"Did that work?" Nick Kokonas asks from the atrium of the recently renovated Alinea. It's Tuesday afternoon. The restaurant reopens on Friday night, after undergoing a five-month, seven-figure facelift. And its owner can't find the light switch. "I'm still learning where everything is," he says as the lights turn on over the service station in one of the four dining rooms — each of which has totally different decor and an entirely new menu. Meanwhile, Grant Achatz is fixed to his station in the kitchen — where you can find him from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on his day off, according to Kokonas — trimming an artichoke with the precision of a surgeon.
Kokonas' confusion is warranted. Nearly everything about the restaurant has changed, from the removal of the iconic steel and glass spiral staircase, to the retirement of tried-and-tested dishes such as "hot potato, cold potato" and "black truffle explosion". However, both he and Achatz agree that — in many ways — this is still the same Alinea they set out to create in 2005. "The restaurant is radically different, yet somehow feels the same to me — the smells are sort of the same, the room layout is relatively the same, the kitchen has new lipstick, but is basically the same," Achatz says. "But it somehow feels risky and that motivates us."
While the original Alinea was theatrical, dark and moody with an arguably magician like sensibility, the new Alinea 2.0 feels a bit like the curtain has been lifted. The new decor reads resoundingly modern, with airy white and grey finishes as well as a design that explicitly calls out the historical elements of the space, such as ornate crown molding and the coffered ceiling, similar to the one Achatz cooked under during his time at The French Laundry. Here and now, Eater takes a look at the restaurant that was and the process that went into this epic makeover.
When Achatz and Kokonas opened Alinea, they had a simple goal, according to Kokonas, and that was to serve "fun and delicious" food. Plus, be one of the best restaurants in the world. "I feel like when we opened Alinea 11 years ago, my hair was on fire to prove to the world what you can do with food," Achatz says. The establishment was quickly dubbed a triumph — earning multiple James Beard Foundation Awards, AAA's Five-Diamond Award, and a spot on San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list — and temple to molecular gastronomy, producing such unforgettable dishes as an edible green apple balloon filled with helium and tied off with dehydrated apple string. By 2011, it became the first restaurant in Chicago to earn three Michelin stars.
The Alinea experience was served in 30 courses over three hours — an edible magic show of sorts, built in part to shock and awe. Right before diners' eyes, a skewered hot potato would drop into chilled potato soup when he or she removed a metal pin it was suspended on. But the owners agree that the illusion is only entertaining so many times. "Once you know how the trick is done, some of that magic is gone," Kokonas explains. The same goes for the restaurant itself, which was known for its dramatic hallway that led diners towards the stainless steel kitchen and charcoal dining room accented by more metal and glass.
This is why, when the restaurant hit its ten-year mark, Kokonas and Achatz decided to tear the whole thing down. They took all of the money they made in 2015, the restaurant's most financially successful year, plus some more and poured it into a new Alinea. "It's not very often, or ever, that a Michelin three-star restaurant has physically changed its appearance so drastically, totally thrown out the food, and started over," Achatz says.
The new aha moment comes after the host stand, when guests are ushered though a large wooden door. Past it is "The Gallery", a circular dining room tucked beneath a curved staircase and LED chandelier imported from London (photo right). Here, Achatz offers the most experimental of three menus, influenced in part by the recent Alinea pop-ups in Madrid and Miami as well as the The Progression, which popped up for a few days in the former Moto space. The 16- to 18-course menu, priced between $285 and $345 per person, will play with plating, sound, and even the configuration of the dining room — offering some parts of the meal privately and others communally. Down a narrow hallway is the kitchen as well as the kitchen table — a glass-encased six-top is seated twice a night to offer the most lavish experience of all, topping out at $385 per person.
Upstairs three separate dining rooms combine to form "The Salon", decorated in art curated by Chicago gallery owner Thomas Masters. They collectively offer a more "affordable" Alinea experience. The ten to 14-course menu, priced between $175 and $225 per person, provides the most "approachable" option from a culinary standpoint, too. Items juxtapose modern techniques with classic flavors. Although Achatz is reluctant to share dishes prior to the re-opening, he admits that one dish from The Progression makes a comeback. Veal cheek served in green curry with Thai flavors and romaine lettuce showcase his newfound restraint and renewed passion for unique plating.
"When we opened Alinea, one of our creative roads was to look at a dish on paper or in front of us and ask, ‘What else? What else can we do? What else can we add? What can we add to make this better?'" Achatz says. "Now, I feel like we find ourselves constantly asking, 'What can we take away?' I think the veal cheek dish with the romaine and Thai flavors is an example of the simplicity, cleanliness, crispness, and the new way we are presenting and composing it, with much less manipulation of components and instead honing in on main ingredients and hyper-focusing on them."
The theme of restraint and maturity echoes throughout Alinea 2.0, with the 42-year-old Achatz admitting today's diners do not want the parade of manipulated food his 30-year-old self was so fond of. Instead, they opt for bold flavors in a sophisticated setting. White plaster walls, plush grey banquettes, and creamy leather chairs frame his grown-up culinary perspective. Yet the resin-covered tables that make a bowl of jasmine, rambutan, white asparagus, and sake appear to float, suggest there is still plenty of magic left in Alinea.