"Science is an integral part of cooking. What we (the so-called "molecular gastronomists") are doing is about far more than science; it's about crafting an experience, about creativity, and about change."
That's Grant Achatz, chef at Alinea restaurant in Chicago, speaking about molecular gastronomy, in an essay for The Atlantic Food Channel.
Alinea was named the 10th best restaurant in the world. Achatz was profiled last year in The New Yorker. And there's rarely a mention of molecular gastronomy without Alinea entering the conversation. So there has been no shortage of attention for this restaurant.
I recently had the opportunity to dine here as a birthday treat. Let me just get this out of the way: Yes, I do think this is the top restaurant meal I've had. It wasn't 100 percent successful on every count, but this was an experience like no other. For the spots where it fell short, there were other ways in which it made up for it.
Before and after this trip, people were baffled that I would travel just for dinner. Most were unfamiliar with and puzzled by molecular gastronomy. And it's not easy to explain, but Achatz encompasses it well in that quote. One person likened Alinea to a food spa. Not only is it difficult to explain what exactly this dinner entails, even more so to explain why.
This dinner was truly an experience - all of your senses are engaged in ways that give you a heightened awareness of them. Rather than a meal being a long empty highway were you can zone out, these meals are like busy crossroads where your undivided attention is needed. This meal challenges our conventional notion of food, of eating and of cooking. Essentially, at Alinea, food is broken down to its components and all the elements are rebuilt in a an order different from the one in which we expect them. In doing this, Alinea brings a greater focus to the process. At Alinea, you are doing much more than just nourishing yourself.
Before I go on, I must make an important note. Reading this entry might be like reading a TV show finale spoiler. For anyone who might one day decide to attend an Alinea dinner, I warn you that surprise is a large part of what made this experience fun and amazing. And for that reason, I was glad to have an early seating before any other tables. That way, every part of the meal was a mystery until the moment we were served. As we left, the room had filled and if people were paying attention to other tables (it would be hard not to), some of that discovery would be taken away too early. But it's possible the menu will change over time as Achatz invents new dishes.
We arrived at the restaurant for a 5:45 p.m. reservation, booked more than two months earlier. Behind the front door we entered what looked like a hallway with no exit. As we approached the other end, a door to our left automatically opened to reveal the restaurant's interior.
We were brought up to the second floor and into the still-empty front dining room, a formal, intimidating atmosphere. Servers at the ready, prepared to swoop in and present this evening in a controlled environment. Why would a chef choose to construct such a rigid atmosphere? The meal is often playful and so, perhaps such a formal setting is necessary to prevent that playfulness from deteriorating into silliness.
We all know how to eat, but at Alinea, you need instructions on how to eat the dishes this kitchen has prepared. There exists a complexity and a depth to this meal that is not present elsewhere. In a way, it is more mindful eating because we put more focus on what exactly we are putting into our mouths and our senses of smell and sight are enhanced.
We opted for the 12-course tasting menu over the 24-course tour. Other than wine, that is the only choice we had to make for the night. No menu is brought to the table. Here, the menu comes at the end as a reminder and souvenir of the night.
Alinea does a terrific job of offering a flexible, customized wine pairing for the meal. We were able to specify that we wanted only white wines and small pours.
With that out of the way, a mysterious stone vase was set on our table. We were told that the chef likes interactive centerpieces, but we were to admire this aesthetically until it was time for it to become part of the meal.
Henriot Brut with chartreuse, akavit, and orange curacao
A good, refreshing starter with a citrusy bent to it.
Osetra: traditional garnishes
Osetra Caviar with brioche foam, red onion, dill and caper gelee, and a salty creme fraiche. This was the simplest of the dishes we had this evening, an easing-in to the meal. The foam tasted just like a piece of toast as you might expect to eat with caviar.
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Vaile Isarco, Alto Adige 2008
Our bushy-haired sommelier explained to us that with this wine, made from an Alsatian grape, all the sugar is fermented out.
Pork Belly: iceberg: cucumber: Thai distillation
Pork Belly confit covered with a few slices of fried garlic and herbs in a cucumber-infused iceberg lettuce cup with coconut curry sits on top of basil seed and lemon vinaigrette. The dish is served with a shotglass containing a distillation of Thai flavors and a dollop of red bell pepper puree.
