We had all kinds of big plans for our last full day in Chicago, but when the day actually dawned, we didn’t feel like doing anything but reading (Lis, by this time, had a little mountain of newspapers to work through), so that’s what we did until dinner.

For dinner, we had reservations at Alinea Restaurant. Lis had first heard of Alinea while listening to an interview on Fresh Air with the chef, Grant Achatz. He is in to making dining an all-five-senses experience, and Lis was intrigued, though certain that she’d never talk me in to trying it, as the prices are OBSCENE. Still, she took her shot – “What would you think about trying out this restaurant while we’re in Chicago?” She described the restaurant and the price, and to her surprise I said yes (I never know how things are going to strike me these days – had she asked at a different time I might have been adamantly against it – ain’t hormones grand…)

Luckily for Lis, my sanguinity held, and we were off to our fancy restaurant. We took the subway to get there, and since we had early reservations (we are as one with the early bird special set), we got to pile in to a big city rush hour subway car. My sweetie couldn’t really do the requisite body-ing, due to her injuries, so I plunged in and she followed in my wake. I always feel very urban when I’m pushing my way through a crowded bus or subway car :)

Alinea’s schtick is that they’re not just an expensive restaurant serving fine food – they take control of the entire experience – you just show up and do as you’re told. Which, if you can let go, is really quite fun. Also, the instant you step in the door your every need is attended to, mostly by strapping young men, though there was a very lovely young women who showed us to our table.

There were two men who attended us, and they managed to watch our every move (at one point, Lis dropped her napkin on the floor and was immediately brought a new one) without being obtrusive or creepy. They also managed to be simultaneously formal and friendly, and we didn’t feel too out of place, which had been my biggest concern. Frankly, I felt more comfortable there than in the public rooms of the oh-so-hip James hotel.

The menu was 17 courses (really, 19 courses, since the “English Peas” course had 3 courses itself – everything you could possibly think of doing to peas, including freeze-drying them). I’ve posted a picture of the menu here – after each course name there is a bubble. The size of the bubble indicates the size of the course (some courses are just one bite), and the placement indicates the taste – more to the right = sweet, more to the left = savory.

The first course came out, and it was steelhead roe, and I experienced a moment of panic – I hate roe, and am not fond of seafood in general, but I hadn’t realized until now that of course a fine dining establishment is going to do a lot of seafood. So I had a little talk with myself – “Just try everything – eat everything they bring you, no matter what it is.” I took a deep breath and ate my roe – and it wasn’t too bad, at first. Eventually it got too fishy, and so I just ate everything else, which was fruity and yummy. Also, when the roe fell off its watermelon gel base and landed on the plate, the plate and the lighting and the roe interacted in such a way that the roe appeared to be backlit – very cool.

And so we worked through our courses, all of which were good and some of which were spectacular – amazing explosions of flavor in your mouth. And the anticipation between courses was very fun – what would be next? And the presentation of each course was phenomenal – I thought waiting to see what kind of out-of-this-world utensil or serving dish the course would be in was just as much fun as waiting for the course itself (the restaurant website has a little slideshow of some of the offerings).

The very last course is called Chocolate, and we had actually seen a YouTube video of it, but the video doesn’t do it justice. In the video, the chef is drawing really cool things on the table with chocolate, and suddenly just ruins it by smashing this big ‘ol thing down on it (a block of freeze-dried chocolate mousse). In real life, this is the best part, for two reasons: 1) the military precision of the timing – at just the moment that the chef places the last bit of chocolate and stands up, a waiter rushes the mousse block out to him on a silver tray; and 2) the dry ice effect of the frozen mousse sends silvery wisps spilling out to the edges of the table, partially obscuring the chocolate design. It actually choked me up a little (I know, I know….).

After dinner I needed to use the restroom – I asked Lis, who had gone earlier, where it was. She said “Oh, don’t worry – they will show you.” I stood up, and our waiter was instantly at my side. I asked “Where is the restroom?” “Megan will show you.” The lovely young women who had showed us to our table re-appeared, and WALKED ME TO THE RESTROOM! The restroom itself had candles and low lighting and very mild incense and I felt like I should be getting a spa treatment in there. When I returned to the table, the waiter magically appeared again to hold out my chair for me.

We paid our (YOWZA!$$!) bill and left (they walked us to the door) and rejoined the masses on the train for the ride back to the hotel. It was a really fun evening.