Ruth Reichl once famously called the French Laundry "the most exciting place to eat in the United States." Until very recently, I agreed with her. Then I ate at Alinea in Chicago.
Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, is a protégé of Thomas Keller and rose to the position of sous chef at the French Laundry before his departure. Keller's influence is apparent in his food, from menu titles like "Hot potato, cold potato" to the portion size to the perfection of every detail. But at Alinea, chef Achatz takes all he's learned and somehow makes it better. As my husband, Jason, said during our dinner, "He's out-Kellered Keller!"
I could write paragraphs about the meal itself, the "hot potato" course served with a thick slice of truffle balanced on a warm potato ball, skewered by a thin needle overhanging a perfectly cold potato soup (pictured, left). Or the meaty rich squab, or the lamb buried beneath eucalyptus leaves. But you can read a better description of Alinea's food elsewhere. I'd like to focus on what else made the meal outstanding.