We were told to drink the shot first. Somehow, it perfectly conjured up the essence of Thai flavors and managed to do it in a way that the liquid form, though unfamiliar, didn't seem unappetizing. (For more on how that comes together, read Achatz's own post about it. It's fascinating.) As we marveled in the tender, fatty meat, my dining companion uttered a telling line, "This just killed Thai food for me." The red bell pepper puree seemed to play off the idea of Sriracha. It was an outstanding dish.
Lilac: scallop: shellfish: honeydew
The server explained that the chef really likes to play with aroma and seafood. Here the soothing scent of lilac wafted over what seemed to be an inspired Bouillabaisse. The rich, creamy seafood broth, resembling a lobster bisque, contained bites of sweet scallop, mussels and clams interspersed with celery leaves, horseradish gelee and lilac pillows, the texture of flan and mild in flavor. It was all surrounded by a honeydew foam. Mixing fruits and vegetables can sometimes seem like an odd combination but here, the similarly green, mild produce matched well.
Albert Mann Vieilles Vignes Auxerrois, Alsace 2007
Wagyu Beef: powdered A-1: potato: chips
Here, our aesthetic centerpiece was brought into action. Liquid poured into the stone vase produced a stunning display of fog - it brought the smell of the grill to the table. The server explained that this dish was the chef's take on Americana, the idea of meat and potatoes.
A spare presentation: a rectangle of rare beef with a small pile of sea salt and pepper to the right, a croquette of salt-and-vinegar potato chip-encrusted potato custard to the left. We were instructed to tear the partially open packet of powdered A-1 and use it like any condiment - as little or as much as we liked. The combination of anchovy, raisin, tamarind and clove reproduced the flavor of steak sauce impressively. This was my favorite composition of the night. I rarely eat steak, so the fact that I liked this so much greatly surprised me and was a testament to how good it was. The meat was rich and not chewy and I thought the whole idea was crafted in a fun, nostalgic way. The potato custard was an original one-bite take using some very basic ingredients.
Hot Potato: Cold Potato: black truffle: butter
Using miniature tongs, the waiter carefully placed before us a small waxy bowl of cold potato soup. A pin piercing the bowl suspended a round of Yukon gold potato covered with a truffle sliver, a bit of chive, a cube of butter and a cube of parmesan over the soup. Our directions were to pull the pin out - like activating a grenade - dropping the ingredients into the soup. Then, tip it back like an oyster shooter. The soup and the mix of ingredients were good, though I thought the texture of the soup was slightly gritty.
Having control of the finishing touch to the dish, diners take a role that is active in more than just eating; it's a subtle connection to the chef and the kitchen. But this dish was also entertaining. As children, we're told not to play with our food; here, it's a dining playground. The servers - who were always prompt at clearing the table as soon as we were done eating - removed the pins using a magnetic stick.
Another interactive centerpiece was our entry into the "summer garden" - a large bowl with leafy greens weighed down with smooth sizzling stones to help release an herbaceous aroma.
Tomato: fig: Nicoise olive: pine nuts
An heirloom tomato salad with jagged puddles of a thick fig and olive sauce. An icy snowball of olive oil. A sticky log of pine nut paste. Halved figs topped with sprigs of basil. A crunchy granola-like crumble with the flavors of olive, pumpernickel and tomato. White pearls of mastic cream.
This was the least successful dish in presentation and the flavors were similarly scattered. It just never came together. I may be slightly biased because I don't much like olives and didn't love the flavor of the sauce. The pine nut paste had the consistency of a too-thick peanut butter. The bits of basil were the best part because they helped brighten up the dish. The olive oil snow was an interesting idea - it was very cold and tasted of olive oil - but it was hard to understand how or why this should pair well with the tomato. This was the only course where I didn't clean up every last bite.
Black Truffle Explosion: romaine: parmesan
A single raviolo filled with liquid truffle, topped with truffle shavings and wilted romaine lettuce and parmesan cradled in a spoon.
