Alinea, Chicago

If you’re planning to run the Chicago Marathon (as I had in 2016), you must add two other activities to your agenda: coffee at Intelligentsia and dinner at Alinea.

Trust me on this one.

On the dimly lit street in the Art District on a Sunday night, Alinea’s front door wasn’t obvious. I only knew I’d come to the right place because of a couple of people standing outside on the otherwise deserted sidewalk.

I was led into a full restaurant—at 9:30pm, my reservation was terribly late for me—and upstairs into the “The Salon,” a circular room with maybe five other parties, more private than downstairs. I took guesses at the indecipherable menu and was wrong on all counts. “Ice” described not only the dish, but also the literal dish: a bowl made completely of ice. Likewise, “Yellow” comprised of curry, banana and golden beet all served on a yellow silicone… um, surface.

Conversely, the name of the dish didn’t allude to the food ingredients specifically. “Spectrum” was indeed a spectrum of flavors and colors in the vibrant mackerel dish. “Swirl” was maybe vaguely swirl-like if you tilted your head and squinted, and it comprised of apple, yuzu and lemon verbena.

The mean was whimsical without being wacky. Flavors were so complex and unusual and incredible and eye-opening. Blueberry with rhubarb and black garlic? Sure. Black truffle on potato and pumpernickel toast? What an amazing course made with simple, pronounceable ingredients.

Fourteen courses later, I was full and sleepy. The kitchen accommodated my lactose allergy, and the staff had been so friendly and chatty with me all night, and so sweet to take a photo of me with the banana taffy balloon. (If you’ve watched the Chef’s Table episode about Alinea, you would know of this, and it was filled with actual helium!)

If you’re not a fan of molecular gastronomy, don’t go, But you’d miss out a great lesson on flavor layering. While most home chefs can’t replicate the meal at home, they can definitely take away lessons in proportions (both in size and depth of flavor) and presentation.

The verdict: Expect the unexpected, but you can count on every bite you take to be out-of-this-world delicious and so creative.

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