It seems that fine dining in Chicago has gotten younger, or at least newer, in recent years. Scanning the recent Michelin guide, three of four 2-star restaurants—Sixteen, L2O, and Grace—feature chefs who’ve been in their kitchens two years or less. Everest, Spiaggia, and Les Nomades remain, but there are relatively few elder statesmen in the uppermost strata of Chicago fine dining. This raises the question: what do we make of restaurants like Alinea and Moto, which have now been around much longer than most of their contemporaries? Alinea helped lay the foundation for the youthful, modernist image Chicago enjoys, but it’s now tenured to the point that it’s time to consider how it will age. On the surface, it’s pretty obvious that Alinea is aging just fine, as evidenced by the gravitas of being awarded 3 Michelin stars for the past four years. Digging deeper, though, the question becomes not what makes Alinea special but how (and if) it manages to stay special?
Indeed, having last dined at Alinea in February of 2012, my brother and I were eager to see how it has evolved over the past two years. The most obvious change is that there is now a ticketing system, which adjusts the cost in accordance with reservation time. I love the new system because it’s so much simpler to make a reservation; the process was painless and because we found a 5:30 table, the cost was reasonable. There is definitely some swagger to the front of house. One week before the meal, someone from the restaurant contacted me to confirm allergies. I’ve never heard of a restaurant doing this so far in advance, although I suppose they can get away with it. Upon arriving, I was surprised when we were seated at an enormous 4-top, which suggests that perhaps they aren’t always filled to capacity. As one can see from the photo up top, there isn’t much table decoration to speak of, and the combination of the black tables and scant lighting make for one of the darkest of dining rooms.
I knew from reading blog posts that Alinea’s truncated their menu a bit and so I was pleased to find that the menu still features a burning leaf preparation. Titled “Burning Oak: pumpkin, birch,” it consisted of a tempura-battered croquette of pumpkin, enhanced by the aroma of burning oak. I love the preparation, not only because it tasted great but because of the creative use of pumpkin. Pumpkin amuse bouches are ubiquitous in November, but Alinea reworks it to creative effect. The title is also worth noting, as privileging the olfactory over the dominant ingredient immediately signals the restaurant’s polysensorial character.
Second was “Char Roe: matsutake, apple, mustard.” We enjoyed the simple seasonal flavors at work.
How does one react to receiving a dish like the one below? A substitute for the scallops that are normally served, we received a green papaya shell filled with kingfish, “citrus aroma” and “fourteen textures.” Of course, what one notices are the sfumato aesthetics created by the liquid nitrogen, which comingled with the black room to achieve a dramatic chiaroscuro effect. Not visible in the photo is the sound of running water—I’m not sure how they achieved it, but this sound continued while we consumed the food.
Everything tasted great, although with a course like this it becomes difficult to determine whether the emotions elicited are produced by the taste or the effects engendered by the visuals and sound effects. I would say that this dish was so memorable not because I’d never tasted anything like it but because I’d never encountered sounds and images like these in a restaurant setting. Accordingly, this dish is just one example of how Alinea’s food should be videotaped rather than photographed. Moreover, the elaborate serving vessel does call attention to one controversial motif of molecular gastronomy: the prop. One could easily point to this dish and declare that it’s gimmicky. Personally, I don’t take issue with the presentation, although I recognize that it’s in excess of what’s necessary. It’s also worth noting that my tolerance is enhanced by the fact that we were the first in the dining room; so much of the value of this course derives from surprise that to watch other tables experience it first would dilute its impact. More to the point, I don’t understand why it’s molecular gastronomy restaurants (Moto most of all) that get accused of using props to gimmicky effect. If one criticizes these restaurants for bringing props into the (fine) dining room, it seems to me that one also has to view fine dining customs, such as tableside carvings or cheese carts, in the same vein. Just as the prop is unnecessary, so too is the carving, although I appreciate both for exemplifying the centrality of visual displays within the fine dining sphere. I welcome props, therefore, not because they make food taste better but because they make food spectacular.
As with so many of these dishes, my description of course four will be inadequate. The menu title mentions “Dungeness Crab: squash blossom, cardamom, saffron,” although these ingredients masquerade to the point that I can’t really name where any of them are on the plate. I do remember this being one of my favorite plates of the night. I was surprised to see cotton candy since I feel like it’s not so new anymore, but in this instance it was appropriate and didn’t overhwhelm. Still, it’s weird to see Alinea serving an ingredient that was fresh maybe five years ago, an example of how what is novel for one restaurant may be passé for another.
