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.
Keller has long focused on the concept of palate fatigue; it's why he limits his portion-size to just a few bites. Though serving small portions, every tasting menu I've experienced makes the traditional migration from light to heavier savory courses and ends with sweets. So even with small bites, I've experienced palate fatigue when presented with multiple rich savory courses in a row.
Alinea, with its 24-course menu, broke with the tradition of ascending flavors. The menu flowed from savory to sweet and then returned again to savory. Recent research has shown that our taste buds do not experience all flavors, but rather each bud handles a specific taste, e.g. we have buds for salty and buds for sweet. The meal's superb choreography allowed the savory buds to "rest" after early action while the sweet buds handled "verjus lemon thyme beet" and "yogurt juniper mango" in the middle of our meal. Restored, the savory buds were back in action to handle "black cod, vanilla, artichoke, pillow of orange air," Kobe beef, and squab. This dance allowed each flavor to be enjoyed with a freshness of palate I've never experienced before.
To complement the unique dishes, chef Achatz's has created his own utensils for many of the items on his menu. I had reservations about this, concerns that perhaps the need to be different would overwhelm the utility of the objects. After all, a fork works pretty well. A contraption that made it harder for me to eat would be more gimmick than innovation. But my concerns were unfounded.
Seeing the "granola" suspended in its rosewater enveloped on a thin wire (pictured, left) was seeing food transformed not just into art, but to sculpture. Eating off a pillow as it slowly deflated and perfumed the air with the scent of orange blossoms sounds overwrought, but it was intoxicating. The interplay between device and delicacy was uplifting and fun, yet in no way detracted from the usability. In fact, it made the experience quite intellectual, as you were confronted not just with the flavors of the meal, but with expectations of how it could be consumed. Why do we need forks again?
With Alinea, Achatz is doing what Thomas Keller no longer has the liberty to do, what all the big-name chefs lose the freedom to do when they achieve a certain level of fame and notoriety. You go to the Laundry or Daniel expecting a certain meal, and that leaves those chefs very little room for the innovation that Achatz can pursue at Alinea. He has one restaurant, and he's in its kitchen full time. But it's always this way: The apprentice learns from the best and then rises to take his master's place. It's simply how the cycle progresses. One day, a new young chef will rise and displace Grant Achatz. But for now he's on top, creating the most exciting food in the United States at Alinea.
Photographs from Alinea-Restaurant.com