best restaurant in chicago

A Night at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago

If my mother had been buried instead of cremation, she’d be rolling over in her grave right now about such excess. There’s no way around it — dining at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago is a bit extreme in terms of taste (unique, unparalleled), number of courses (there were 18) and cost (you will shudder, the wine flight alone was the cheapest part at $150 per person). It’s a food adventure, which is why I was drawn. It’s also a challenge to get a reservation. Challenges are what this Sacramento short sale agent faces each and every day. Challenge is my middle name. We were going to Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday and, by hook or by crook, we very much yearned to snag a reservation at Alinea for Saturday night.

Every day we checked email to see if the restaurant had contacted us. Religiously, we signed daily into Alinea’s Facebook page and checked for reservations. Finally, on Friday night, we received an email that Alinea was releasing a table for four. The problem was we were a party of two. We tried to persuade family members to go but none had an interest. We called some of my husband’s old friends from grade school — I kid you not. We checked Facebook again and found a few couples who had expressed an interest in sharing a table. Bingo.

You don’t make a reservation at Alinea. You reserve tickets for dinner. And each ticket varies in price depending on the time of the year and occasion. Lucky us, for Thanksgiving, these tickets, with tax and gratuity added in, ran about $800 for 2 people. My mother would say think about the starving children in China. Instead, I thought about my last Bank of America FHA short sale: I deserve this.

The door is unpretentious. We opened it. Behold, a long hallway strewn with a bed of hay. Scattered pumpkins. Hay bales. Low lighting. Spiced apple scent. A round tub, waist high, filled with hot water and bobbing glasses of apple cider beckoned. We scooped up a small glass of cider and entered the restaurant. We were greeted and directed toward the kitchen on the right. A huge room filled with too many tables and chefs to count, a whirl of stabbing, stirring, pinching, cutting, slicing, dicing, chopping, tossing, mashing. Mesmerized, I entered the kitchen. I thought this was like The Kitchen Restaurant in Sacramento, and that I was encouraged to mix and mingle among the chefs. Wrong. Neophyte. Short of grabbing the back of my sweater to yank me back, I was escorted in the opposite direction.

We entered a room to the left of the stairs and were introduced to our table mates. There were about 5 other tables in the room. All of the other guests were seated elsewhere, which was a little bit disappointing because part of the fun, I presumed, would be to check out the guests. I wanted to get a good hard look at the kind of people who would spend $1200 for dinner, and that’s without the white truffle option at an additional $150 per person, which we were offered. But everybody in our room looked like normal, run-of-the-mill people.

Our seat mates were on their first date, we later discovered. She is an associate professor of marketing in Lansing, Michigan. He is a student in Boston. He thinks Chicago is the best place in the United States to live. He used to think that place was Seattle, but now that he’s been to Chicago, he would love to live in an igloo. She is absolutely beautiful with long dark hair, an infectious smile and a warm handshake and, as my husband pointed out when she left the table, she clicked off wearing what I would call to-die-for boots.

I don’t have the time this morning to describe every course. I’d still be sitting here by lunch and I haven’t yet had breakfast. So, I’ll do my best to briefly give you an idea. Four bowls about the size that would hold Cheerios were set before us, each filled with tiny pebbles, the type you would find floating along the bottom of a river stream. Into the pebbles was set a 4 x 4 block of ice with a hole drilled in the middle, but not all the way through. I stuck my finger in it. My husband said: That one is yours.

The waiter brought us each a glass straw about 3/8 inches in diameter and 10-inches long. The straws were filled with a pumpkin-squash mixture, a thai pepper and we were instructed to slurp. I finally removed my straw because stuff was stuck inside and sucked it from the other end. Voila.

One course was nothing but a leaf. A small leaf about the size of a nickel. An oyster leaf. But it was very oystery. This was followed by several courses of seafood involving king crab, lobster and a razor clam. If you’ve never seen a razor clam, they are long, like about 5 inches and an inch or so wide, sort of flat. You could play a musical instrument with each half if you wanted but I behaved myself because I needed my other hand to lift the glass of wine that seemed to be continually filled with nectar from exotic faraway lands and tended to by the natives.

I learned many things. I discovered that the fungus moldy stuff that grows on corn cobs — who knew there was even fungus to start with — is actually very tasty. But you’ve got to ask yourself, how hungry do you have to be to think about eating the mold off a corn plant? Well, I was ready to toast starving people everywhere. We also enjoyed a course made up of a very hot potato and pared with an extremely cold potato that should have been named a Minnesota winter meets summer in Sacramento.

The main course for the evening was lamb. Two round slices of rare lamb. Two round slices of a roulade, and two more round slices of fried lamb fat. Small circles, smaller than a baseball in diameter and slightly larger than a golf ball. With this course, we were given a tray of accompaniments, 60 (six across, ten down) dots, blobs, splats, tiny towers of taste extraordinaire. The idea was to sample each with a fork of lamb. Short of putting our faces on the platter to lick it clean, we pretty much managed to scoop off every morsel.

And the wine kept coming. Just as we were ready to pass out, the waiters brought us balloons made from green apple taffy and filled with helium. The balloons were edible and we were supposed to eat them. I poked a hole and slurped up the helium. When I spoke, the woman across the table from me broke into uncontrollable laughter. If I had closed my eyes, I would gone to sleep but before I dozed off I would have said this tastes just like an apple.

I kept my eyes open for the dessert. The last dessert. I show you a photo of it here. The waiter brought out what looked like a rolled-up sheet of silicone, unrolled it across the table. It fit perfectly. Then, a couple of chefs popped up out of nowhere and began to decorate the table. A spoonful of orange. A spoonful of lemony yellow. A spoonful of chocolate. Spoonfuls of other types of syrups and sweets, very psychedelic and groovy. Everything happened so fast and my head was already spinning from all of that wine, but I could swear two chocolate coconuts appeared and suddenly exploded before our eyes, dropping masses of chocolate, fudge chewy bits, white marshmallowy things, who the heck cared? It was dessert supreme, pushed to the extremes, with every flavor imaginable. It was like all of your favorite desserts mushed into one. I felt like Gollum coveting the ring: My precious!

This was the part where I could have easily put my face flat on the table and left it there until morning.


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