Vegetarian at Alinea and the Most Amazing Thursday of My Life

Vegetarian at Alinea and the Most Amazing Thursday of My Life

1982 is the year of 30 for my friends and I - I just made the leap in August and this past weekend welcomed my best friend Ashley Lobo into the club.

Somehow this lucky gal snagged tickets to dinner at Alinea for Thursday night, and seeing as we've been friends for 2/3 of our lives officially (we met at age 10), I had a seat at the table.  For my 30th birthday, my husband took me to Moto, which was already an amazing gastronomical experience of it's own, but coming to Alinea was like reaching the top of the foodie mountain - I was now an official member of the club.

My thoughtful BFF let the restaurant know ahead of time that I was a vegetarian, and off we went.  Our party consisted of 6 - BFF and her boyfriend, her boyfriend's friend and his wife, and myself and another girlfriend (my hubby was working, but claims he doesn't understand what "all the fuss is about" and was still reeling from our Moto bill and thus didn't mind sitting this one out).

Upon entering the restaurant, we found ourselves in a dark hallway with a single blue light.  My first step into the place found my foot sinking into something soft and damp - sod.  The entire entryway was filled with sod and smelled like fresh cut grass.  We grabbed a glass of floating lemonade from what looked like a fish tank and continued on.  Ashley and I were worried someone was going to jump out and grab us like in those haunted houses found in Catholic church basements, but luckily we escaped this first part unscathed.

We were then led to the 2nd floor and to a round table that sat us all comfortably.  Handsome young men in tailored gray suits floated past all tables as though floating on air, like ballroom dancers, and I almost felt like the scene was slightly fuzzy.  I didn't know if it was the lighting in the place or the Skinny Girl Margarita I had inhaled 5 minutes prior to our adventure.  Either way, I was in for quite a ride.

The handsome waiter introduced himself (let's call him "Culinary Hottie 1") and confirmed my vegetarian concerns.  The boys fussed over the wine list and we were fed our first course.

Sitting in the middle of the table were 6 perfectly chiseled ice-cubes that slightly resembled what I believe the iceberg that sank the Titantic looked like.  Each had a circle carved out that ran through the entire cube.  Course one was handed to us on a lovely napkined platter - tubes with little bubbles inside.  According to the menu, this is the Steelhead Roe, and for me, my bubbles were made with (of?) almonds.  Sticking the tube into the ice cube, we all took a big breath, sucking up these little bubbles with a delicious drink at the bottom.  Wow.

Next course, please.  Out came these green drapey looking....things.  I instantly thought of Tarzan.  But after a closer look, on top of this pile of seaweed were a variety of shells that included more goodies.  For my friends it was lots of fish/oyster options, for me....well, I can't really recall.  My notes weren't as thorough on this one, but I found myself doing lots of slurping and throwing items back into my throat.  All delicious just the same.

And onto the next one - a very thin needle with a cucumber mixture on top - this was the vegetarian version.  For my friends that like to kill and eat innocent animals (ahem), they had lobster at the end of theirs.  Really interesting presentation - no silverware, just eat it right off.

The fourth course came out and I got very excited.  Lots of colors of reds, yellows and oranges were placed in front of me.  These are my favorite colors and it was very bright and pretty looking - I couldn't wait to dig in.  It was some sort of tomato salad that included watermelon and basil....and I came to find lots of other tasty things!  This was the most interesting salad I had ever eaten and one of my favorite items all night.  Each bite brought about a different taste.  First there was the watermelon with the tomato, then what I thought was a kalamata olive, then onion, then basil, and so on and so on.  How does one even begin to make a salad where every bite tastes different?  Oh how I love Chef Grant by this point in the evening....

Okay, time to slow down on the wine because here comes #5 - not even halfway there yet.  One of the more interesting platters of the night - looked almost like the beginning of Picasso's palette of paints before getting started on a new pic.  In reality, aside from the red sauce, it was all some version of corn - liquid corn, freeze dried corn, shredded corn - super cool presentation, and reminded me of movie popcorn.  So fun!

By now Chef Grant had personally stopped at our table to check on us - I was too stunned to speak.  All I could do was smile and nod because, if you couldn't tell by now, I am not a food expert.  I didn't want to say the wrong thing...maybe calling this last dish popcorn was a bad idea?  I figured silence was as good as golden, golden like popcorn!

Numero 6. What looked like a teeny tiny fishbowl with green foam and a white dollop was placed in front of us. Culinary Hottie 3 (oh yeah, there was more than one throughout the night) explained that this was meant to mimic waves and almost the taste of the sea.  It was definitely yummy, but the tomato salad and popcorn were still top of my list.

Following were two more vegetarian friendly meals - a piece of burnt wood with onions, arugula, asparagus - the asparagus was charred and coupled with the smell of burnt wood made for a very interesting taste.  As Ashley put it so eloquently, "It was so woodsy with the wood."  Right after was a small wax bowl with a pin sticking through it and the next ingredients.  We had to pull the pin out gently and take all items in our mouth at once to really get the full flavor.  I personally didn't care for this wax one as much - not so much the taste, but more so that I have clubbed thumbs (look it up, it's weird) and it was hard for me to pull the pin out in a fluid motion.  Poor me - vegetarian AND clubbed thumbs.

