Frankly, I was a little apprehensive as I approached Alinea’s unmarked door several weeks ago to meet my close friend from high school, Ageless Dr. M., and his partner G, in town from the East Coast, for our dinner reservation. Despite, arguably, being the most talked-about and most written-about restaurant in Chicago, and a true dining destination (anecdotally, I’ve heard that around 60% of the restaurant’s nightly reservations are from out-of-towners) I haven’t been back in close to three years – since my wondrous, mind-expanding dinner with BFF Rene which landed at the top of my most memorable dining experiences of that year. With the financial and time commitment it requires, it’s not like you can go to Alinea any old day of the week because you don’t feel like cooking or you feel like celebrating a good performance review or a Cubs win. I also feel that dining there is such a singular experience, creating wonderful new memories and strengthening old ones, that you want to have the right dining companions to savor its pleasures and surprises with; the unexpected, daring, yet thoughtful connections it makes between food, chef, and diner over the course of several hours. Ageless Dr. M is one of my oldest friends from the Philippines and is passionate, like me, about all things culinary (and, unlike me, is quite the home cook), so during his and G’s visit to Chicago, Alinea needed to be part of the weekend itinerary, no question about it. But part of me still wondered – would Grant Achatz’s acclaimed “molecular gastronomy” cuisine still blow me out of the water and into the stratosphere, the second time around? Might those still-vividly etched memories of my first encounter with his food lose some of their burnish because this next go-round would feel somewhat familiar or comfortable? I’m glad to say, though, that dining at Alinea in early April was like dining there for the first time once again (a very welcome culinary Ground Hog Day) – astounding, breathtaking, horizon-broadening, thought-provoking, definitely not familiar nor comfortable, and yes, delicious to the last bite. The big Chicago food news this week was of Alinea being voted #7 in the world and #1 in North America in Restaurant Magazine and San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, finally overtaking a restaurant owned by Achatz’s mentor, Thomas Keller, as the best in the region (either The French Laundry or Per Se had occupied the top regional slot since the list’s inception in the early 2000s). I couldn’t loudly, whoopingly, agree more, and with my recent experience, I’m pretty convinced Alinea would crack that top 5 (all held by European restaurants) pretty soon. I think that unmarked, nondescript black townhouse on Halsted St. contains, behind its doors, what 21st century fine dining is and should continue to be.