Long ago, it was foreordained that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I would eat at Alinea.
Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter
Alinea is not just another excellent restaurant. Alinea is unalike anything else. And, by all accounts, superb. Ruth Reichl gave it more than a thumbs up. This year she proclaimed it to be the best eating establishment in America.
King crab, vinegar, aromatics, rice
I hesitate to even call Alinea a restaurant. There isn’t a conventional menu. You call, ask for a table years in advance and commit yourself to either one dozen or two dozen works of artistic degustation. (And, if you want to avoid a free ride to debtors’ prison, you stay hushed and quiet when someone else meekly offers to pick up the check.)
I chose two dozen.
Trout roe, cucumber, coconut, bonito
No one doubts Alinea constructs miniature masterpieces. But this is not what places it apart from virtually any eatery in the world. Alinea minutely zeroes in on the physiochemical aspects of food and creates sensations that are carefully engineered to excite, even astonish the palate.
Medai, radish, coriander, poppyseed
Molecular gastronomy: working with the temperature, texture and physical structure of food, with instruments and utensils designed especially to lend support to the Chef’s imagination.
Matsutake, mango, peanut, yuzu rind
From the NYT Magazine (8.27.06):
With solid sauces, Achatz [Chef and owner] explains, “flavor release” is key. Jellies are essentially flavor elements suspended in a neutral medium. Bound in their carrier matrix, the flavor molecules are relatively inaccessible to the taste buds, so the jelly is first experienced primarily as texture. At a certain temperature, different for each agent, the molecular mesh relaxes and the flavor is released. With gelatin, this occurs at body temperature; in Achatz’s Mussel Cream with Mint and Chamomile Jelly, the herbal flavor blooms in the mouth as the gelatin melts.
Jellies, frozen encasements, clouds of froth, spicy grains, solids, liquids, even smoke. Nothing in the listing of ingredients prepares you for the presentation.
Rabbit, cider, roasted garlic, smell of burning leaves
Achatz is terribly young to be doing such innovation. Or maybe not, considering that he was prepping and plating foods in his dad’s straightforward restaurant in Michigan since he was twelve. And doing a better job of it than the hired cooks, according to the dad.
Not satisfied with the ordinariness of cooking in most every restaurant, Achatz left Michigan, studied at the Culinary Institute and came back (via the French Laundry) to Chicago. Since then, he has been soaring to heretofore undisclosed culinary spaces. Without pause, without time off.
Carrot, smoked paprika, orange
From Food & Wine:
Once, before a holiday break [from the Culinary Institute], he called home and asked his mom to track down emu so he could cook it for a party. As his mother, Barb Strachan, recalls, "That’s when we knew he wasn’t going to do regular food."
Kobe short rib, beets, cranberry, campari
Deconstructed food. It would appeal to a writer, no? Even one who appears ever so slightly to be stuck on conventional processes. The challenge of seeing something differently. Alinea – a typographical sign formerly used in printed texts. It indicated the beginning of a new train of thought, a new paragraph.
White truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan
We enter through an unmarked door. No sign of a restaurant thus far. A tunnel-like, geometric space. A heavy door opens to the side and the silent corridor is suddenly a thing of the past. We are surrounded by a smiling, welcoming staff and, immediately to our right, the open entrance to the kitchen.
I hand over my coat, but my eyes are on the kitchen. Salt and pepper figures, some in white and black, some in black, moving deftly between stations. But are there even stations? The surfaces heat, freeze, dehydrate, rehydrate. Unlike in the land of Oz, you are introduced to the magic behind the curtain from the moment you step inside.
Squab, huckleberry, sorrel, long peppercorn
We sit down at a dark wood table. Rosemary sprigs to the side, a cloth napkin with the mark of an alinea.
Foie gras, spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit
And the presentations begin. Wines are paired with dishes (although you could order them by the bottle or not at all if that is your wish). Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Soave, Black Noble…
Concord grape, frozen and chewy
Careful construction. Some morsels float above the plate, others swim out from beneath glassware. But there is no gimmickry. As you savor, you understand the intent. It makes sense. Sensual, all senses engaged.
Chestnut, Blis maple syrup
Excuse me, are you a photojournalist?
No, not exactly... Is this your first time here?
Yes. We are celebrating our 11th anniversary.
Food and marriage, partnership in eating. Engaged, tickled, amused, satisfied.
Persimmon, brioche, mace grapefruit
Our headwaiter is, by birth, from Bulgaria.
The Chef works all the time! Since I have known him, maybe he has not been in the kitchen once? Twice?
The long hours of Alinea. We come at 9:30 and leave after 1:30. And we are not the last to leave.
Quince, prosciutto, orange, juniper
Perfectionism. I strive for it in a few places I fall off on others. At Alinea, it is a necessity. For without it, the dish tumbles and fails. Precision. All for the sake of a blissful harmony of flavors.
Shellfish, gooseberries, horseradish, celery ice
Do you allow children here? I ask. At this hour of course there are no children.
We do not set rules about this. But the experience is lost on them. Still, we had someone come with a baby. The baby cried, the other diners were upset. They are spending a lot of money to eat here. The meal is long – this is a tough place to bring a young child to. But we leave it to the parent.
Hamachi, buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts
You asked us about dietary restrictions. We have none. What if we did?
The chef accommodates them. We recently had a vegan – virtually every dish had to be modified. We did it. The woman went away so happy. She had not eaten this well in years! The chef saw it as a challenge. And really, everyone should walk away satisfied.
Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper
Several of us had researched each ingredient so that we would not have to ask.
Mastic: an evergreen shrub from the Mediterranean region; resin from it is used in liquors and as a spice…
The waiters place the springs of rosemary into a hot slate. The dish has no rosemary in it, but the aroma from the heated needles floats over the bit of meat, creating the sensation of flavor.
Lamb, date, mastic, rosemary aroma
Uncommon couplings follow.
Venison encased in savory granola
Raspberry, goat milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio
And the presentations continue to take the breath away. Instructions are often needed.
You can eat the leaves wrapped around the piece of cake, but they may be a bit rough. Try blending bits of cake with the accompaniments.
Licorice cake, spiced with hoja santa leaves
At this point, the digestive track sends me messages: I am near capacity, mine warns me.
Has anyone ever complained of not enough food in this place?
Actually, yes. We had a table – they had read we were good but they did not know about our style of preparing foods. Maybe they thought there wasn’t enough meat, of the steak type. Conversely, we have had people get up and say – we cannot eat any more. And we cannot send doggie bags home.
Chocolate, bergamot, cassia, figs
We can barely finish. Comfortable clothing, I tell you. One has to wear comfortable clothing. Nothing should distract. You have paid, someone has paid, a virtual airfare to get you to dine here. You are on a culinary island. It is a vacation from the ordinary.
Caramel, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume
I have no critical comments to offer. Chef Achatz has envisioned something so sensual, so intense that I am left speechless.
To do something that well in whatever field boggles the mind. And in the kitchen, where I know enough to smell culinary genius, I am ready to describe it as such when I encounter it. Sure, it can be in the home kitchen of someone fastidiously rolling out the perfect pierogi dough. Or it can be at Alinea. It is at Alinea. My hat is off, totally, completely.
in the wee hours of the night, conferring