Chicagoan Royal Lichter first dined at Alinea in 2012 and has been back multiple times since… the most recent being the opening night last Friday of a reconcepted Alinea after five months renovating its Lincoln Park space, while the restaurant crew staged pop-up versions of Alinea in Miami and Madrid. Fooditor asked him for his impressions of the new Alinea, as a longtime guest and fan of Chicago’s most celebrated and acclaimed restaurant.
THIS PAST FRIDAY, MAY 20, Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (I call them, together, the brain trust) opened the doors of the re-imagined, re-born Alinea to the public. Alinea, literally, means “a new train of thought,” and a totally new menu is part of this new chapter for this temple of gastronomy. Gone are the days of the iconic Black Truffle Explosion and Hot Potato / Cold Potato—to make way for fifteen or so brand new plates of deliciousness.
As someone who’s been dining at Alinea for several years prior to the rehab, I simply needed to be there on opening night to see the new space and eat the new food. Alinea is famous for keeping records of its customers’ experiences, down to where they sit each time, to keep the experience fresh; and I keep going back not only because the menu is constantly changing, but as a frequent diner I’m often given a chance to try out new dishes—so I get a glimpse of their creative process at work. I also feel like they are one of the only fine dining restaurant crews in Chicago who are constantly traveling, trying new restaurants and exploring ideas. I don’t travel as much as I might want, and for me one of the best reasons to travel is to eat new food—so Alinea can be something of a conduit to that, too.
How did I get in on opening night? I put in a request literally four or five months prior to the closing to keep me posted on a reopening day—I was that eager! Through simply asking, I was lucky enough to be a part of the first dinner service.
UNTIL THEY CLOSED ON NEW YEARS EVE 2015, the restaurant had always offered just one style of ticket to enjoy their “Tour” tasting menu. Now, tickets to three distinctly different dinner experiences are offered. Before, the menu typically ranged from 18-22 courses—though I’d enjoyed meals there with as many as twenty-eight and as few as fourteen. Of the three different menus—”The Kitchen Table,” “The Gallery” and “The Salon,” we opted for “The Gallery,” which is around sixteen courses and “combines fine dining with experimental moments.”
As you enter off Halsted, gone is the shrinking hallway and sliding door that started you off with a note of mystery. Instead there’s a small host stand and to the left, one monolithic French Laundry-esque door, leading to The Gallery on the first floor. We entered that dining room to see one long, communal sixteen-person candlelit table; classical music was playing in the background. Certainly, it’s a stark contrast to the minimalist, modern décor found in the Alinea of yore.
Little did we know, the parade of dishes had already begun—sitting on the table on a crystal clear ice block. The first bites of the evening were Ossetra caviar and king crab with various condiments. The first sip of the evening was complimentary champagne—Bollinger Cuvee NV. Not a bad way to get started at all! It should be understood that this was the only part of the meal that was communal—and it was fun at that, something of an icebreaker. After they refreshed our brioche once or twice and people began finishing, another curveball came our way.We were asked to get out of our seats and head into the kitchen. The entire culinary team was there to greet us, and there was a really cool steampunk-esque mechanical cocktail shaker sitting on the counter. Several members of the audience got to play with the shaker and help shake a cocktail (gin, chartreuse, green tomato, egg white), myself included. Plated in a small bowl, sitting on the counter, was a small single bite course of cucumber, feta, caper leaf, and olive oil. It was a delicious, playful, and beautiful Mediterranean-inspired bite that left me wanting more.
Post kitchen, we were escorted back to The Gallery, and surprised to find that while we were enjoying a cocktail, the room had been totally transformed and tables for two and four suddenly appeared. Dinner, from this point forward, remained in the same place. The lights were up, music was off, and conversation was now with your dinner companion. This kind of atypical, new, and fun way of starting dinner should not be underscored, however, unless new food is a focus as well.
One cuisine and style of food I hadn’t seen a lot of at Alinea until this dinner is Mexican food. Of course, it is Alinea Mexican food.
Everything we ate that night was totally new. Once we sat down at our table, we went on to eat a fairly long menu—around 15 substantially composed dishes. Some of them were theatrical or involved a bit of setup on the table—a well-established touchstone of a meal at Alinea.
Memorable courses? Well, heck. All of them, it’s so hard to pick. A course early on comprised of a gelatinous sheet of scallop paper that had been rehydrated with corn and butter broth should immediately put to rest any questions of “so you were there on the first night, but is the food good?” This course had so many great aspects to it—avant-garde form with great flavor, soothing aroma, new but comfortable mouth feel, perfect temperature. I can only imagine what a chemosensory scientist would have to say about this course.
One cuisine and style of food I hadn’t seen a lot of at Alinea until this dinner is Mexican food. Of course, it is Alinea Mexican food. Another study in the senses, this course involved a bit of set up, but it was worth watching! In a pestle was what I believe to be burning cedar shavings. It was a chicken course and three other flavors were highlighted as well—plum, almond, and cinnamon. The burning cedar in the mortar and pestle was a really cool aromatic component, and the multiple service pieces all doing something different created a nice little diorama on the table. It’s almost like you are eating something at a restaurant amongst a maguey landscape (and the mescal pairing was much appreciated).
The major overall difference in the food between then and now is that where before, it was not uncommon for an “old” Alinea dish to showcase upwards of a dozen flavors and textures (I can recall enjoying a scallop ceviche dish several years ago that listed 14), now they’re more likely to showcase six or eight or ten. Alinea has been known as a place where they heavily manipulated foods—they did lots of things to the food in order to really surprise the palate. Many of the ultramodern Martin Kastner service pieces were created to show off what had been done with the food.
Now, the food is plated and service pieces are chosen more with the idea of perhaps evoking a feeling. Complex preparations are still very much part of their food, but it seems slightly dialed back—or the complexity extends past the food, now. To put it in broader philosophical terms, in the past Chef Achatz was arguably more interested in seeing what he could do to food. In 2016, it seems that the goal of Alinea is showcasing what can be done with food.
Progressive American cuisine is taking on a new identity and Alinea is arguably the vanguard of it. No Michelin 3-Star restaurant anywhere in the world has ever shut down, traveled the globe, all while gutting and redoing the interior as well as throwing all the old recipes out and starting over again. The space is just days old to the public, and that’s been the focus of attention so far, but pretty soon the spotlight will be shared with how simply great the food is—in a totally new way.
Royal Lichter, neophyte to food and fine dining with a liking for exploring. Don’t really know what I’m doing, just that I know I like to eat things. I’m twenty-eight, a Chicago native and I work for my family’s business on the Northwest Side. Recent food travels in the past five years include Spain, Japan, and France. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.
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