On to 8 - we've now reached the half-way point and are turning the corner towards dessert.  My next favorite meal of the night was placed down.  But first, Culinary Hottie 2 placed two big glass sheets in the center of the table.  There were again, lots of dollops - only this time there were like, 50 dollops.  Next came our individual platters.  Culinary Hottie 2 explained that the concept was meant to represent a burger on our plate, and all of the condiments on the larger plates in front of us.  Everyone had lamb except me - I had fennel and some other really healthy vegetable which was just fine with me!  We started to dig in.  Each of us took one dollop at a time.  Really yummy. It was interesting how these 3 - 4 individual dollops could each manage to taste good.

STOP.

Chef Grant was at our table side again.  I swallowed quickly for fear of choking and looking like I totally didn't belong there.

"You guys are doing it wrong," he said.  "You want to take the flavors at once."

Ashley's boyfriend made a motion to scrape a whole row of dollops onto his plate.  Chef Grant smiled.  "Exactly."

Well then it became a straight-up game.  We tried to see who could get the most dollops on their plate and have the most amazing taste party in their mouths.  I drew a whole row and then some interspersed dollops.  It all tasted out of this world.  Similar to the tomato salad, how can 50 flavors all be unbelievable?  And like nothing I've ever tasted before?

This coupled with the wine and light haze had put me in a very warm place, and almost ready for dessert.  But not before one last treat.  The black truffle explosion - what looked like a little ravioli on a spoon.  In my mouth it went and then...oh dear...that felt weird and inappropriate and delicious and, "oh crap, my husband isn't here, will I get in trouble?" at the same time.  The ravioli exploded in my mouth and hot liquid mushroom goodness filled my cheeks.  You get the picture.

And then it was time for sweets.  5 delectable items to look forward to, as follows:

  • Cinnamon stick with what tasted like an apple crisp at the end - filled with warm brie cheese
  • 5 bites of ginger - had to start right to left, they almost got spicier the further along I went - ouchie, my tongue
  • Glass bowl with a circle dish on top, pour in citrus tea and watch it steam - eat the blueberry delicious-ness on the top dish and then drink the tea
  • Green taffy apple balloon filled with helium and attached to an apple cord - filled with helium and great for saying "Happy Birthday Ashley" like Alvin and Chipmunks
  • The creme de la creme....this one needs further explanation....

So we are coming to the end.  Culinary Hotties 2 & 4 come and lay out what looked like dolphin-skin table cloths.  And then, back for a 3rd round is Chef Grant and two of his buddies.  They have white chocolate bowls with them and what I believe is liquid nitrogen.  They start pouring very colorful items on the table - green and white and hot pink - Ashley cried "It's an 80s explosion!" I say, "It smells like fruit roll-ups!"  So much for acting like I belonged there.
And then, they picked up these chocolate bowls and BAM - all over the table are broken bowl bites and edible white cotton.  Well, the table was now our plate and we dug right in.  Holy cow, what an experience.

But wait.  It wasn't done just yet.

As we were paying, Chef Grant returned.  "Have you ever been to the Aviary?" he asked.  Our mouths fell to the floor, and not long after we found ourselves chatting with Chef Grant about a variety of things at his bar the Aviary, all while sipping unique cocktails, learning about the creativity behind a master chef, and celebrating Ashley's birthday.
There is more, but to share it here would be a discredit to Chef's kindness and hospitality, so just trust me when I say he is the epitome of talent in the kitchen and quite a pleasure to speak with.  Alinea was worth every penny and more, so should you find yourself in a situation where you best friend asks you to go for their birthday, JUST SAY YES.

 
In conclusion, my take-aways from the evening include:

 

  1. Alinea is so worth it - JUST DO IT
  2. Vegetarians can have fun at unique restaurants
  3. Hot waiters add to the experience
  4. I never knew I could like tomatoes or white chocolate that much
  5. Mushrooms can be inappropriate
  6. My husband must never know I now have a shrine to Chef
  7. I will never "belong" at a restaurant like Alinea, but Chef Grant made all of us feel like we totally did

A huge thank you to Chef Grant and all of the waiters we interacted with on what will always be known as the most amazing Thursday of my life.

 

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  • We've been to most of the restaurants you'd put into Alinea's orbit. It is by far the best and most interesting of the group. Your experience was ours as well. The waiters were wonderful, casual and attentive. The food was everything it was supposed to be. We didn't meet Chef Grant, but from what I've heard your experience was quite normal. All in all we always recommend Alinea.

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    Corie

    Chicago girl through and through. Grew up swimming in Lake Michigan, listening to the Cubs and/or Frank Sinatra on the radio and eating PB and J covered in sand. Discovered my "French" side a few years back and have been exploring ever since. Aside from my parents, Marie Antoinette is my idol. No, she did not say "let them eat cake" but she was much tougher than most historians give her credit for. If she ever came back as a Chicagoan she'd fit right in, but would probably live in Lincoln Square and not Rogers Park like me. Follow my random-ness on Instagram and Twitter at dans_ma_tete!

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