Thursday, September 30, 2010

Alinea Party Favors a/k/a The Menu

Our Menu at Alinea
Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's famed restaurant in Chicago, is as much an art installation as it is a restaurant. It's like the best museum in the world because after you observe the art, you get to eat it. Where else can you do that?

Kuzak and I managed to squeeze in our second trip to Alinea last week, while we were in Chicago for a friend's wedding. A meal here is a three to four hour commitment. The service is like a well-orchestrated ballet. The serving dishes are little works of art designed by the chef, many of which require instruction manuals.

I chose not to photograph the meal for three reasons. 1) I didn't want to be distracted from the meal for one millisecond, 2) I'd never get photographs that are as fabulous as those in Alinea's cookbook (which I highly recommend checking out), and 3) the only way to truly appreciate Alinea is to dine there.

When we arrived at our table, a server whisked out a "center piece" that looked like to white flags hanging from wire contraptions with edible flowers pressed inside their white fabric. We were informed that we'd be eating it as part of an upcoming course. Only at Alinea, right? The center piece turned out to be part of the "Pork Belly, Curry, Cucumber, Lime" course.

Halfway through our meal, an elaborate dish was brought out that required us to set up metal prongs. Then, our server carefully laid the "flower flags" over the prongs, displaying them before us. A heaping tablespoon of braised pork belly was placed in the center of the flags, which turned out to be made out of rice paper. Another plate with additives was placed before us, everything from mango, to tiny cucumber balls, to spices. We were told we could add whichever ingredients we wanted, and then to fold up the rice paper and eat the wrap. Not only was this fun, interactive finger food, but it tasted fabulous (but when has pork belly not tasted fabulous?).

We loved all the dishes, the King Crab, Pheasant, and "Tournedo" of Wagyu beef being favorites. But the piece de resistance, as I've been referring to it, had to be the final dessert which was a new creation they were rolling out that night. Humbly named, "Chocolate, Apricot, Honey, Peanut," the course began with the waiter instructing Kuzak to sit next to me. Then, a gray latex tablecloth was laid over our table. Clearly, this was about to get down and dirty.

A few minutes later, the chef himself emerged from the kitchen with an array of bowls and utensils. The chef began painting on the tablecloth before us, using different preparations of chocolate, apricot, and peanut. This dish was literally a piece of art. The final touch was a large brick of liquid nitrogen frozen milk chocolate which was placed in the center of the table, amidst the artwork, while still oozing nitrogen steam. The chef broke it into pieces. It was time to eat.

We dug into the dish, loving all the flavors. This dish was truly out of Willy Wonka's handbook. I kept thinking about how much a kid would have loved to eat the peanut butter and chocolate concoction. After a minute, I abandoned any pretense of using "utensils" and began eating with my hands.

The magic of Alinea isn't the incredibly complicated dishes with their array of components and techniques. It's not the Alice in Wonderland portal you walk through to enter the restaurant. It's not even the well-flavored and balanced dishes, which amaze as much as they satiate. It's the way that Chef Achatz forces you to interact with his food, the way a child does when he or she is beginning to eat solid food for the first time. This cuisine challenges everything you know about food and how it's supposed to be eaten. He makes you rethink it. And then, he asks you to play with it.

When you leave Alinea, you always depart with a party favor. It's the menu with the date and a list of all the courses you ate that night (no menu is presented to you when you sit down, and the meal is always a surprise). We feasted on 21 different creations that night, each listed out with a main flavor, subsidiary flavors, and dancing bubbles that read like sheet music. The bubble's position indicates if it's sweeter or more savory by its right to left orientation, and how large the course was by its relative size to the other courses. Our menu is pictured above for your enjoyment.

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