Alinea's kitchen table has been a bucket list dinner for me. We flew to Chicago simply because of this reservation. And while the dinner was saved by some truly extraordinary cooking in the first half of the meal, I struggled with the thought that this restaurant may have jumped the shark. Allow me to explain.
What I remember most about my first visit was not the food or even the "surprises". It was the service. You can read about it my review below. Service that night rivaled The French Laundry, which is the gold standard. Friendly, welcoming, over the top. I mean, our coats were stored in a warming closet and returned to us as if out of the dryer! They had thought of everything.
Tonight's service had a singular throughput - a feeling of being pushed. We were on their schedule. And that schedule was very brisk.
The shot across the bow came when they texted to tell us we were welcome to arrive at 8:15pm for our 8:45pm reservation. How would the earlier seating have 30 minutes cut out of their dining experience? I asked about it when we arrived. "They ate really fast."
Nope. They ate as fast as you paced them. It seemed to follow that we were in for the same treatment.
We sure were. The waiter never left the room for more than a few minutes, reentering with questions each time. As we finished one item of a multi-dished course, it was cleared as we moved on to the others. Subtle but clear messages of "Let's keep moving here...".
At one point, upon again having our discussion and course interrupted by our ever-hovering waiter, I almost asked him to just give us 10 minutes before returning. There was even an urgent undertone when they asked Teresa and I (who arrived a bit early) if we were sure our 2 companions were on their way. Contrast this to the previous visit, when we arrived a bit late due to traffic, which could not have been less of a concern.
Tonight, we were pushed. There is no other way to interpret it. We were hurried. And at a place like Alinea, it just begs the question: why??
The dinner itself could be divided in two halves. The first half was off the charts. It's why you spend the money on a place like this. Tastes and flavors and presentations that took your breath away and made you shake your head and yearn for more. Shaved caviar? Maple syrup lacquered arctic char? Baguette puree?? This is Alinea. Things you would never even conceive of, while blowing your mind at the execution and flavors.
It was capped with a 4-dish course representing Thailand. A bite of crab that knocks your socks off. A curry that begs you lick the plate clean. All while fully honoring and representing the culture properly. Each bite brought specific food experiences our table-mate had enjoyed on her own trip to Thailand years earlier. That course was simply at the highest level.
The back half of the meal felt different. Forced. Contrived.
The Mexican (Aztec) course seemed shallow in contrast to the Thailand course that preceded it. Even disrespectful. 3d printing a mayan artifact and presenting small bites in a glass skull is not a culinary homage. At best, it's kitchy. At worst, offensive. It felt beneath Alinea.
Aside from none of us really enjoying the mole or other parts of the dish. to follow Singapore's rich and heavy curry with...mole? It was too much. And with the aggressive pacing, there was no time for your palate (or your stomach) to recover. Where was the lighter transition? A palate cleanser? Something!
From there, we moved to a forgettable lamb dish. (The lamb was overcooked and smothered in a ketchup-like sauce which completely buried whatever flavor it may have had.) And then...Japanese A5 wrapped in truffles with American A5...on top of bechamel? Once again - Alinea should be better than this, both conceptually as well as respecting the limits of even the most expansive appetites. It took us quite the mental fortitude to dive in to this immensely heavy dish, feeling already beyond full from the earlier ones.
The desserts were good, including their signature abstract art delivery. But even that felt dated at this point. It was highlighted in the Netflix Chef's Table episode which came out...in 2006! That means they have been doing this for 7 years or more. For a restaurant which prides itself on its continual efforts to reinvent, push boundaries and innovate (their restaurant called "Next" was created as a lab - to create what's "next"), this impressive (and admittedly delicious) presentation felt tired. Phoned in. Old hat in a way that lacked the underlying fire and dazzle Alinea is known for. The staff exuded no excitement with it, donning more of a "here we go again" type of attitude. Note the video below where the chef, upon finishing, turns and exits without a "Please enjoy..." or even so much as any eye contact.
We opted for an upgraded wine pairing. The sommelier was excellent, but the wines themselves did not seem special or unique. Save one - a sweet riesling (served with the Thailand dish) that blew the doors off. We kept gushing about that wine. The waiter, upon asking and learning how much we liked it, said "Let me go see if I can get us all some more of that." A second glass never arrived. Once again...why??
On a frigid evening, our coats were returned to us...unwarmed. Warmed coats wouldn't be typically expected, except...they used to do that! They literally have a warming closet, right? We stepped out to the street and almost slipped on the icy sidewalk. A 3 Michelin star restaurant can not allow this to happen. I immediately contrasted the restaurant in Rome, where the waiter, seeing us across the street taking a photo of ourselves after the meal, ran out of the restaurant to come take the photo for us.
A 3-star experience begins well before you arrive and ends well after you leave. It is the entire experience. Alinea's icy sidewalk was on brand with the evening. They were done.
Perhaps Alinea is coasting on its sky-high reputation. Perhaps some of this is COVID-related. Perhaps Chef Achatz is spread too thin across his many investments and the restaurant is not being minded the way it should be. I don't have the answer.
The Alinea Kitchen Table was bucket list for sure. I'm glad to have visited. The box has been checked - and delivered a few memorable and all-time favorite dishes.
But the experience as a whole was mystifying.
Something is off.
I was so excited to dine at Alinea. I mean, it's Grant Achatz! Just watching the Chef's Table episode (S02E01) on Netflix puts you in a mind to eat here before you die. And so we did.
I must admit - it was plenty special. Service was off the charts. (Case in point: coats are kept in a warming closet, so they are returned warm to put back on.) From the dried ice to digging things out of fire that has been burning in front of you as your next course...the playful stuff is all there. You're there for the experience. And the experience delivers.
The food underwhelmed. I am writing this 2 years after the meal and other than the consumme, I can't quite recall many of the dishes - what they were, or how they tasted. That's a problem for a place of this caliber. I can recall dishes from other places by sight (or not even) many years later.
I am definitely going back, however. I'm determined to get to the Kitchen Table experience. So come - come for the experience. The wow factor. The balloon! But I'm not sure the food itself will be what you carry away in your memories. It wasn't for me.
NOTE: I did not take notes during this dinner. So my recollection of these dishes is not what I wish it was. My apologies.
Replying to Steven Smith