Fine dining is supposed to be about starched white tablecloths and fussy, formal environments, right? Wrong. Alinea, the famed Chicago restaurant helmed by chef Grant Achatz is the most fun you can have while eating some of the world’s most inventive, tasty and enjoyable food.

It’s not for the faint-hearted. Having trundled out to the East Lake precinct of this amazing city, the dark double entrance doors open to an equally dark and eerie corridor.

Just as you head down it, thinking you’ve definitely taken a wrong turn, the sliding door at the end opens to reveal the entrance.

A little early for our booking, we were invited to watch the team of chefs prepping for the evening’s festivities, while our table was ‘readied’.

Alinea is a ticketed restaurant. You buy your ticket, like you would to any show or concert, and you present yourself at the required date and time. If you can’t show up, too bad. You can ‘on sell’ the ticket or just do your dough. It’s a concept that eliminates that most pesky of restaurant problems, the ‘no shows’ and keeps the price of this amazing cuisine relatively affordable.

Seated with a welcoming glass of champagne, our friendly waiter informed us we would be having 18 courses. Yep. Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband had only one sentiment: Bring It On.

And, for the next four or so hours, we were delighted, mesmerised and hugely entertained by the food, the atmosphere and the Alinea team who seemed to be having as good a time as we were. For US$245 a head (the price of the menu fluctuates depending on what time you’re seated), it was the best value fine dining Greedy Girl has ever experienced.

There are a number of dining areas at Alinea. When you successfully purchase your tickets, you’re asked if you have any mobility issues. That’s because most of the tables are upstairs, although there is a small room on the ground floor. There are a few tables in each room – it gives a sense of privacy, helps with the general noise level and, let’s face it, helps to keep the surprise factor alive if you can’t see what comes out to other tables before the dishes are presented to you.

The props used and the theatrical presentation are additional reasons Alinea rocketed into the top 10 (at #9) on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year, but the focus is on the food.

The dining room at Alinea is kept quite dark, with little spotlights placed strategically so that the food is ‘centre stage’. Above each table, there is a stalk of rhubarb, suspended from the ceiling on fishing line; from a distance it looks like it’s floating in mid-air, but more on that later.

Floating rhubarb

Floating rhubarb

First up, was ‘Osetra’. This was Osetra caviar (sourced from Bulgaria) with an egg yolk emulsion, foam made from brioche, and the clear gel you can see above the caviar was infused with onions and capers. Wow.

Osetra caviar from Bulgaria

Osetra caviar from Bulgaria

A prop appeared next – a huge hunk of ice, surrounded by seaweed (the aroma was incredible) with five separate elements on top. From the top of the picture (left and clockwise) there was a chocolate clam with cilantro (coriander) root, a bubble tea (a gigantic glass straw with ginger and lemon verbena ‘pearls’), sea urchin paste coated in huitlacoche, a corn ‘fungus’ resembling a truffle in texture, kombu (with miso and bonito, very crunchy) and ahi tuna coated with a tomato powder to make it resemble a tomato on the vine. All amazing.

Treats on ice

Treats on ice

Next up was salsify. This was made into a soft ‘jerky’ and hidden among the kiwi vines. We were told to ‘forage’ for them. Our delightful waiter Jonathan told us that when the chefs from Noma visited, they took 45 minutes to locate the salsify. Scout’s honour. We weren’t given that long (it would have thrown the kitchen’s timing right off) but we needed help to locate the treat. It was slightly chewy and the dehydrated vegetable had been reconstituted with soy and brown sugar and a hint of chilli.

salsify jerky

Spot the salsify jerky

Next up were frog legs (the picture at the top of this post). These were served as ‘tacos’ – with nasturtium leaves (instead of the traditional shell) and edible flowers, on top of a hollowed-out log filled with nasturtium and garlic broth. Two gigantic metal straws protrude from the ‘log’ and you slurp mouthfuls of the broth (which was cold) in between nibbles of the frog legs, which were seriously good.

Frog legs and nasturtium broth

Take a slurp

We’d moved on from our complimentary champagne to another bottle. We’d asked the sommelier Steven whether he would recommend more champagne or a bottle of red, given he knew what dishes were in store for us. Champagne, he said, without hesitation. He recommended a Cedric Bouchard, Inflorescence, “La Parcelle” Blanc de Noirs Brut 2005. A sensational bottle it was too.

Next up was skate. This is very prettily displayed in an unusual dish – a cross between a plate and a bowl. Not a skerrick of this was left; skate with brown butter, lemon and herbs. This plate was scraped clean.

Skate with brown butter

Skate with brown butter

To another incredibly pretty presentation, lobster. This was served with curry sauce, earl grey gel, cucumber, a bisque, some crunchy rice with raisins and pine nuts (amazing) and the orange ‘pearls’ at the top of the picture that looked like roe were in fact, grapefruit. If all grapefruit tasted like that, Greedy Girl would be very happy to consume it on a daily basis. Another yum.

An extraordinary take on lobster

An extraordinary take on lobster

We had some Chinese takeaway next. Served in the traditional take out box, on top of the plastic bags, this was extraordinary. It was crumbed sweetbreads with an orange emulsion, gingko nut and hearts of palm, and eaten with two cinnamon quills used as chopsticks. So good.