The next dish was “Binchotan: Tokyo inspiration.” This subtitle attests to the globality that has always been present at Alinea. This dimension was perhaps more acute when Alinea referred to the menu as a “tour”—with the globesetting connotations this implies—but even in cuisine this inventive, attention is still paid to borrowing from other cultures. All of the food was already cooked and the fire was for display—an attraction that probably qualifies as another prop. On the slate sat a remarkable roster of proteins: pork belly, Japanese wagyu beef, premium ahi tuna, and fried shrimp head. It was of course a treat to have Japanese Wagyu and despite it being just one of four proteins, the piece really wasn’t any smaller than the beef portion at Grace. This course was also significant for its presentation, not only because of the fire but also for the slate–serving on them is not unusual now, but I think it’s especially apposite for Alinea, as they emphasize black more than any other restaurant I’ve encountered.
Our next meat course was another dish we’d not had two years ago: “Veal Cheeks: lapsang souchong, pine, blackberry.” This plating wasn’t my favorite. Similar to the Dungeness crab dish, there were contrasting textures, but aesthetically the components didn’t work together. While I appreciate how Grant Achatz always uses a different plate design for each dish, I think the veal would benefit from being placed on a white plate that wouldn’t overshadow the meat, as this was another course with very little color. From a taste standpoint, I don’t usually care for veal in its typical forms, but I do love cheeks and sweetbread and so this preparation was quite enjoyable.
The second half of the meal did feature several repeat dishes, the first of which was “Hot Potato: cold potato, black truffle, butter” (I didn’t get a photo of it.) This is, of course, one of Achatz’s signatures and never leaves the menu. I’m never that pleased with it though—this is largely because I don’t care for potatoes, but for me the cold potato overwhelms the hot one, resulting in a one-note creaminess that doesn’t conform to my palate.
For the past year-and-a-half, Alinea has been serving a meat course with several dozen mystery ingredients. On this evening, we were served duck five ways and then a mosaic of unnamed ingredients that we were free to mix and match with the duck. For me, this dish is easy to appreciate conceptually but hard to embrace while consuming it. I do love the idea of overwhelming the diner with more ingredients than they can handle, as it introduces a degree of contingency that one doesn’t find even in the most abstract of preparations. Still, while the duck itself was picture-perfect, many of the mystery ingredients just didn’t taste that great. I don’t know if I was mixing and matching poorly, but experimentation should not correspond with unpleasant flavors.
Here we have black truffle explosion. Naturally it didn’t disappoint, and it’s to the kitchen’s credit that they can get away with placing a dish that’s sized like a canapé as the final savory dish, a roster spot typically reserved for the grandest of the meal. Even though this was one of the smallest courses, it made the greatest impression and in this regard, black truffle explosion prompts one to reevaluate the criteria used for determining what makes a centerpiece course.
We were next served a tasting of five gingers. I did not get a picture of this course or the next one. This was also featured in our first dinner and we found it just as unpleasant this time. I love the idea of offering a study of an ingredient, but I cannot see how this has lasted two years on the menu.
Acting as a second transitional course was “Balloon: helium, green apple.” This was another holdover from our last meal, but I found it far more successful this time and not so much because of the taste but rather due to the service. At our first meal, the servers seemed put-off by having to deliver such a silly course, but this time they seemed to embrace the concept. I don’t always spend much time ruminating over service, but it’s especially significant with molecular gastronomy restaurants, which offer cuisine that doesn’t naturally cohere with the severity of fine dining service conventions.
Our first dessert course was corn with white chocolate, honey, and mango. Seeing a corn dish in November was surprising. Our server mentioned that this dish owes its creation to the kitchen’s desire to implement a dessert that doesn’t rely on sweet flavors, leading me to believe that they were shooting for something along the lines of the burnt ember-cooked cabbage dish I had near the end of my last meal at McCrady’s, a dish that showed the potentiality for vegetables to be foregrounded late in the meal. I was surprised by what we received here since corn is not only pretty sweet but also made all the more so by the white chocolate. The flavors were amazing, but the flavor profiles really didn’t feel so daring in a pastry context.
