat and presented us with two black folders containing our personalized menus printed on vellum paper.
Finally, light-headed from all the food, champagne, and helium, we collapsed into our taxi and headed back to the hotel.
Goodnight Alinea, hello food coma.