Favorite Dishes

Alinea Was the Best Meal of My Life

I knew I’d be impressed by the theatrics, but nevertheless, I expected to leave the Alinea pop-up underwhelmed by the food. I was even worried I would still be hungry afterward. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been dreadfully let down by hyped-up restaurants such as the two-Michelin-starred Daniel and Del Posto — one of the few places to receive four stars from the New York Times. However, I’m delighted to say I left Alinea feeling inspired, elated, and, honestly, stuffed.

To refresh your memory, Alinea is the experimental Chicago restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Grant Achatz. The boundary-pushing destination has repeatedly been ranked among the best restaurants in the world and boasts three Michelin stars. Recently, partners Achatz and Nick Kokonas took Alinea on the road while the Chicago restaurant undergoes renovations. Thus, after a stint in Madrid, Alinea landed at the upscale and proudly over-the-top Faena Hotel.

Sunday, March 13, was the final night of the nearly monthlong Miami Beach pop-up, and I was one of the fortunate individuals to secure a ticket for the ungodly sum of $477. (Tickets cost $660 with wine pairings.) I’ll spare you all the gory details of my experience because my colleague Zachary Fagenson recounted his so well in a review published not too long ago. I simply want to share some thoughts regarding my Alinea adventure, because it certainly was an adventure.

First, I arrived at this dinner prepared: I had finished Achatz and Kokonos’ autobiographical book, Life on the Line; I watched the Netflix documentary Spinning Plates, in which Alinea was one of three featured restaurants; and I read as much as I could about the gastronomic temple.

I was counting down the days, but despite my excitement, I couldn’t fathom that such experimental cooking could taste delicious. Yet it did, and I knew that fact after the first and possibly weirdest bite. A miniature gelatin cube arrived with four droplets atop it; one was standing in for French’s yellow mustard, the other for relish, and the last two were there to mimic the flavor of sweet and acidic tomatoes. As a whole, it’s meant to taste like a famous Chicago hot dog, and, for emphasis, the cube is placed on a “Greetings From Chicago” postcard.
My first thought was, You’ve got to be kidding, but then I popped it into my mouth and thought, Oh my God, I just ate a hot dog. It was mind-blowing and wonderful. In fact, I questioned the need to ever eat a hot dog again if I could get all of the taste with virtually none of the calories by eating Alinea’s version. Hey, a gal can dream.

Next thing I knew, I was drinking soup through a metal straw and inhaling a balloon made of green-apple taffy. But showmanship aside, over the course of the evening, I enjoyed the best Japanese Wagyu, the best duck, and the best Key West shrimp I’ve ever eaten. These proteins were all prepared in a unique way; still, there was something very familiar about them. The same can be said for most of the 14-course meal, which as a whole stood out less for being experimental and more for tasting outrageously good.

Dinner lasted a little more than three hours, and the entire time, Chef Achatz could be seen surveying the room. Indeed, when a member of our party left to go to the restroom, he was the first one to notice her napkin falling to the floor and immediately motioned for a server to retrieve it. It was so discreet yet a testament to his unwavering degree of involvement in the entire Alinea experience even ten years later.

The staff members here redefine the meaning of professionalism, but what’s most impressive is the ease with which they perform. They play off one another like seasoned stage actors, and they have a good time while they’re at it. They know how to indulge guests with jokes and witty banter, and they were an integral part of making the night fun and memorable.

As we were getting ready to leave, a member of our six-person party began to tear up because she was so moved by the experience. I, on the other hand, lamented that I’d have post-Alinea depression — a common symptom associated with having the best meal of one’s life.

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.