When my husband came home one day talking about an interview he heard on NPR, I was immediately interested in the topic: Alinea. An award-winning restaurant in Chicago and its Chef: Grant Achatz,
The avant-garde restaurant and the chef have won accolades galore for innovative cuisine. Atchatz and a few chefs around the globe have been experimenting with the art of dining, elevating it to a new level. Some might call it gimmicky, but I found it fascinating. It’s been described as the kitchen-as-laboratory trend. Food is manipulated and combined in totally unexpected ways using unusual preparation techniques.
It’s been called molecular gastronomy, whatever that means.
I got so excited about my husband’s description of the restaurant I suggested we might go there to celebrate my upcoming birthday.
Dining die-hards have been raving about Alinea and its chef, so I’ll leave complexities of the food preparation to the professionals and simply record my impressions.
First of all, you don’t go to Alinea for dinner. You go there for a “Dining Experience.” And that it is. Everything is carefully orchestrated, no, make that “choreographed” for a total immersion. Multiple servers quietly glide about presenting each of the 12 dishes on the fixed menu, explaining the complexities while the sommelier shares tidbits of wisdom on how to appreciate the wines that were served.
While this doesn’t sound all that different from the typical fine dining experience, it is. Very different.
The experience began when we entered unremarkable gray metal doors, finding ourselves a long fuchsia lit tunnel-like foyer with undulating walls. Unexpectedly half way down to our left, sliding doors automatically opened. We were warmly greeted and ushered upstairs to one of a series of small rooms each spaciously arranged with only a few tables.
As I made my way up the glass stairwell, noticing the glowing and glimmering lights, I knew I was in for a visual and tasty treat.
We elected to try the 12-course option and accompanying wine pairings. No menu was presented. This was on purpose: everything was planned to be a surprise and each course was its own “special experience.”
While the idea of 12 courses sounds daunting many were only one bite.
For example, we were served one bite of goose meat skewered on a heated juniper branch. The aroma evoked in me memories of Christmas holidays. The meat was infused with prune puree and prepared tempura style.
Another one-bite course was The Truffle Explosion: a piece of ravioli with a burst of intense black truffle liquid inside. The server advised us to put the whole thing in the mouth and keep the “lips closed.” Good advice.
One course consisted of a small spoon of peanut butter that turned into powder in the mouth. Not sure how it did that!
I loved the hot potato, cold potato course. This consisted of a ball of potato, simmered in clarified butter and covered by black truffles that was skewered on a steel pin along with cubes of Parmesan, butter and chives. We were instructed to slide these items off the needle allowing them to fall into a cold potato soup and then savor the mouthful of soup while tasting two temperatures at once. Amazing.
Get the idea?
Not only were the tastes, combinations and preparations surprises, but also the presentation evoked a series of “Wows.”
A deconstructed Crème Brule arrived on a linen pillow filled with nutmeg infused steam. As the weight of the plate caused the pillow to deflate, an aromatic steam filled the air space around us added immensely to the experience.
We were served chocolate mousse frozen with liquid nitrogen and various other sweet confections on the table with no plates at all. First servers removed everything from the table and then rolled out a velvety silicone covering over the entire table. Then Chef Grant Achatz himself arranged the dessert directly on the silicone, applying dollops of goodies in artistic profusion. I had a hard time eating delicious rubble off the table, thinking of years of drilling table manners into my children, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
I loved the ambiance of the restaurant—low key and tasteful—a perfect backdrop for the “food as art” meal. Nothing overpowered the focus of attention, the Birthday feast we enjoyed and will always remember.