Monday, April 6, 2015

alinea: a dream dining experience

I consider myself to be a lover of all things food (eating it, studying it, cooking/baking it), which is why living in Chicago is a serious love affair. I am one of those people who keep a note in their phone of restaurants to try, constantly adding to the list when I walk by a new spot that looks good. One foodie/bucket list dream of mine while living in Chicago was to go to Alinea, the three-star rated Michelin restaurant that combines food, science, and art.

It seemed like a far off dream until I decided to make it a reality and use Jacob's 26th birthday as an excuse to experience it.

Before I get to the good stuff - things I've learned along the way in case you are ever interested in going:

  • Alinea works on a ticket system. You purchase a ticket for the multi-course dinner for a specific time on a specific date. The ticket price changes depending on the date and time you pick (i.e. a weekend at 7 p.m. would be the more expensive than a Tuesday at 5 p.m.). The ticket price includes taxes and tip so you worry about nothing at dinner (except drinks). You can also only get tables of 2, 4, or 6.
  • They release availability to tickets about 2 months in advance. Through looking at their social media accounts, I learned that they usually release tickets on the 15th of the month. (This is how I got tickets for Jacob's birthday dinner on the day they released the tickets because I was expecting it.)
  • You have no idea what will be on the menu when you go, but you can expect 15-18 courses. If you have allergies, you can note them. Expect the meal to be around 3 hours long.
  • Someone reaches out to you by email a week in advance to confirm your reservation, asks you once more if anyone in your party has allergies, and if you are celebrating anything special. If you are celebrating something, tell them! I told them about Jacob's birthday and they said happy birthday the moment we walked in and Jacob got a special birthday drink out of the deal.

In any case, the planning and the lead up to Jacob's birthday with the Alinea experience was so much fun. I didn't tell Jacob what we would do to celebrate his birthday, but I started planning in November with his reservation made. When he got home he saw a cake, gifts, and a series of cards. Each card told him something we were getting ready to go do and I'd tell him when to open them. They involved dinner with friends, brunch, a massage, and a tie to add to his dinner outfit. His last card was given to him in the taxi and just told him to get ready for "dinner and a show" and to interpret that as he wanted. He had no idea.

The taxi dropped us off at the address I gave and Jacob still didn't know what we were doing. We were near Steppenwolf Theater, which I knew would be a good distraction. We crossed the street, the valets greeted us and told us to have fun, and we walked into a building that doesn't even have a name on the front of it.

Even the hallway is nonchalant and gives nothing away. I snapped one very blurry, dark photo before a magical sliding door opened and there we were in the thick of Alinea.

They greeted us, told Jacob happy birthday, and seated us in a room with about 5 other tables. (The restaurant holds about 60 people if I recall correctly.) We ordered a bottle of wine and got ready for a show -- with food included of course.

The dinner is all of what you make it. You aren't given a menu. Just a description of the course as it is presented to you. The waiters pick up on your personalities--they will joke with you and engage with you more if you're receptive or they will leave you be if you'd rather it be that way. Folks around you are experiencing the same courses, so I made sure Jacob kept his eyes on the table (and me!) so he didn't spoil any surprises.

Here is what our dining experience involved, with notes we jotted in our iPhone along the way. If you plan on going soon and don't want to ruin the surprise, skip the photos below!

Alinea symbol on the napkin that set the stage for the meal.

Course 1: deconstructed presentation of caviar - citrus gelatin, caviar that pops, brioche toast foam, texture removed

Course 2: "the tumbleweed" - root vegetable that was jerkified, had to dig it out

Course 3: skate wing, lemon and zest, brown butter crumb, served on a "napkin"

Course 4: beach, Hawaiian shrimp, mixed perfectly to taste

Course 5: peanut butter and jelly, chopsticks to eat it, buttery fish, broccoli

Course 6: First a teapot, then cutting down a bunch of lemongrass that was above our head hanging from the ceiling and putting it into the teapot to steep, eggplant dish with Thai broth from the teapot, peppery, cilantro, Thai red pepper, warm banana, eggplant two ways, radish and mint, Darjeeling tea

Course 7: 3 mini bites

Course 7, part 1:chicken skin with cucumber creamy salad

Course 7, part 2: tamarind caramel with citrus zest and salt

Course 7, part 3: frozen coconut vodka cream and citrus cocktail

Course 8: fire slab, camping, 2 tempura style bites one being mushroom, apple cider with shiso herb, fish/green bean/shishitso pepper bite on a pine branch to eat off of

Course 9: surprise! pork belly was cooking the entire time in the fire during the last course, parsnip, 2 delicious sauces, great char flavor

Course 10: The infamous cold potato, hot potato that doesn't have a picture because it happens so fast. Hot Yukon potato and cheese suspended on a pin that you pull and remove. It falls into cold potato soup. Great mix of hot and cold with a delicious truffle flavor.

