1723 North Halsted, Chicago, 60614, United States

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Chef interview

Grant Achatz is chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago. Thanks to Lara Kastner for permission to use her portrait of Mr Achatz.

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It is now twelve years since Alinea was set up by chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas. Alinea (a linea is the Latin symbol ¶ for a new paragraph) had been substantially refurbished since my last visit, and there are now two different meal “experiences”, the “salon” and the “gallery” menus. The former has slightly fewer courses, priced at $175 - $255, and the gallery has a slightly longer menu and is a more theatrical affair, with prices $285-$355 at the time of writing. There is also a chef table option at $385 per person. All prices are for food only and are bought via a tickets system, like theatre tickets, so if you can’t make it for reason then tough (though tickets are transferable). Although each menu is set, the kitchen will accommodate all reasonable dietary requirements, and a full vegetarian option can be offered. Grant Achatz himself was at Next this evening, but the executive chef here is currently Mike Bagale. The restaurant seats 64 people in total.

You begin your meal in the “gallery” experience seated at a communal table (seating 14 tonight) just next to the kitchen. Here you are served a welcoming drink and a little flurry of nibbles. There was a teacup of jasmine espuma with elderflower and what seemed to be cucumber. There was a flower of violet meringue with vanilla and tapioca, and a Japanese cheesecake (whatever that means). Finally a watering can was wafted over what had appeared to be hanging plants to create a dry ice effect that covered the table, bringing with it a smell of jasmine. The nibbles were pleasant and the special effects quite striking, though none of the bites themselves were particularly dazzling (maybe 17/20). 

At this point you move into the kitchen for one further nibble and a house cocktail involving gin, rhubarb, avocado and coriander. This was made by one of the chefs using an elaborate machine that shakes the cocktail. The nibble was a Romaine lettuce wrap on which was coriander, lime, jalapeño, and pistachio, which was refreshing, with a very well balanced set of flavours (18/20). After this you return to the dining room, to find it transformed. The communal table has gone and now you are seated at regular tables, the ceiling of the room decorated with tiles. I initially thought these were some sort of acoustic padding, but as we shall see later, they had another purpose. A bowl was brought with a couple of thin rectangles of puréed and dehydrated langoustine. Over this was poured bouillabaisse, which melted the langoustine slabs and completing the soup. On the side was a seaweed roll with spicy aioli inside. All very theatrical, and more importantly the soup had very good flavour. Whether it tasted any better than just serving a bouillabaisse with langoustines in a bowl is debatable, however (18/20). 

Next was squid poached in butter, lemon and chilli with charred onion and topped with allium flowers. On the side was a dark blob of onion and black garlic puree coloured with squid ink. The puree had very intense flavour, the squid itself good, though not in the league of the very best that I have eaten, such at Sushi Saito or Ibai. There was also an artichoke purée covered in squid ink, which had good flavour (17/20).

Next was a series of different cherry tomatoes with olive oil salt, a sheet of fennel, fennel frond, granita of sherry, orange and star anise, gazpacho sauce and a sandwich of Manchego cheese and Iberico ham. This was very comforting, the gazpacho in particular having deep flavour, and the ham sandwich featured excellent quality meat (18/20). Black bass came with a shellfish and coconut sauce, finger limes, rambutan, a sesame dumpling, yuzu meringue (served in an undercut bowl), compressed white melon, dehydrated coconut oil and a chicken crisp. On the side of the table was a flaming bowl of coals over which hamachi (which is another name for Japanese amberjack) and, it turned out, some potato was cooked over sprigs of rosemary. The Thai flavours worked really well with the fish, and the hamachi took on a nice aromatic note from the rosemary (17/20). There was more theatre here as the room lights were turned down, the tables illuminated just by the burning coals.

This was followed by a pretty dish of pan-roasted maitake mushrooms with thyme butter and garlic, with foie gras, a sauce of lapsang souchon tea, kale kimchi with chilli ginger, blueberry chips and a sauce of vinegar and blueberry. The acidity of the blueberries and the astringency of the vinegar cut though the richness of the foie gras, and the spices nicely lifted the dish (17/20).

Next a bowl of very hot salt was brought to the table in which had been buried a potato. This was retrieved and served with creme fraiche, chives and topped with freshly grated Australian black truffles. On the side was a disc of pumpernickel bread. This was fine, and truffles are always nice, but at the end of the day this was a potato, no matter how much it is dressed up (15/20). 

The final main course was veal cheek with a crisp coating, along with palm hearts, pal heart puree, black garlic, custard, sugar, pineapple taffy, spherified pineapple and a sauce of molasses. The veal cheek was very good, with its crunchy coating, and the acidity of the pineapple worked well with the richness of the veal cheek, but the sauce was very sweet indeed (17/20).

The first dessert dish was a dish that in presentation resembled pebbles on a beach. This comprised a dark chocolate ganache with yellow miso candy shell, matcha shortbread, custard coated in white chocolate, and cherry blossom pate de fruits. This worked well, the chocolate excellent and even the potentially tricky Japanese flavours carefully balanced (18/20). Following this was a “dish” I saw at my last visit, an edible grape-flavoured balloon full of helium. You bite into the top of the balloon and, should you wish, inhale some helium to practice a squeaky voice. The balloon does actually taste of grape, and though I don’t know to score something like this it is undeniably fun. The final dessert was a variant on the signature Alinea dessert that the chefs used to paint on a roll-up rubber sheet on the table. Here the “ceiling tiles” were removed by the waiters and placed on each table to act as plates. A team of waiters then appeared, accompanied by music, to gradually build up the dessert “painting”, Jackson Pollock style, with a range of different elements. There was chocolate egg smashed at the table, white chocolate mousse, grapefruit pate de fruit, yoghurt mousse, marshmallow and doubtless many more elements. It was fun to watch and, more importantly, tasted very good, the chocolate elements excellent and the grapefruit and yoghurt elements also especially good. If I give a bit of credit for the sheer pizzazz of the dish then this was worth 20/20.

The staff were superb this evening, the pace of the dishes just right, and there must have been a great deal of effort to get the coordination of all the elements right. Even the painting of the desserts by the waiters, which used to be an individual thing, was done tonight by a cohort of waiters moving from table to table in stages with synchronised choreography worthy of a ballet. Our bill with tip came to £235 a head. If you went for the standard wine pairing and the cheaper tasting menu then a typical cost per head might be around £257.

Overall this was a very enjoyable evening, almost as much theatrical entertainment as a meal. I have no problem at all with some theatre in my dinner: it is fun, but compared to my previous visits here the attention seems to have strayed slightly from the food itself. Certainly there were no issues with technique, and there were many very nice dishes, but little that really stood out from a flavour perspective as really outstanding. At my first meal here I was amazed by the depth of flavours and the balance of the dishes, even though they were often formed from many elements. The meal tonight felt like a polished and highly entertaining experience (the Alinea website is currently entitled “this is not a restaurant”), but for me a little of the culinary magic has disappeared from the food in a whoosh of dry ice.

Further reviews: 24th Jun 2015 | 28th May 2011

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