Crumbed veal sweetbreads

Glam Chinese takeaway

Next up was ebi prawn. This was a particularly tangy dish, infused with yuzu, and served with broccoli stem and sea grape, which is actually a plant that grows in Florida and the Caribbean.

Ebi prawn with sea grape

Ebi prawn with sea grape

Our next dish was wagyu beef. It’s prepared in stages and left on the table while other dishes are served.

Wagyu beef

Here’s how it arrives

It’s then set alight, to cook the beef.

Wagyu beef


And then it’s skillfully removed from its packaging, and served on a piece of blackened timber with parsnips, black trumpet mushrooms and kombu. Apologies for the quality of the picture but black on black in a dark dining room is hard to photograph. Suffice to say that this was absolutely luscious. This was undoubtedly very high quality grade wagyu and it was sourced directly from Japan.

Wagyu beef

Hard to tell where the blackened timber ends and meat starts

We then moved to ‘lily bulb’. This was light, almost refreshing. It was served with rambutan (a tropical fruit native to Malaysia and Indonesia) and ‘distillation of caviar lime’. The texture was almost crunchy and it was a good foil for the richness of the preceding dish.

Lily bulb

Lily bulb

Next up was rhubarb. The dish, featuring celery root and branch, licorice and a piece of rhubarb poached in red wine was placed on the table. The overhanging piece of rhubarb from above the table was plucked down and shaved over the top. Amazing.

Rhubarb, celery, licorice

Rhubarb, celery, licorice

Next up was wood ear. This was very yummy. Wood ear mushroom was paired with a crispy pig’s ear, parmesan crisp, allium (a flowering bulb – the flowers on the top of the mushroom) and black garlic.

Wood ear mushroom and crispy pig's ear

Ear, ear

We were seriously starting to struggle by this point, but we got the sense we were on the home stretch. Next up was another signature dish for the restaurant ‘hot potato, cold potato’. This was a cold potato soup with cubes of hot potato skewered with a piece of black truffle on top. We were instructed to twist the skewer so that the items fell into the soup and then to drink it in one mouthful. Yum. Yummier. Yummiest.

Hot potato, cold potato

Hot potato, cold potato

Another round of props were delivered next. This was the duck dish. In the I dream of Jeannie bottle at the rear of the picture, dry ice helped the ‘dragon’s breath’ flow across the table. The little duck in the middle of the picture lifted off to reveal two dumplings – one with morels and the other with foie gras and duck meat and duck heart were in the copper bowl in the foreground. Greedy Girl is sounding like a broken record but it was amazing.


I dream of Jeannie, anyone?

We watched as the sommelier, Steven, poured a glass of an Australian red for another table. Intrigued, we asked what it was. He immediately brought us some tastes with his compliments – it was a Jamsheed Syrah from Beechworth, and amazingly smooth. We felt proud that an Australian wine was being featured in this amazing restaurant.

Next was our final ‘savoury’ dish for the night and what a way to go. Black truffle. This was very clever. That’s not actually a dish, the black truffle ‘explosion’ was essentially liquid with asparagus and parmesan. It just dissolved in the mouth and the hit from the truffle was, indeed, explosive. Yum.

Black truffle 'explosion'

Black truffle ‘explosion’

We then moved to desserts. First up was a blueberry confection. This was blueberry done several ways with sorrel, yoghurt, lilac crisps and the white curls you can see above were infused with bubblegum. It was another wow.

Blueberries several ways

Blueberries several ways

The most unusual thing Greedy Girl has ever seen in a restaurant came up next. This is an edible helium balloon, infused with green apple. We were instructed to ‘kiss it’ to release the helium (with an admonition to say something in our helium-altered voices) and then to suck in the deflated balloon. Greedy Girl could barely stop laughing long enough to consume it, but consume it she did. Note: it was helium – not nitrous oxide (laughing gas), although other diners may have struggled to believe that, so loud and long did Greedy Girl giggle.

Edible helium balloon

You’ll never have so much fun dining out

Our final dish of the night was just extraordinary. A latex mat was brought out to cover the table and we were asked to move all our glasses and any other items to one corner. A chef then appeared and created a chocolate tart on the table top, featuring pate sucree (a sweet shortcrust pastry he poured into a mould) topped with milk chocolate ganache, and then proceeded to flick violet essence, creme fraiche, candied basil and crunchy pieces of hazelnut meringue across the table top in the best Jackson Pollock traditions. The chocolate was topped with frozen meringue and a sprinkle of crystallised sugar was thrown into the air like fairy dust. And here it is:

Chocolate ganache tart

Our tabletop dessert

It was so good and the sheer enjoyment of watching the chef create it was worth the price of admission alone.

Regretfully, we needed to head for the door. Alinea keeps a record of its visitors; some repeat diners at the table across from us were brought different dishes to account for their dietary requirements and also to give them something new to try. It basically summed up the approach to the evening – give the customers something new, tantalising and entertaining.

If you ever get the chance to get a ticket for Alinea, take it and hop a plane to Chicago. Greedy Girl can’t wait for her next opportunity.


1723 N Halsted Street, Chicago

Alinea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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