Many couples have traditions for their wedding anniversaries; for my wife and I, starting with our wedding night, we have endeavored to make this annual date on the calendar about an incredible dining experience.  Some may jet off to the islands for a weekend, or play a great round of golf; budget-wise, a top meal comes in a similar range and as such, I make no apologies for the extravagance of our one biggest night out per year.

We are fortunate to live in Chicago, which is something of an epicenter for dining in the US.  Of course, New York, Las Vegas, and San Francisco have their own amazing dining reputations, and are the only American cities thus far to be Michelin-starred; Chicago is next on Michelin's list, and the ratings are expected out later this year.  While Twitter followers and Facebook friends have had more of a glimpse into my foodie side than blog readers, last night's dinner was so interesting and so different that it's worth sharing here.  I also realize that the restaurant we enjoyed has been open for five years, and that others who read this blog have been there, so this is just my take.

Alinea - Chef Achatz in the kitchen

Anyway, we had dinner at Alinea, recently named "best restaurant in North America" by Restaurant Magazine, and #7 in the world.  Booking the table (without connections) alone was a feat.  They open booking for the 2nd subsequent month on the 1st of each month; on July 1 I managed to finally get through at 11:45 AM to book for one of the few remaining time slots for September 5.  The out-of-town couple at the table next to us had scored in what is likely a common method -- through the concierge at their five-star hotel.

Last month, Alinea switched formats to where they serve just one menu -- your only real choice is whether to conjoin the wine pairings.  In the small dining room (5 tables downstairs, where we were; 15 more upstairs) three couples received identical progressions, while another table had at least one additional course.  A recent food blogger (much better pictures than mine) was served five more courses; not sure what precipitates different menus different nights, but (other than a slight bit of jealousy) it did not matter.  I have posted links to my or other photos below; apologies for the blurriness at times, but I brought a simple camera and was more interested in a beautiful dining experience than the documentation of said event.

Alinea - menu - 5 September 2010

Even after talking with John, Brian, and others who have been to Alinea, nothing quite prepares you for the experience.  I think what surprised my wife and me the most was the light-hearted, humorous, whimsical vibe in the dining room.  This was not the formality of our 1st anniversary dinner (still a benchmark) at Chicago's L2O, a much more intimate and romantic setting.  Alinea was a shared experience; with the staff, with the other diners around us, and even with Chef Achatz.  The staff enjoyed laughing with us as we ate the "black truffle explosion" course, and they clearly loved the interactivity and intricacy of helping diners assemble the pork belly spring roll.  No menus are distributed at the start of your meal, and I had deliberately not looked online in advance, so we were surprised by many of the 21 courses.  Somehow, even though of four tables on the 1st floor we arrived last, we eventually overtook the other diners in terms of our pacing, thus by the time we got to the final dessert we had ruined the surprise for the other three tables.  But "ruined" is clearly the wrong word, since the pacing provided a catalyst for us to engage the other tables in conversation (and provide other restaurant recommendations, without a concierge, for the out-of-town couple -- let's just say we didn't talk Chicago pizza).

I enjoyed 20 of the 21 courses we were served; we were in the restaurant a little more than 2.5 hours.  A few were served in clusters, such as the three different cocktail amuses served as starters (including mmm pisco sour) and the three different Asian flavors.  Many were interactive; the tomato course (heavenly) was served atop a linen pillow, inflated with the scent of freshly mown grass.  

Alinea - Tomatoes

An Achatz signature dish, hot potato/cold potato, is mounted on a push pin, and you pull the pin out such that the ingredients (including a slice of black truffle) drop into the creamy sauce, then slurp the whole thing down.  

(Photo - credit Matthew Hine on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license)

The most interactive was the final dessert, which started with a silicone mat being rolled out onto the table. followed by service setup of several unknown ingredients.  Chef Achatz then entered the dining room, and painted the mat with a beautiful artistic design of coconut creams, menthols, and other components.  Somehow some resolved into squares, others into circles, and beautifully, the chocolate caramels that had been poured into glass at the start of his artistry resolved themselves into pudding.  Then the piece-de-resistance arrived -- a chocolate mousse, frozen by nitrogen, steaming and billowing, as the chef sticks a single spoon into it and cracks it open into pieces.  The chef spoke to us while he painted, very relaxed and comfortable with his artistry and also adding to the incredible warmth of the entire Alinea experience.

Alinea - Chocolate

I've put descriptions and more details on some of the items as captions on their Flickr photos.  Molecular gastronomy is difficult to put into words.  It is a feeling, an experience, an emotional immersion into dining.  It isn't the bite of a cheeseburger as much as the Willy Wonka everlasting gobstopper -- first there's this taste, then there's this taste, then WHOA what was that?, etc.  One of the most interesting items on the menu last night, for example, was a clear liquid in a glass (thus no picture), described on the menu as "distillation of Thai flavors".  By smell, it smelled strongly of pepper -- fiery hot peppers.  By taste, it was a clean blending of exactly what was promised; a savory drink unlike any other you would ever experience.

And that's the point.  As entertaining as a Broadway show, as personal as watching a movie at home, as tasty as the Tournedo or the earthiness of black truffle.  

Alinea - Tournedo

Would I go back? Given an opportunity, yes, but on my own, likely not anytime for a long, long time.  On our drive home last night, my wife and I tried to recall as many dishes as possible from other special dining experiences; in the L2O case, we could easily name five or more things we ate on one night two years ago, while for other restaurants (Moto, another Chicago molecular gastronomy experience), we struggled to name any (despite, in the Moto case, having documented the meal similarly -- of course we remember the edible menu there).  Meanwhile, we need to eat our way through 20 new places in Chicago that sound yummy and don't require refinancing the house.  And we need to get there before the Michelin stars expose our little dining secret -- Chicago's got the goods -- to the rest of the world.

Link: Flickr: Alinea - September 5, 2010 >

Several friends have suggested that I put a page somewhere on this blog with my own personal Chicago dining recommendations, in a effort to save visitors from the Cheesecake Factory or Uno's Pizza fates.  I will, soon, I will.

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