Retrospective: Alinea at Eleven Madison Park

(Note: Although I uploaded photos of this dinner to my Flickr right after the event took place, I never wrote about it. Since then, the P.G. has asked me several times to post about it. So, Louis, this one’s for you! Happy Birthday!! )

In August 2012, the food world was all abuzz with the announcement that Eleven Madison Park and Alinea were undertaking a project called “The 21st Century Limited,” named after the famous train that ran between NYC and Chicago. The plan: the two restaurants would trade places. For five days in September, Chef Grant Achatz and his Alinea team would take over the kitchen at EMP, and in October, Chef Daniel Humm and his EMP team would do the same at Alinea.

Michael and I were among those fortunate to attend Alinea at EMP and shared the experience with our friends Jose Moran Moyer and Elise Porter.

Walking through the familiar revolving doors, we were immediately signaled that we were being “transported” to a restaurant 800 miles from NYC. Gone were EMP’s floral arrangements. Instead, there was this display:

Alinea at Eleven Madison Park

When we were escorted to our table, it also looked very different. Instead of EMP’s formal white cloth skirted in gray, we found this:

Table for Four

The meal included wine pairings. My pairings were non-alcoholic. First up, a cocktail: Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée St. Anne with Lillet, Vya Sweet, Peychaud’s, Thai Long Peppercorn. And for me, a Sparkling Cocktail of Ginger & Elderberry.


Sparkling Cocktail

What followed was a multi-course tasting dinner.  Many of the dishes Alinea signatures.  Some were just one bite; others somewhat larger. Often they came with instructions as to how they should be eaten.

Butternut, Muscovado, Finger Lime, West Indies


As you can see, the glass things turned out to be holders for the tubes.

After we drank the Butternut and the glass holders were removed, we were told to sweep the leaves onto the floor! Then, a tall glass cylinder filled with sand was placed on the table and left there, its purpose not to be revealed for a bit.

Sand in a Glass

From the Sea: Oyster Leaf Mignonette; King Crab – Celery, Meyer Lemon, Mustard; Sea Urchin – White Chocolate, Yuzu, Wasabi; Lobster – Trinity, Sherry, Chervil; Taylor Bay Scallop – Onion, Champagne, Osetra; Razor Clam- Shiso, Soy, Daikon

From the Sea

Yuba Prawn, Togarashi, Miso

Yuba Prawn

At this point, the sand was poured in little mounds in front of each of us.

Sand Out of a Glass

The sand was the base to hold the next course. Otoro, Thai Banana, Sea Salt, Kaffir Lime.


So, how did they clean up the sand? Easy! They gathered up the tablecloth and removed it, thereby revealing another cloth.

Reveal: New Table Cover

The colors in the composition of the next course matched the colors on the cloth which could be seen through the glass plate:
Corn, Huitlacoche, Sour Cherry, Silk


The colorful cloth was removed revealing yet another cloth, a stone was placed in front of each of us, and the next course was placed on the stone: Brook Trout, Sage Bourbon, Nasturtium.

Brook Trout

Brook Trout

The next three courses…
Woodcock, Lingonberry, Shallot, Oak Leaves


Matsutake, Pork, Huckleberry, Pine


Hot Potato, Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter

Hot Potato

Then, the table was covered with brown boards. If there is such a thing as a “main course” with this kind of dinner, I guess this next course would be it. On the menu we were given at the end of the meal, it was listed like this: Lamb …..?????…..!!!!! Placed in front of each of us was a plate of lamb prepared five different ways.


In the center of the table was a large glass sheet which held a variety of ingredients.


We were instructed to choose whichever ones we wanted to accompany the different styles of lamb. Since we would determine how the lamb dish would be “composed,” ergo, all those ?’s and !’s.

The center board was removed, but the other boards were kept in place as five more courses followed.
Black Truffle Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan

Black Truffle

Honey was placed on the table, its use to be determined.


Ginger, Five Other Flavors


Concord Grape Crispy & Cold

Concord Grape

Carrot, Coconut, White Sesame, Caramelized Honey



Here’s where the honey came into play.



Balloon – Helium, Green Apple


We were instructed to inhale it. I didn’t. But the others did. Michael somehow managed to end up like this:


The boards were removed. Time for Chef Grant Achatz’s famous dessert: Dark Chocolate Pinata, Chestnut, Rye, Birch Syrup. Chef Achatz came to the table to make it happen.

Dark Chocolate Pinata

After a short series of steps, the “piñata” was smashed.

Dark Chocolate Pinata

It then became a do-it-yourself dessert thingy.

To clear the dessert mess the easy way, the tablecloth was gathered up and removed. Et, voila!

Riviera Tea

The final tablecloth reveal, white skirted with grey, signaled that we had finished our journey to Alinea and were back at EMP.

So, how was the food? I would describe it as interesting and playful. There were a few things that I felt were delicious though not so much so that they stand out in my memory. But, overall, it is not the kind of food I love. To be honest, if Michael and I had had this meal on our own at Alinea in Chicago, I would have come away disappointed. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to try Achatz’s style of cuisine. Doing it at EMP and sharing the experience with Jose and Elise made it a fun and memorable evening.

To see the entire set of photos from this dinner, including the wine and non-alcoholic pairings, click here.


One Response to “Retrospective: Alinea at Eleven Madison Park”

  1. Eugene Says:

    I really wanted to try this event at EMP but they accepted reservations for two or more people (as you know, I am a single diner, ha) so I had to pass. I tried Alinea in early 2013 though, when I visited Chicago, and I felt the same as you did. While interesting, its foods were not really outstanding or exceptionally delicious.

    Grace on the other hand, a relatively newer restaurant in Chicago, really blew me away.

    P.S. I have moved to Hong Kong now, and I am enjoying delicious fine dining Chinese cuisine here, lol. Glad to see you are doing well.

    Best regards.


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