I visted Alinea this past Friday night. My husband and I had hours of conversation about our opinions of the restaurant, which is always a great thing. I am torn about what to write for this review. Overall I enjoyed the experience, and I thought some of the dishes were absolutely hands down the most innovative food I have ever seen or tasted but I didn't leave there feeling completely blown away. Now, the only experience I have to compare is our visit to Per Se. While the techniques and presentation of these chefs could not be more different, I do think it's fair to compare and contrast ingredients used, atmosphere and service. I did the vegetarian menu and my husband did the standard tour. It was fascinating to see the Alinea’s chef be able to play with each dish and make them aesthetically identical. His presentation was incredibly whimsical. However, for the price, which is $195 plus tax and gratuity, (which ends up being almost the same price at Per Se,) I didn't feel as if I got the same satisfaction out of the vegetarian menu as I did at Per Se. I feel that they should lower their price point for that menu. The standard tour, I unfortunately felt the same. No frois gras, lobster, caviar, sweet breads, or similarly rare and or pricier fishes or meats. With that said, the dishes were executed to perfection and everything tasted delicious with the exception of a consommé and custards that were simply over salted. The other thing that struck me, at Per Se there were SO many extra little courses and touches that weren’t on the menu. An amuse, amazingly delicious bread course, pallet cleansers, cheeses, extra dessert courses, and a goodie bag of treats for each guest when you received your check. There were NO extra’s here…not even a single piece of bread. Now, the atmosphere I found to be strange. I believe it's attempt was to be minimalistic, but it came off as very cold, and certainly, if I just ended up there without knowing anything about the place, I would never in a million years guess this was one of the world's top eating establishments. Now on to the staff....where to begin....I always try and remind myself that when I leave NYC, I can't expect the same type of white glove service at high end restaurants. But, when you are paying over $200/person, all bets are off. Your staff, from the top down, should be professional, knowledgeable, and they should be an intricate part of the diner’s experience. A place like Alinea and Per Se, isn't just about eating dinner, it's about having a food experience. We sat at 5:45 and you could hear a pin drop in our part of the dining room, that is, with the exception of the four staff members that stood in the corner watching us eat, and seemingly talking to each other about their guests. So for the first hour of our dinner, it was quite uncomfortable to only hear the chatter of the restaurant staff as well as having them stare at you while you eat. I don't think I have ever quite experienced that. The sommelier was horrific. We wanted to stay within the lower price range of their bottle list $50-$100 - he offered us no help once he realized he wasn't going to be able to sell us what he viewed as expensive bottles of wine. It was truly offensive. Because we love wine so much, I recall our experience with the sommelier at Per Se to be amusing and so enjoyable. He had a wonderful sense of humor; he brought us tastings and without even having to ask, pointed us to many different price rangers of bottles based on our flavor pallet. We never had to say what we wanted to spend after we ordered the first bottle, because he got it, he understood what price point we were going to be in and or around for that evening. The sommelier at Alinea's response to us when we asked him what he thought we should get after giving him a brief description of what we liked was "Well...I don't really know, it just depends on what you like." What kind of response is that from a sommelier?? We were so taken aback and quite frankly that could have ruined our experience except for the fact that we know our wines and in all honesty didn't need his help. The food runners were all fantastic and one of the "captains" on the floor who was a short red headed young woman was fantastic as well. But again, not one staff member had the polish or the expertise that I feel is essential to working at an establishment that has received the kind of notoriety Alinea has. All in all, I don't regret going, it was such a unique and memorable food experience. Def go if you have the money to spend, but if you are looking for a meal that will leave you wanting to come back for more, my money is best spent at places run by Chef's like Thomas Keller, Daniel Bolud, Eric Ripert. After eating at Alinea, I confess, like my wine, I much prefer the old world rather than the new. But I wish this place all the luck and if he can bring his service up to par with the quality of his cooking, it will be around for a long long time!
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614