For our final dessert, we were lucky enough to have Grant Achatz prepare it tableside. The tableside dessert has long been the capstone to any Alinea meal, but the preparation has changed since our last visit. The formal title was “Milk Chocolate Pate Sucree: violet, hazelnut.” The chocolate tart was supplemented with hazelnut, violet syrup, and pop rocks. It’s hard to critique this course without accounting for the aura of Achatz’s presence, which positively disposed me to the dish even before trying it. One could feel his presence as he emerged through the room toward our table; while it must be exhausting to prepare desserts tableside all evening, Achatz is quite ingenious to use his presence to full effect, simultaneously capitalizing on his own cache while bringing production and consumption into close contact.
As with pretty much everything from this meal, it’s very difficult to find fault with the flavors at work. Of course, if this course is so memorable, it’s for the unique consumption process—this is the only restaurant dish I’ve ever had where the dessert was consumed directly on the table. This really exposed the extent to which the plate traditionally organizes consumption; this was obviously way more food than needed and I didn’t even know how to approach this preparation. No instructions are given, with contingency favored over prescription. At the same time, I think this course is really just a hyperbolic rendering of a tendency that is quite popular across fine dining. In my write-up of The Lobby, I noted how desserts tend to be more abstract than savories. Typically, meals begin very simply (with crudo or other such light preparations), then progress to substantial plates, and then end with deconstructed designs that shatter the pristine precedent established to that point. In this regard it was almost conventional that this was the most abstract plate we received (with the possible exception of the duck.)
One of the dominant Alinea narratives is that they foreground all of the senses, and this was certainly on display. After our first Alinea dinner, I noted that taste had been destabilized as the primary sensory perception and while this may be true, I think it’s more accurate to say that Achatz achieves a sensorial convergence in which the senses come together in new ways. The primacy given to smell (the burning oak) and sound (our guava shell dish) is particularly unusual; to this end, Alinea relies on the fact that one simply will not encounter items remotely similar anywhere else. This singularity makes Alinea particularly unsettling, not in the negative connotation of the term but rather in the sense of being somatically arrested.
Now that Next has been around for a couple of years, I think it’s time to assess how it’s affected Alinea. Obviously, Alinea has borrowed the ticket system, but otherwise, the only influence I can see is that there is no longer any explicit citation. In past years, Alinea always incorporated a course that reproduced an iconic dish, complete with traditional serviceware. This is no longer offered, perhaps because Achatz already maintains a venture that concentrates on citation.
Describing my dinner at McCrady’s, I noted that each course felt like an event, and this meal felt much the same way. Most tasting menus subscribe to a deterministic structure in which every course is intuitively placed yet doesn’t carry much significance when placed outside of its role within the tasting progression. In contrast, I feel like with Alinea sequencing sort of goes out the window, as the courses didn’t really benefit from their interaction with each other. However, even though the relation between courses was elliptical rather than dialogic, this wasn’t a problem since each item was so dramatic on its own merits. To this end, someone could justifiably point to any number of dishes from this meal as being the centerpiece, which simply doesn’t happen often. While we typically expect restaurants to create a tasting narrative greater than the sum of its parts, I’m not sure this is the case with Alinea, and yet this doesn’t really matter when the sum total is so gaudy anyhow. In this regard, Achatz’s cuisine is the polar opposite of what one finds with Curtis Duffy, whose more granular style is predicated on a tight narrative economy that I think could use a bit more showiness. Returning to the question that initiated this discussion, I think Alinea remains successful because every course carries such weight; unlike most restaurants, they can stay dynamic without needing to overhaul the entire menu each year. Four of the courses we experienced were holdovers from two years ago and yet this didn’t even matter since the new courses carried as much weight as entire dinners at other Michelin-level restaurants.
I once had a professor remark that Alinea fascinated him because one could have a 20-course meal and leave without feeling exhausted. This seems inaccurate to me. At both my meals, I’ve come away feeling entirely overwhelmed and while this might ordinarily be viewed as a deterrent, it’s actually a compliment in this context. I felt the same way about Moto, and I think that because such restaurants attract the diner from each corner of the sensorium, molecular gastronomy (when done right) produces perhaps the greatest impact of any culinary style. Based on my two meals there, it looks as though Alinea has created a sustainable model for excellence and it’s great to see that its seniority hasn’t diluted its impact.