AGAPE AT ALINEA
A dinner at Alinea is to be reminded of how Charlie Trotter has, like Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, transformed American cuisine. The impact of a chef is, like a teacher, not only in his/her creations, but in influence. As little Waters spread over the American landscape preaching the doctrine of the local and the pure, as little Baylesses covered the landscape reminding us that ethnic ingredients can be as haute as any, Trotter's students - whether directly trained by him or not - proclaim that gastronomy is, after all, a branch of philosophy. A chef as Cu.D., doctor of cuisine. Unlike the great French chefs, often working class men trained through harsh apprenticeship, creating amazing robust explosions of flavor, the new American chef is an aspiring intellectual. While we do not (yet) require cooks to receive a Masters of Culinary Arts (a fearsome and faux MFA), can that be far away? Our new chefs wish to amaze us with the idea of dining: robust hunks of meat are out, deconstruction is in.
This trend, if trend it be, is all to the good, until it becomes old. The more ideas of how to cook, serve, and eat, the better is a diners lot. And for a cuisine of amazement - Cuisine Agape - Chicago is Ground Zero. With Homero Cantu's science experiments at Moto, and Graham Bowles subversively straining at the constraints of hotel dining at Avenues, Chicago is what San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York once were. (As on contemporary Broadway, most of the important restaurants are imports from beyond the Hudson). In what is the most widely awaited, significant restaurant opening of the year, Grant Achatz has given us Alinea. Bowles, Cantu, and Achatz were all influenced by Trotter, directly or indirectly, and it shows. Even if some of the impulse derives from Ferran Adria at El Bulli (I haven't eaten there, so cannot speculate), much of the inspiration comes from Lincoln Park. These chefs confront the modern diner's ennui and attempt to shake, rattle, and roll. Dishes, unlike any other, breaking conventions, destroying paradigms are the order of the night.
The place of the chef is evident in the centrality of the pre fixe menu. The control that diners once held over the kitchen in selected those dishes that appealed to them as clients (even asking that chefs, like portrait painters, fix the imagined errors) is transformed so that now the chef is in charge. At Alinea, this is evident from the moment of arrival in which supplicants at the alter of cuisine find no signage (not even a cross of knife and fork) as if to suggest that this restaurant will either sell itself or sell itself out. The entrance to Alinea ("Yellow Truffle" has provide astonishing photos on eGullet) is a remarkable, if somewhat frightening space, in which the scalloped gray passage seems ever narrowing and the ceiling apparently lowering, ending, it seemed, in an impossible walkway: the door can only be seen as one reaches it. The customer is put in his place at the outset.
After inquiring about food allergies, the customer becomes the chef's audience, not the chef's master. At Alinea, one is provided only that flatware that Chef Achatz feels is required. (One of my strongest responses to my first meal at Moto was similarly how Chef Cantu controlled my experience of dining by doling out only those utensils that he wished for me to use). The serving pieces, too, reveal the chef's control over the experience. The crisp prosciutto sandwiches with passion fruit cream is served on a bed of mint - a "plate" in which the micromint is still growing. One imagines a wearhouse of mint in the outer reaches of the Gold Coast. The little pedestals on which Chef Achatz placed his Hearts of Palm in Five Sections, with no forks allowed, meant that, unlike Burger King, he had it his way.
While Alinea began with a twenty-eight course menu, the grand tasting menu, after three weeks, it has been trimmed to a comparatively svelte twenty-five (twenty-four listed and one extra). And in 330 minutes, we never felt full, just filled.
Those chefs who prepare two dozen dishes expect to fail occasionally, and should wish to. Diners are experimental subjects. At each of temples of agape, I have been served dishes that I would not wish to have again (such as a foolish foie gras sucker at Avenues or a nasty oatmeal stout with chocolate at Moto). At Alinea, the Hazelnut Puree with a capsule of savory granola was the memorable failure. Aside from the wit of breaking open a baked capsule (a trick of Cantu as well), seeing curried granola tumble down, one was treated to a somewhat sodden, if exotic, breakfast. I'll stick with Trader Joe's. Yet, these failures revealing the workings of the chef's mind. I also wasn't very fond of the too, too precious deconstructed beef with A-1 on a potato carpet - my wife pronounced it excellent - or the impossible to eat strawberries with lemon verbena and argan (a type of nut). The strawberries, successful as to taste, were inserted in a glass tube that required more suction than I was capable of providing at that time of night.
This, of course, still leaves us with nearly two dozen other dishes. Each had its measure of amazement as we were constantly reminded of the possibilities of food. Food at Alinea depends on four of the senses (sound is left to Moto). Achatz is more attuned to the variations of subtle tastes than either Bowles or Cantu, but very much reminiscent of a dinner at Trotters. Outstanding examples included the seasonal and woodsy frog legs with morels and paprika and a spectacularly indulgent Dungeness crab with parsnip, young coconut, and cashews. Each bite (and, of course, there were only a few of them) promised something different and produced it. The melon with gelled rose water and horseradish was another triumph in which quite unexpected tastes, from different corners of the taste pyramid, combined with an unexpected synergy.