Course 11: blackened squab breast, root vegetables, beets, liver mousse surrounded by a black corn base, very earthy

Course 12: palate cleanser, served on ice, bitter and dark chocolate but looks white, kind of like shaved ice with a fused essence

Course 13: served on a concrete slab, sweet and savory transition to desserts, meringue slavs, balsamic, hazelnut ice cream

Course 14: fruit cobbler, almond aroma drifting up from below the dish, cinnamon, clove, pie like, marzipan foam, 3 tiered serving dish

Course 15: helium filled apple balloon, edible balloon and string (and yes, we sucked in the air and talked to each other!)

Jacob's surprise birthday drink course: a birthday candle lit to fill that wine glass with the smoke, rose, liquid Better Crocker birthday cake frosting all mixed together to make this drink

Course 16: last course, plated directly onto your table by one of the chefs, table art dessert, rum sauce, chocolate sauce, mango sauce, all spice sauce, coconut freeze ball, bitter chocolate, dragon fruit, compressed watermelon, sour cherry, banana, kafir lime edible candy, eat off the table like a child and enjoy every second of it

This was by far one of the coolest things we've been able to do. A foodie's dream come true!

The service was amazing. The inventiveness and creativity blowed my mind. Would we do it again? Absolutely.

On our way out they give you a copy of your menu from the evening. It's fun to compare words we jotted down with how they present each course. And one last picture from the evening courtesy of one of the staff--in front of the infamous kitchen.

Now, to look for the next food adventure...

Monday, January 19, 2015

mason jar yogurt parfaits

It's a new year and I'm feeling good and inspired, as probably most people do.

Since last March I've focused on my health a lot and have made substantial progress in doing more healthy things for my body. While I love my craft beer and dinners out (that is what Chicago is made of afterall), I have been evaluating what I eat and am trying to be more conscious in all of my decisions.

With the new year and "fresh start," my sister Heather and I started another round of 21 Day Fix. While I've lost weight on my own, this program has boosted me during those off times. I love the workouts and continue to do those while not actively doing the full-blown eating program. The way the eating portion of the program is set up is something I love though. It's controlled and everything fits into a category. (I love organized thoughts!)

These make ahead mason jar yogurt parfaits are inspired from my meal planning during the 21 Day Fix, although wouldn't fit in the program perfectly. Greek yogurt for breakfast is my usual, but this adapted recipe is going to be my regular from here on out. I was able to prep all 5 mason jars on Sunday and they stayed fresh all week. It was so nice to be able to grab and go and know that I had something good planned to start my day.

Here's the recipe:

Mason Jar Yogurt Parfaits
Yields 5 mason jar servings
"21 Day Fix - 1R, 1P, 1O"

What You Need
- 1 32 oz. container of plain Greek yogurt
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-5 tablespoons agave syrup
-2 regular sized containers of strawberries, tops cut off and cut into small pieces
-slivered almonds
-sunflower seeds
-1 teaspoon cinnamon
-1/4 teaspoon all spice
-5 mason jars or other containers

I kept things simple and worked on each layer with the 21 Day Fix in mind. I had my purple container for fruit, red container for yogurt, and orange container for nuts/seeds. I used each to measure each component.

The first step is to prepare each layer before assembly.

First comes the yogurt layer: Whisk together the Greek yogurt, vanilla extract, and agave syrup.

The next layer is the seed/nut mixture: I used my orange container and measured 2.5 containers of almonds and 2.5 containers of sunflower seeds into a bowl so I would have 5 total containers worth of seeds to divide and use. Add the cinnamon and all spice to the mixture and combine.

The last layer is the fruit layer: Cut and prepare fresh strawberries. (You could use other fruit whether fresh or previously frozen. I did try using thawed frozen mixed berries for a few, but loved fresh strawberries the best.)

With each layer prepared, grab your 21 Day Fix containers to use and measure for mason jar assembly.

Measure out each layer into the containers. Then assemble with a layer of yogurt, seeds/nuts, then fruit. Repeat layers until ingredients are gone. 

My jars ended up with three layers a piece and everything held up even through the end of the week. These are seriously the perfect make ahead breakfast -- simple, easy, and really good flavor.