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Chicago’s finest cuisine is now in a brown bag swinging from my handlebars

Matcha, Berries, Hibiscus Cheesecake at Alinea, 2015
Matcha, Berries, Hibiscus Cheesecake at Alinea, 2015
Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post (Getty Images)

Last week Alinea, the Chicago restaurant with a rare Michelin 3-Star rating and generally regarded as one of the most outstanding restaurants in the world, announced they would be offering “comfort food” takeout. This is in response to the current COVID-19 restrictions on restaurant dining rooms, and it’s a measure to stave off temporary closure. Chef Grant Achatz’s modernist tasting menus normally command between $210-$395 per person, and that’s not including wine pairings, which range from $145-$395 each. The new takeout meals, meanwhile, are priced starting at $34.95 per person.

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Alinea aims to feature a weekly rotating menu, and these meals have allowed the restaurant to hire back staff with the intention of sharing profits evenly among them (with ownership forgoing salary). The initial offering of beef Wellington, 50/50 mashed potatoes, and crème brûlée sold out swiftly. Within one week, a restaurant for which pickup orders would have previously been unthinkable has begun pushing out up to 700 meals a day.

Some years ago, I was standing at the grocery store debating between two packages of sandwich bread when I got a text from an editor: “do you want to go to Alinea for free tonight?” A friend of theirs in San Francisco booked a non-refundable reservation, ended up having to cancel their trip at the last minute, and didn’t want the meal to go to waste.

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I left the Wonder Bread on the shelf and called my girlfriend at the time, who bolted from work. We scrambled to make it to the reservation in just under an hour.

Alinea is located in a nondescript building on a residential stretch in the Lincoln Park neighborhood I grew up in; I had passed it countless times without recognizing it as a famed culinary institution. We entered into a hallway, futuristic sliding doors to our left opening to reveal a bustling kitchen as we were greeted and led to the upstairs dining room.

I don’t know if it was the wrinkles in my shirt or our general astonishment, but it was obvious we were in over our heads, unaccustomed to 20-course prix fixe menus. Thankfully the servers took mercy on us and joined in our excitement as they detailed each dish, relishing our surprise as our jaws dropped with each new presentation.

The sushi arrived accompanied by a tiny tabletop campfire, which eventually revealed the next course of pork already being cooked there, hidden beneath the flames. Anglerfish—the ones with the sharp teeth and glowing lures hanging from their foreheads—was served as “anglerfish and chips,” wrapped in newsprint. Chilled potato soup came in a concentrated wax thimble, and a hot potato ball was dropped in via a pin before we knocked it back like a shooter. It was enough to make me wonder if we were living in a Matrix-like simulation: had I ever really tasted potato before this?

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When Chef Achatz visited our table at the end of the meal, we were admittedly too green to recognize the world-renowned chef and had been rendered mostly speechless by the meal at that point anyway. We wandered off into the night in a dreamlike state, flatly food-stoned.

Alinea has always been at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, and has become popular on social media for mind-bending deserts such as clear pumpkin pie, helium-filled edible green apple taffy balloons, and a stirring performance art tabletop finale. Though it’s a bit of a spoiler, comedian Reggie Watt’s LCD Soundsystem-soundtracked Instagram post translates some of its joy.

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Given the waves of uncertainty over the last few weeks and the unknown length of time we’ll all be in isolation, I couldn’t resist the indulgence of Michelin-starred takeout. I ordered dinner on Alinea To Go’s first night. With pickup times paced out over 15-minute windows to allow for best social distancing practices, the process was smooth, and I rode off on my bike with my brown-bag Alinea tucked securely under my arm.

The meal, plus instructions for preparation.
The meal, plus instructions for preparation.
Photo: Joshua Mellin
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Instead of the typical parade of courses, it’s intended to be a much simpler, straightforward meal, but it still managed to translate some of the magic of the full experience during an uncertain time. The beef Wellington, for example, replaced the traditional tenderloin with a 48-hour-cooked USDA Prime Black Angus short rib “surrounded by roasted mushroom duxelle perfumed with sherry wine and herbs as well as sauteed spinach and kale. After wrapping in a traditional pate brisee pastry it is baked in the oven until golden brown.” The crust was proudly decorated with three stars (and an alternate Chicago-flag design was shared on Instagram by Chef Achatz).

Many shared their at-home Alinea on social media, unpacking wedding crystal for the occasion, sharing the joy with their children, and even feeding pups the scraps. In response, Nick Kokonas, co-founder and co-owner of The Alinea Group, tweeted his gratitude:

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While Kokonas might have gently ribbed some customers for their plating techniques, his Twitter account has become an indispensable source of information on the pandemic’s effect on the food industry as he opens up about The Alinea Group’s current business process and shares his opinions on industry best practices.

The beef short rib Wellington was to be baked in its container at 275°F for 30 minutes—simple enough—and the buttery Robuchon-style 50/50 potatoes were heated on the stove. Given my memory of the hot potato/cold potato soup, I doled out the dishes with surgical precision from container to pan to plate in order to leave absolutely none to waste.

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The final product
The final product
Photo: Joshua Mellin

As for my plating, I’d grade myself on the positive side of the pass/fail scale that I hope we’re all affording each other (and ourselves) these days. I didn’t dare deviate from the provided menu, but if I considered it, perhaps a spicy Chicago giardiniera would have paired well with the hearty Wellington. As my basement apartment doubled as Alinea’s dining room for the evening, I ate at the counter in my kitchen, as any proud chef would. The rest of the evening was spent assuaging my fears with a finale of crème brûlée. I was, if not blissfully unaware, at least satisfied, and maybe even content.

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DISCUSSION

dingdangdongers
DingDangDongers

To me, a mark of a REALLY good restaurant is whether the staff seem to enjoy having strong reactions. I went to Alinea with a buddy of mine waaaaay back in the day when we were both in the industry, and the staff were clearly having a ball bringing insanely intricate plates to everyone’s table and reveling in their oohing and aahing. Alinea is extremely tasteful and luxurious, but it’s also really really fun