Where Achatz was perhaps most successful was in playing with smell. The single strongest and most memorable dish of the evening was his stunning turbot with geoduck clams, dried water chestnuts in an eggless custard. In its own terms it would have been a spectacular dish of textures and flavors. The bowl in which the turbot was served was placed in a larger bowl filled with hyacinth flowers. The server poured steaming water on the buds and the aroma of spring was gloriously overpowering; we were close to sensory overload. The dish, otherwise first-rate, became transcendent as taste, sight, texture (the water chestnuts), and a distinct and external smell merged into a Platonic experience. Something similar might be said of the finger limes in a eucalyptus tea or the one-bite burnt orange, olive, and avocado, this latter one of the most agressively flavored dishes of the evening. The broccoli stem with grapefruit (!) and caviar was similarly a remarkable combination of sensory experiences as was the bison with beet salad with a "smoking cinnamon" bowl. The smell of the cinnamon transformed the bison to the strongest of Achatz's meat dishes.
No discussion of Achatz's cuisine would be complete with mention of the culinary references of several dishes - this is a referential cuisine. The signature dish (although not in itself the most outstanding) is the opening amuse bouche: PB&J. Achatz (well, his staff) peels a grape, nestles it in peanut butter, surrounds it in a brioche pastry, and places it in a metal holder. The dinner picks up the amuse from the grape stem and in a jiffy mouths it, grinning with astonishment. What is amazing is not so much the taste of the dish, but the way that our humble memories of childhood afternoons have been transformed and made haute. Similarly Achatz's "hanging bacon" takes another humble food of childhood memories (Who eats bacon today?), and creates it anew with butterscotch, apple and thyme, hanging it out to dry. It is another one-bite triumph. Finally there is a homage to Escoffier, the subtly fried artichoke heart, "fonds d'artichauts cussy #3970" (the number refers to Escoffier's recipe). It was a brilliant tribute, made more clever in that it was served in what our waiter described as an "anti-plate" - a ceramic ring on which the spoon which held the artichoke was placed, again reminding us of the chef's control of our experience.
I could continue praising many of the dishes (at least twenty were very successful), but by the end I was slightly troubled. A diner who wants to be smothered with wonder will find much in which to wrap one's memory. And, yet many great meals have a logic to them. When one goes to Charlie Trotters and order his degustation menu, one is not merely served a collection of astonishing dishes, but one is served a meal - a set of dishes with a "culinary logic," a totality. After two dozen dishes, I struggled to make sense of the evening. Perhaps dining, like much rock music, should stop making sense, but I admit some philosophical pretenses. Take evening lying in bed (and after two dozen courses and a dozen glasses of wine how could one sleep?) I hoped to find the chef's hidden theme. Perhaps an Agape Cuisine should suffice by providing Barnum-like miracles, but I wished a meaningful sequencing. I wished for a sense of what Achatz considered his unique philosophy of dining (a sense that one does get, strongly, at Moto). Of course, shorter menus may provide more of what a chef considers his most important work. But the competing strands and loose ends force us to recognize that Achatz is still a chef in process whose control of dishes is stronger than his control of the meal.
Our party ordered the wine tasting menu. The wines were designed to match the dishes, and most did so quite successfully. I particularly enjoyed the opening nutty Madeira (which, oddly, was billed separately from the wine flight, even thought it wasn't ordered separately). In contrast to the brilliant selected wines that Matthew McCammon offers at Moto or that Aaron Elliott chooses at Avenues, at Alinea wines are more modest affairs. There was not a single wine, adequate as all were (we were not served vinegar on this visit!), that I would select for my own cellar.
The service was extraordinarily attentive as one might expect at a restaurant of this caliber. However, there were almost too many people (a dozen?) serving us throughout the evening. I prefer establishing a temporary, if intense, tie with a few men and women who I can come to know, question, josh with, and rely upon, but at Alinea just as each course was different, it appeared as if each dish was served by a different person (not true, but close). Like the meal, the service was both excellent and somewhat disjointed. I must note that our check was improperly figured, which they caught (the original bill had been in our favor, but we were too blissed out to notice and to decide how far our ethical sensibility would stretch). This is something that if common demands correction.
The bill: approximately $400/person - the grand tasting menu, the flight of wines, coffee, tax and tip. Was it worth it? Surely. Would I try the long menu again?: Probably not. Would I return?: Tomorrow. The meal was not flawless and is in progress, but Alinea is a four-star restaurant and unlike such fine Chicago establishments as Everest, Ambria, or Tru, Alinea is a restaurant with a national reputation. Grant Achatz's experiments matter for all Americans who care about how high a chef can fly. We should be astonished when a chef soars towards the heavens, and be moved when the downdrafts send him hurtling to rocky shoals, trusting the wind of imagination will send him still higher.
(Based on dinner, May 21, 2005)
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