1723 North Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60614
Back in early 2007, I had to travel outside of Chicago for a training event that my company was hosting. It was a short business trip only for two days. When I arrived, a co-worker asked me if I wanted to join him for dinner for the one night we were going to be in town. Our hotel being located almost an hour outside of downtown Chicago, I was initially a bit reluctant to trek into the city, but he ensured me the meal would be worth every bit the hassle - a "can't miss" meal. I eventually gave in and decided to go. Little did I know that I would be in for literally the best meal I've ever had in my life at a restaurant called Alinea.
At this point, everyone has heard of Alinea. It is widely considered the best restaurant in America, has received worldwide exposure, and has won numerous awards, including being granted three stars by the Michelin guide in 2010. However, back in 2007, it was lesser known. It had been open for around two years after opening in 2005, and while it had already established itself in the Chicago food scene, it certainly wasn't the international phenomenon it is now.
Thanks to Chowhound, my co-worker who is from New York learned about Alinea after stumbling across a discussion about Chicago's best restaurants where Alinea was mentioned. There were lots of rave reviews and it quickly became clear that Alinea would be the restaurant of choice for a "one night only" type meal. However, the meal almost never happened. When he initially called to make a reservation, he was denied - the restaurant was fully booked. Persistance pays, however, and after several more phone calls to the restaurant, a table for two opened up after a last minute cancellation.
Part of the eagerness and desire to dine at Alinea was the timing of it all. According to my co-worker, Achatz was suffering from health issues and would be undergoing medical treatment soon for a form of cancer. At the time, it wasn't clear what his status would be going forward and if we'd ever have an opportunity to dine at the restaurant with Achatz at the helm.
From our hotel in a sleepy suburb outside of Chicago, we took a cab into the city. After a long commute to the North side of Chicago, we finally arrived. I'm not sure if it was designed to be this way, but the exterior of Alinea is completely non-descript. There's no signage out front, so you could walk by it and completely miss that it's there.
We were greeted warmly by the front of house who immediately grabbed our bags and belongings, which included a copy of "Soul of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman that I had purchased for my co-worker as a gift. Not to get too far ahead, but just to show what a class act Alinea is, when we later finished the meal and left the restaurant, my co-worker forgot the book I bought for him. Alinea later mailed this back to his home address in New York with a personal message and signature from Grant Achatz himself.
After we were shown to our table, we briefly began the Grand Tasting that included over 20 courses over the course of nearly three hours. When we sat down, I honestly had no clue what I was in for. I previously had some exposure to molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine, but not like this. This was something altogether new and foreign...but in an insanely amazing way. The meal was extraordinary in every way - different textures, temperatures, tastes, presentations, even dining utensils. Having recently dined at Paul Bocuse and Taillevent in France (three and two Michelin stars respectively), I am even more impressed by the meal I had at Alinea over five years ago - not just the overall value and food but the experience. The classic preparations in France were great but somehow they were too...familiar. Alinea's greatest triumph I believe is reflected in its ability to awaken your senses and evoke a range of emotions - to tantalize, amaze, delight, excite, and push the boundaries of what is comfortable, known, and acceptable.
Here are the shots of the food from one incredible night: