Alinea ups fine dining standards

August 11, 2008 8:56:35 AM PDT
One of the reasons Chicago is a world-class food town, is the sheer diversity of eating options.From mom-and-pop hot dog stands to four-star, world-class cuisine, there's one local restaurant garnering all kinds of awards.

Alinea is a symbol for the beginning of a new thought. It's also a restaurant in Lincoln Park forcing diners to rethink the traditional fine-dining experience. Its chef and driving creative force has been through a year marked first by a major health scare. Then just a few weeks ago, the pinnacle of an American chef's career.

It's not often you see tweezers being used to plate an amuse, a first bite from the kitchen. But when there's cucumber gel, Hawaiian lava salt and wild sorrel - including the seed pod, leaves and flowers - all perched on a tiny serving vessel - you know this isn't any ordinary beginning to a meal.

It's another busy night at Alinea, housed in a non-descript townhouse in Lincoln Park. At the helm, 34-year-old Grant Achatz. Commanding a staff of more than 50, he oversees multi-course tasting menus ranging from the impossible to the sublime.

"I might be listening to a song on the radio. A certain tempo change or a certain rhythm might remind me of food, and I think that's really what it is. Everything reminds me, in some way, shape or form, of either food or the dining experience," Achatz said.

Where, you might ask, does one find inspiration to impale grilled octopus with Japanese eggplant and papaya, grilled baby leeks and fried shittake mushrooms, pairing it with toasted soy milk that's been steeped in mint? The elaborate combinations and meticulous plating are certainly part of the experience, but so are the serving utensils. Achatz has a unique relationship with his designer.

"I'll come to him and say, 'Look, I have this bite of food that needs to remain really cold. It's very fragile and we need to transport it into the dining room,'" Achatz said. "Or he'll come to me with an idea how to change, what we call the 'mechanics of eating,' which is essentially like literally moving the food from the table surface to your mouth."

That means tempura-fried caramel wrapped around cinnamon with preserved lemon, held by something called "the squid." Or a frozen licorice cake coated in dark brown sugar with candied orange rind and anise. No utensils necessary.

His work garnered Achatz the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Country this year, an award that meant something extra, considering he was diagnosed with mouth cancer a year ago. He credits aggressive chemo and radiation at the University of Chicago Medical Center for his recovery and says the national award is cause for a new beginning.

"It was a very poignant bookend to a tumultuous year, and a great jumping off point to start off the next year. It is really a good way to close a door and open another door and push forward," said Achatz.

Luxury and creativity at the world-class level do not come cheap. A 13-course meal runs $145 dollars. While the 27-course "tour" will set you back $225.

Alinea
1723 N. Halsted St.
312-867-0110


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