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What Chicago’s Critic Thought of Alinea Ten Years Ago

To mark the influential spot’s first decade, we went back through our dining critic’s first impressions.

The kitchen of Alinea in 2005   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Monday marked an important milestone in Chicago dining: It was the tenth anniversary of the opening of Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St., 312-867-0110), Grant Achatz’s game-changing Lincoln Park restaurant. In honor of the occasion, we dug through Chicago’s extensive Alinea archives to see how things have changed in a decade.

In his notes on his first visit in June 2005 (the fodder for this September 2005 review), after eating the 30-course Tour tasting menu, critic Dennis Ray Wheaton called the experience “five-and-a-half hours of mind-boggling dining.” Here are a few excerpts from his (16-page!) report:

Course 8: Frog legs with spring lettuces, paprika, and morels

The morsels of frog are boneless, lightly breaded and fried…There’s a curved thing over the morsels of frog that is a crunchy fried morel that our waiter says has the texture of a Cheeto (they should make these and sell them by the bag). Underneath the frog nuggets are some very intense fresh morels…The lettuce has the shape of a little lily pad which chef, the waiter says, is using to emulate the home of a frog. Wow.

Course 16: Snapper with yuba, heavily toasted sesame, and cucumber

This is truly a bizarre-looking dish—besides the foam slopping about, the yuba looks like the edges of a fried egg when the white spreads out too far and then fries to a crisp brown. The dish, however, tastes terrific—however unusual it looks.

Course 23: Sassafras cream encapsulated in mandarin ice

Lovely. There’s also a little bit of micro watercress. “I’ve never had watercress like this,” a friend says. “Have you had a lot of the things we’ve served you tonight?” the waiter jokes. Not in this life.

The room

Our psychiatrist friend has noticed that the walls of the unisex restroom are made of black rubber. We joke that if people go crazy eating this food, the staff can just lead them to the rubber room.

Overall

How can this not be four stars? Maybe Achatz has toned down the pyrotechnics a bit, but there’s still plenty of them. More importantly, almost all the food tastes delicious and the setting is exquisite. This will give Charlie [Trotter] a run for his money.

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