I mentioned Alinea in a post about Next a few weeks ago. It was the first restaurant started by the Next team and has built an enormous reputation in the restaurant world for its cuisine and dining experience. We were lucky enough to dine at Alinea on Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago, but after reading the founders’ book, “Life, On the Line,” about the origin of the restaurant and the head chef’s uncanny battle with tongue cancer, Dustin got the urge to go again. We made reservations and 2.5 months later, we got dressed up and headed back to what many consider one of the top-rated restaurant in the country.
Dustin and I are sharing writing duties this time…
On our last visit to Alinea, we had a twelve course tasting menu which turned out to be more than enough for my belly. They have since dropped this option and now serve one menu of twenty-one items that come in around 17 courses. Our server explained this change had been made since our last visit. Impressive that they had kept a record of our menu for two years. Nice. However with 21 tastes ahead, I was sure I would explode.
The first course was a coconut curry soup, which was delightful. The second was little bites served on a bed of sea kelp. We were instructed to eat the bites in a specific order, as each flavor built on the last.
A weird contraption was then put on our table and the server playfully told us that some mean people would hurt him if he divulged any information on its function. We assumed it was a tea kettle. It turned out to be an appliance for making Yuba broth that would go with our next course. My plate was built around parsnip while Dustin’s was centered on a scallop. There were many memorable moments in the night, but this one was easy to appreciate for its attention to detail. Everything that was placed on our plates was planned and given its own unique presentation. Of course everything tasted great, but the technique and knifework on display through the course of the evening was amazing. With dishes so pretty, it was sometimes hard to dig in and get to eating.
At this point in the meal, we began to appreciate Alinea for the experience as much as the food. It reminded me in a small way of one of those murder mystery dinners in that you’re always on the edge of your seat trying to guess what’s coming next. Up to this point, the ice sculpture on our table had been a unique centerpiece but it now became part of the meal. We had noticed that it had holes that were filled with something red so we knew there had to be a surprise in store. For our ninth course, we were given glass straws to drink the beet/hibiscus/licorice juice that had been chilling in the holes.
The meal continued on for a few more courses until the GM of the restaurant came to our table and asked us if we were in the mood for a field trip. Confused, we got up and followed him downstairs and into the kitchen. We don’t have a picture of what happened next, but it was one of the high points of the evening. The chef de cuisine took us to a station where our next course was being prepared. He explained how they made one of their signature dishes, a black truffle-filled ravioli called Black Truffle Explosion, and we ate it right there. It was a surreal experience to be served a course in one of the restaurant world’s most revered kitchens and it seemed bold that even after achieving such praise, Alinea was still trying to shake up their own dining experience. We paid attention to others in the restaurant after that and noticed that only a few other people got the same opportunity to see the kitchen that we did. We’re not sure how we won this lotto, but it was great and made the night even more memorable.
Nearing the end of the meal and at a new table, we were given a course of five flavored pieces of ginger to calm our stomachs. These little guys were itty bitty, but had a huge kick. After a couple more courses, we found out that we would be moving to yet another table for our next course. While one might normally consider moving seats in the middle of a meal an odd thing, it is a result of Alinea questioning everything they possibly can about dining. What happens when you break the assumption that you’ll be sitting in one seat all night? It is novel for sure, but what new kinds of experiences does it open up? One answer to that question was given when we were walked around a corner and saw our next (table sized!) course. Called “Winter in New Hampshire,” it consisted of peppermint flavored snow atop liquid nitrogen cooled rocks with various fruit flavored bites and a cup of hot chocolate. Not just any hot chocolate though, this was completely transparent. By moving us to a new table, our course was a complete surprise.
After our snow-filled winter dessert, we were led to one more table where we had our final course. Breaking the rules again, this final dessert was “plated” right in front of us, but there were no plates. We ate directly from the table after the same chef that had served us in the kitchen prepared this course. The video explains it better than anything but it was made of dark chocolate, butternut squash, lingonberry, sweet potato, orange, and citrus marigold with a couple of other twists. This was a great dramatic way to end the night. Of course it tasted amazing too.
We lost all sense of time in Alinea. We arrived at 9:30 pm and left at 1:30 am, stuffed but fully awake. It seems that Alinea is getting better with time. We can’t wait to go back.