Alinea: Cheating Death by Black Truffle
I've decided that eating at Alinea is a little bit like reading Ulysses. Your assumptions about the genre just have to dissolve. Everything that you typically rely on to process the experience is gone: a discernible chronology, words that can be looked up in the dictionary, familiar utensils, labels, definitions ...all of this vocabulary that might help you make sense of the experience has disappeared. Poof. And once it does, you realize that it was all just a crutch anyway, and now you're forging ahead into a vast unknown, and you kinda like it.
At some point, everything will become so wildly unfamiliar and strange that your only option is to rely on an emotional response. That's okay. And there will be moments when you'll encounter something repellent or distasteful and it becomes beautiful. And things that you knew to be beautiful become disturbing. By the time you've finished, you feel like you've just experienced an entire world that has somehow managed to neatly contain itself between the covers of a book, or the walls of a single restaurant.
Now that I've said all that and you fully expect me to blather on about how absolutely mind-boggling and fantastic Alinea is, I will say this: I don't know many people who would want to sit down and read Ulysses all the time. (Actually, I only know one. Good luck with that, Mike S.) And I wouldn't want to eat at Alinea all the time. Maybe once a year. It's too intense. Our server mentioned Alinea's "regulars" and I thought, good god, who are these people? Powerful eaters. We know that much.
Here are some other assorted thoughts about the dinner:
There were elements of whimsy, but Alinea is not the kind of place you'd go for a rollicking good time. I just want to make that clear, because I think people tend to emphasize the "fun" aspects of eating there. Obviously at this level of dining it's not typical to bob for your food as it dangles from a bouncing skewer:
Perhaps if you only eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, Alinea might seem like a breath of fresh air and a really delightful, playful experience. I don't, and found the starkness and austerity surprising after reading all the reviews. I think our server might have had something to do with the heavy mood. When he set this beautiful dancing "Transparency" leaf of raspberry, rose petal and yogurt dust in front of us, he told us that Chef Achatz created it "to incorporate some kinetic elements into the meal." Kind of a stiff, heavy pronouncement for such a pretty little course.
It is pretty cute, though, with its jaunty black cap.
The Alinea wine pairings were out of this world. I love wine, but I love food more. And when I am about to pay a hefty sum for food, I tend to go easy on the wine because I want to pay attention to what I am eating and remember it later. I'm often scared off by wine pairings with a massive, multi-course meal because--call me crazy--I prefer not to be completely loaded by the time I'm done with dinner.
I do love to watch tables of Wine People at restaurants, though, as they scrutinize the list and order bottle after bottle and grow more laughy and boisterous throughout the evening. I feel a kinship with them even though wine is not my passion. They are there for the wine. I am there for the food. It's all good, and my bill is smaller than theirs.
We ordered the petite wine tasting, and it was absolutely stupendous. It was, I believe, eleven small pours, or the equivalent of about one glass per hour over a five-hour, 24 course meal. Do it. Don't look back. If you are not wimpy like me, get the normal wine pairing - all the same wines, but bigger pours. Then you can be the talky, boisterous person who snorts loudly when they set something weird down in front of you, like the woman seated at the table next to us.
One thing I noticed: many of the courses and their accompanying accessories seemed vaguely surgical and threatening. Lots of sharp pins and metal and paraffin. There was something a little Joseph Beuys about it all.
I have been through five-hour meals before that felt a bit like running a marathon. Actually, I have no idea what running a marathon feels like because I am always too busy stuffing my face or cooking to ever run anywhere. So, I know what eating sickening amounts of heavy food feels like--all too well--and Alinea wasn't like that. It was delightful from start to finish, and the time passed quickly. Some of the courses were tiny--just one bite. When it was over, I didn't even feel that sick. Later that night it all caught up with me and I had to stay up watching Warren Miller movies on cable until 5 a.m. so that my dinner would digest. Gross, yes, but that's the price you pay when you eat 24 courses. Don't kid yourself. You're Caligula.
There is something frightening about eating so many outrageously complex dishes. The sheer number of ingredients that you pack into your stomach in one sitting is scary and off-putting, if you stop to think about it. So don't stop. Just keep going.
To conclude: Alinea is absolutely worth a visit, and in my opinion it's a "good bargain" for this level of dining. I put that in quotes because really I think that Korean BBQ is a good bargain, or dumpy dim sum halls, and it makes me feel stupid and snobbish to say that anything as expensive as Alinea could ever be considered a bargain. What I mean is that you get an extraordinarily high level of quality, innovation, and attention to detail during a meal here, and I can't think of another dinner I've had in this price range that can compare. Really.
I forgot to mention my favorite dish: the "gift from the chef". (It has to be a gift because selling foie gras is illegal in Chicago now.) Imagine a cup covered with a thin cap of foie gras. The server poured hot, sweet quince liquid into the cup, which melted the foie gras and created the most bewitchingly sweet/tart/creamy/fruity/rich/meaty broth. Mmm. I also loved the "Black Truffle Explosion", mainly because I almost choked to death on it. If I have to go, I can't imagine a better way than by choking on a black truffle. It would have made a great final blog entry, except that I would have had to figure out a way to write it from beyond the grave.
My least favorite dish, in case you were wondering, was a shot of liquefied caramel corn in the middle of the meal. Shudder.
Labels: restaurants - Chicago