An addition to the menu for the night, the chef's whim. We were told to eat this in one bite and to make sure we kept our lips closed so as not to lose the liquidy center. After explaining the ingredients, the waiter warned us about the sauce beneath it - what appeared to be sauce was in fact the black table seen through a gaping hole in the bottom of the bowl. A clever optical illusion! And a gift of truffles I'll take any day.
The next three dishes were brought out together. The chef wanted us to start with the shot glass and move on to the other two as we preferred.
Watermelon: lime: nasturtium
A shot of watermelon juice with a waxy ball in the center that broke apart like a thin piece of ice. Well, it did after the second try. The first time I tried, the ball stayed put in the bottom of the glass and as I tried to shake it out, a waiter came over and said that that sometimes happens and a new one was already on its way. The flavors in this dish were all quite mild with the flowery aftertaste. Perhaps meant more as a palate cleanser as we moved from our savory dishes to the sweet.
Bubble Gum: long pepper: hibiscus: creme fraiche
To tackle this, we had to pick up the test tube like a cigar and suck out the ingredients. The flavors were not explained, perhaps to increase the shock factor of this dish. As I watched my friend take on hers, her eyes widened, in a quick moment of distaste (for the bubblegum) that quickly morphed into delight. When I tasted this myself, the distinct and very recognizable flavor of bubble gum was most dominant, and the texture of tapioca the most familiar, but I delighted in the combination. The other segments were backup players. We are so accustomed to eating with utensils; this was another reminder by Achatz that we can eat using other forms. In his way, the order in which we taste the flavors are more controlled. It provides a different perspective on what tastes go together and how flavors combine in ways we might not expect
Bacon: butterscotch: apple: thyme
A single strip of bacon hung from a wire like an acrobat, hugged by a butterscotch wrapper and a bit of thyme. A gentle tug on the bacon released it from its rocking contraption and sent it on its journey into our mouths. Sweet and salty, a gentle progression into dessert.
Elio Perrone Bigaro, Piedmont, Italy 2008
Ruby red dessert wine, similar to Moscato D'Asti.
Blackberry: goat milk: onion: lavender air
First, a large white pillow was set before each of us. Then, the plate with the actual dessert of goat's milk cheesecake was placed on top. The weight of the dish deflated the pillow and released the scent of lavender. The cheesecake was topped with a wisp of cotton candy, dollops of blackberry and bites of sweet onion, pomegranate seeds and lavender gel drops. There was a definite color coordination to this plate. The cheesecake was rich and tasted of goat cheese but there was just the right amount of it on the plate and it was a mellow backdrop for the fruty parts of the dessert. The onion was the most unusual flavor - though sweet, it's distinct tanginess was still somewhat jarring.
Chocolate: blueberry: tobacco: maple
This was a walnut crumble with a milk chocolate ice cream and maple sapling consume inside of what looked like a gelatin skin. The tobacco was in the cream, but I don't recall it having much of a flavor. Some of the chocolate was freeze-dried (I was slightly familiar with this from my meal at La Vineria in Buenos Aires). The sweet maple and walnuts were the prominent flavors and it reminded me of breakfast cereal. I preferred the cheesecake over this, while my dining companion favored this dessert.
Sweet Potato: bourbon: brown sugar: smoldering cinnamon
A glowing cinnamon stick, like incense, served as the utensil for this dish. The stick pierced a tempura-fried ball of sweet potato puree mixed with brown sugar that sat inside a pronged basket. To eat it, we lifted up the cinnamon stick and ate the croquette off the end. It seemed to be meant to provide the aroma of cinnamon as well, but that didn't come out very powerfully. But the sweetness of the croquette was slightly too strong. And maybe I just am not that big a fan of bourbon. So it was with some sadness that we ended on one of the lower notes.
With just a couple of less than stellar parts of the meal, the only other criticism was that the proportion of sweet to savory dishes felt too equal. While I love dessert and sweets, I would have liked to see more of the savory side of Achatz. But, it's hard to complain because every dish felt like it brought something unique - in presentation and smell, if not in taste. It was a filling and satisfying meal. And I hope to one day return for the full tour.