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Age of Alinea

It was the best restaurant in Chicago—and now it’s even better.

Morel, blueberry, and onion   Photos: Jeff Marini

Alinea, one of just 13 restaurants in the United States to be awarded three stars by Michelin, is the pinnacle of professionalism, hospitality, and creativity. The idea that its owners would say, “Eh, we’re 10 years old—where’s the sledgehammer?” seems perverse. It’s Picasso painting over Guernica. But in April 2014, owners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas decided to gut the famous Lincoln Park space and commence a five-month, $1 million–plus overhaul.

I welcomed the prospect of change. I’d enjoyed the old Alinea’s global domination so much that at times I overlooked the fact that the staffers, as smart and impeccable as they were, seemed less like real people than beautiful robots programmed for service. Worse, I could never shake the feeling that the onslaught of mind-expanding creations was less for the pleasure of the diner than for the creative gratification of the chef. Uncomfortable tours of the somber kitchen appeared to confirm this.

Would the new Alinea address these shortcomings? To find out, I bought tickets this summer for an 18-course, $305 meal served in the main-floor space, a.k.a. the Gallery. (Alinea has two other dining options, each with its own prix fixe offering: the $385 Kitchen Table menu, served at an intimate six-top and requiring a $950 deposit, and the $175-to-$225 Salon menus, served in one of three upstairs dining rooms.) What awaited me, per Alinea’s website, was a “multi-sensory 16-to-18 course menu that combines fine dining with experimental moments.”

At the old Alinea, diners entered through a disorienting fun-house hallway, fumbling their way through the dark until a hidden door slid open. At the new Alinea, a staffer held open a normal door on Halsted Street. “Welcome,” he even said before taking my group to a traditional host stand. We were led into an elegant room with painted Plexiglas panels, created by the Chicago gallery owner and artist Thomas Masters and suspended from the coffered ceiling, and a cascading LED chandelier hanging in the curved staircase leading to the Salon level.

My first sensory reaction to the “multi-sensory” menu was a whiff of buyer’s remorse. The Gallery was furnished with one long candlelit table set for 16 people. Communal dining! Oh God, no!

“Don’t worry,” a staffer said. “Something is going happen.”

Pork belly, curry, and banana
Pork belly, curry, and banana

Meanwhile, we quietly fell to the first offering: blocks of ice with five small indentations to hold five singular ingredients. Onto buttery toasted brioche we spooned a decadent mix of unctuous osetra caviar, creamy black truffle purée, and Alaska king crab in a tingly crab roe vinaigrette, matching each nibble with herbs grown in Achatz’s own garden—tarragon, chives, chervil, and more—and spoonfuls of pure egg yolk custard. Once the 2005 Bollinger Grande Anneé Champagne began flowing—the first of nine astute pairings by sommelier Devin McKinney—tongues loosened.

A staffer ushered the entire group into the kitchen for an apéritif. Gone was the silent, intimidating temple of old; in its place stood an exhilarating workspace filled with noise, action, and animated human beings. Chef de cuisine Simon Davies showed us a vintage-style crank-operated cast-iron cocktail shaker. He turned the handle for a solid minute, mingling gin, Chartreuse, green tomatoes, and egg whites with herb-flavored ice cubes. What came out was frothy, green, and irresistibly smooth.

Then each of us was offered a caper-topped mix of feta and yogurt wrapped in a long cucumber shaving standing in olive oil. The canapé radiated dill, seamlessly extending the herbaceous drink’s flavor. Compared with Alinea 1.0’s black truffle ravioli explosions, it felt quaint. The cocktail party had set the tone: The overhauled Alinea pulled me behind the curtain to canoodle with the wizards themselves.

Upon our return to the Gallery, my concerns about communal dining were firmly laid to rest: The long table had been separated into five separate ones. On each stood a metal stand bearing a vellum-sheathed menu denoting the courses with “Swirl,” “Bone,” “Glass,” and other generic words. The servers didn’t seem comfortable with the stands, constantly shifting them out of the way when new dishes arrived and even knocking one over.

Chicken, palo santo, and mezcal
Chicken, palo santo, and mezcal

This sit-down portion of the meal began with “Crunch/Paper”: sliced dried diver scallops “rehydrated” with a scalding bath of corn soup, which fully obliterated the best thing about scallops—their silky texture—by turning them into soggy noodles. A fascinating failure, redeemed in part by the accompanying glass of flinty 2012 Baudouin Millet “Vaudésir” Chablis Grand Cru. But not even Grant Achatz should fly so near the sun on wings of soup.

From there, though, things smoothed out brilliantly—albeit unpredictably. As the meal progressed, I found myself slurping a gazpacho of freeze-dried watermelon juice from a globe-shaped tumbler, then plucking a piquant onion and black pepper cream “sandwich” from a massive purple onion flower, then blowing citrus-scented dry ice at my dining companions. I ate ginger-inflected A5 wagyu beef off a section of halved cow femur, pechuga-mezcalflavored bonbons off a slab of volcanic rock, and yuzu-stuffed Granny Smith apple peels off what looked to be a giant contact lens. An hour and a half in, a server handed me a silicone bowl adorned with three cured and roasted pork belly cubes in a vigorous curry, topped with banana chips and yellow snapdragon and sunflower petals. Best dish of the night.

My party made a game of predicting future courses based on the inscrutable menu. We were right that “Fry” would be a take on a fish fry, but no one envisioned tiny Asian sweetfish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market plated with nasturtium and an intense daisy-mandarin purée. I loved “Glass,” a crime scene of blueberry purée sharing a giant white plate with the season’s last Oregon morels—flawless specimens that had been flash-fried, enrobed in a foie gras cream sauce, and paired with pickled kale and a crisp blueberry chip.

The servers kept things from floating off into pretentiousville. Noting my struggle to keep up with the drink pairings, a server pointed at the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal de Pechuga, which came with the Mexican-themed 16th course, and said, “Sip, don’t shoot—unless you want to shoot it.” Minutes later, he jokingly warned me not to splatter course 17—a helium-filled balloon of strawberry taffy—on the wall.

Citrus Aroma fruit bowl; white asparagus, lychee, and lily bulb; tomato, watermelon, and Parmesan
Clockwise from top: Citrus Aroma fruit bowl; white asparagus, lychee, and lily bulb; tomato, watermelon, and Parmesan

Near the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meal, a server unhooked those colorful Plexiglas panels from the ceiling and placed one on each table. The lights went out. LCD Soundsystem’s hypnotic “Dance Yrself Clean” blasted through the room as members of the kitchen staff dabbed and hurled cherry gelatin spheres, whipped bourbon, and other goodies onto the panels. A fellow in black gloves shattered a block of white chocolate mousse (hardened by a liquid nitrogen bath) over the whole tableau and handed out spoons. We scraped at the Plexiglas like giddy painters sharing a canvas.

For many, the question is not how Alinea reinvented itself, but why. Achatz has said he’d tear the space apart every year if he could because, to paraphrase the chef, his restaurant is a shark that devours ideas, and if it doesn’t keep swimming and eating, it’ll die. I think he was simply bored. We’ve been blowing sunshine and stars up his behind for so long, he wanted to see if his team could do it all over again. They have.

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