Chicago’s Alinea is easy to hate.
It’s expensive. Dinner for two can easily top out at $1,000 after wine, tax, tip, $6 cups of tea and $8 bottles of Evian.
It’s complicated. A chemistry experiment of a restaurant, it specializes in hard-to-pronounce ingredients more commonly found on the back of bubble gum wrappers. Propylene glycol alginate, anyone?
It’s a pain to get into. The two month wait isn’t likely to let up any time soon, now that Alinea is apparently the best restaurant in America and the sixth best in the world -- as if one could actually measure such a thing.
The superlatives were part of the annual S. Pellegrino list published last week. Days later, Alinea’s cancer-surviving owner, Grant Achatz, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. He was the only chef included.
I had the good fortune of dining at the three Michelin-starred townhouse during what should have been the worst possible time: Achatz, 36, was opening two new venues, the historical and futuristic Next and an experimental cocktail bar called Aviary.
So here’s what happened over three playful hours at Alinea: I fell in love with it.
I drank truffle-potato soup from a wax bowl. I sucked lemongrass water from a test tube. I snacked on butterscotch bacon suspended from a wire and scraped yuzu snow off metal so cold I was warned not to lick it.
Alinea makes you rethink avant-gardism by serving great food that still fills you up. You won’t leave hungry.
When I was one-tenth done with my 22 courses, a waiter served me an empty oyster shell topped with a green leaf.
I frowned and I ate. The flora tasted precisely like a West Coast oyster -- cucumbery brine and all. Turns out the leaf naturally contains that maritime flavor. No trickery at all. And therein lies the point of this wizardry (or lack thereof). Achatz challenges the ways we perceive and appreciate flavors.
And he wants to surprise us. Why does my black caviar taste funny? Because it’s not caviar, it’s calcium-alginate licorice balls. Their perfume cuts through the gorgeous oil of trout roe. What gave my scallop so much seaside flavor? Just some Old Bay and Japanese beer.
Hamachi is fried into a tiny doughnut with banana and ginger. It’s a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, fatty and salty, with the ordinary flavors of competent cooking trumping the anomalous ingredients.
Warning: There are no choices on the $195 menu and the wine pairing is euphemistically priced at “three quarters the cost of the full menu.” That’s $150 for math dunces -- a worthwhile investment given the difficulty of matching a single bottle to nearly two dozen dishes. Ten tiny pours prevent inebriation.
A Palmaz Cabernet from Napa provides enough New World jamminess to stand up to a single bite of venison; the red meat is hidden under a pile of minty eucalyptus. Sweet Austrian riesling slices a deconstructed sweet potato pie.
Tired of sugary bourbon sauce with all the alcohol burned off? The kitchen uses whiskey “caviar” that bursts into a woody, throat-warming bliss.
No petits fours here. Achatz himself pours little dots of chocolate right onto your tablecloth. Watch as the circles magically turn into squares. He throws streaks of peanut butter dust. It will rehydrate into your soon-to-be sticky mouth. He cracks a block of liquid nitrogen ice cream so cold it disintegrates into shards. You eat with your hands and make a mess of it all in this eight-year old’s fantasy response to tableside service. You leave happy, full and broke.
The booked up Alinea is a problem for those who don’t plan their Midwest trips months in advance. So there’s another three-Michelin starred joint in town that can accommodate same day reservations. That seafood spot is L2O, Chicago’s haute-ocean response to New York’s Le Bernardin.
First some bad news: the day after Michelin bestowed its highest honor on L2O, chef Laurent Gras quit. Here’s the good news: L2O is still pretty great. Menus have been shortened; a spokesperson said meal times have dropped from four, to three hours.
The windowless room in the Belden-Stratford hotel is a refuge of quiet, khaki-colored opulence and the “$185 singular” menu is the apotheosis of luxuriant sustainability.
The first course was kindai toro, a raw mash of bluefin tuna belly cut from a rare farm-raised breed. The politically correct fish was richer and gamier than its wild and endangered cousin. It was topped with Italian osetra caviar. If only Masa could serve a version this good.
Chef Francis Brennan is a master at coaxing powerful flavors from pristine ingredients. He marinates king salmon in soy, then applies just enough heat to warm up the flavorful fish as giant salmon roe doubles the oily intensity. His Australian Wagyu packs a powerful punch with unctuous beefiness.
A few dishes went awry. Greasy foie gras and overcooked king prawns have no place in a meal that ended up costing $380 with wine, tax and tip. And thirsty diners shouldn’t have to watch their sashimi platters grow tepid while waiting for their sake. Frantic sommeliers struggle to keep pace with the kitchen. But it’s easy to forget such inconveniences after a perfect praline souffle.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $195 for Alinea; $110, $145, $185 menus for L2O
Sound Level: Moderate, about 65-70.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Alinea will serve meat-free menus with notice.
Special Feature: Amazing bread service at L2O.
Will I be back: Yes, to both.
Alinea is at 1723 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Information: +1-312-867-0110 or http://www.alinea-restaurant.com.
L2O is at 2300 Lincoln Park West. Information: +1-773-868-0002 or http://www.l2orestaurant.com.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)