Last week I was in Chicago with my bestie, Lang
. Lang is very much like me in that she loves the restaurant world, and unlike me in that she is so reliably good at sniffing out the best item on every restaurant menu that I call her the "Truffle Pig." If you need someone to dine with, I recommend Lang. The other thing is that you can readily convince her to spend the kind of money on food that a financial adviser, accountant, or parent would absolutely crap their pants about. I won't tell you exactly
how many rotten circus peanuts per hour I make, but I will say that for me to drop $200 on dinner, well, it requires certain sacrifices elsewhere.Beans' house in Brooklyn.
And yes, that's a laptop and a keg. Thank you.
So when Lang and I heard from the hostess at Alinea that we'd made it off the waitlist for a reservation during our short visit, we accepted, natch. If you read anything about restaurants these days (most recently the New York Times
"Year in Ideas" piece), you're bound to hear about this Spain-to-Chicago, Ferran Adria-inspired, Nutty Professor trend. So, "bring on the particle separator," I thought.
The restaurant resides in a nameless grey slate townhouse in Lincoln Park-- a serene, sparse layout that combines the clean lines and clay colors of Blue Hill with the townhousey comfort of Babbo. The staff were almost scandalously personable and relaxed. It was as if they were all working in some drug-hazed shangri-la where nobody hated their captain, nobody resented the tip system, nobody was too busy going over an audition piece in their head to pay attention to us.
Attention was the only thing we could have used less of, frankly.
In lieu of a menu, we had Scott. Scott was genuine, but Scott was ubiquitous. It became a favorite game of ours during the meal to finish a dish and then keep picking at it, so that Scott would hover, jabbing and parrying, diving for us and then bouncing back stealthily. He looked and talked like a young James Lipton...
...right down to his ease with embarrassing hero-worship. He rhapsodized about "Grant" (Grant Achatz, the chef), even admitting that he would have left Chicago years ago, if he weren't following "Grant."
The most memorable thing about this meal, amazingly, was not the food, which I'll get to. It was Scott's preamble to the meal:
"There are three options: the six course tasting, the twelve course tasting, and the twenty-four course tasting. If you choose the twenty-four course tasting, we are going to have to work together as patron and staff to coordinate breaks."
I didn't get it. I made my signature "confused face," usually reserved for my bank statements.
"You can go at different times, but we really prefer that you not stagger your breaks. The kitchen likes to keep a pretty steady pace so we'll need to decide in advance when you'll be going to the bathroom."
Well. I. Never. I raised my hand. Scott called on me. "What if I need to take a extra big doodie?" I asked. No, I didn't. But I could have. And Scott would have furnished a polished and flattering response. I made one half-joke right when we sat down and he belly-laughed like a short-circuiting donkey.
Because there were no menus, we had absolutely no idea what was coming, only that Scott would be ushering it. We chose the 12-course, got a bottle of unobtrusive white, and waited at our dark wooden table (we felt like tycoons facing each other over a mammoth desk) in chairs that were almost loveseats.
I couldn't possibly go through every course. There was a novella's worth of ingredients somehow compacted into every dish. I asked for a written copy of what we'd eaten on the way out-- for one dish it says "too many garnishes to list." The food was so complicated that it was necessarrily a word-heavy experience, down to the approach. Lang, wide eyed on the other side of a dark mahogany skating rink, would look and ask, "how do we do this." Scott: "I suggest you start at the top and move counterclockwise, combining the chestnut puree and rosemary foam in every bite. Start with the egg yolk, then the cube of marsala wine gelee, the parsnip puree, the dried bacon flakes, and so on."
It turned out that more than he messes with protein, moisture, or essence, Achatz messes with time. The dish I just described was like Thanksgiving dinner collapsed into four bites. Each bite packed incredible complexity, but still, 20 minutes became 20 seconds. So go to Alinea with someone you like to talk to, because it won't be often that food will occlude conversation in your mouth.
The only photo I could take (the place was so quiet that it was really conspicuous when my little Japanese barbie phone made camera nosies):
OK, it looks like a hairy turd on a lagoon, but trust that my phone is made out of toilet seat and it really did look impressive. By far the largest course, kobe beef bites about an inch cubed were coated in toasted sunflower seeds, with yogurt, squash, and smoked paprika candy. His visual play on chocolate truffles was adorable, and the two little squares were firecrackers of nutty, fatty, and then sweet flavor. It all was so fast, and so multidimensional, that Achatz' approach began to strike me as halfway to the 1950's idea about the future that you would pop one pill and say "Mmmm, this meatloaf with stringbeans is delicious!"
Consider the hot potato/cold potato, which we polished off well before Scott even finished describing it ("You're just going to have to trust me on this-- just eat it right away and then I'll explain"). A foodsafe, disposable paraffin mold about the shape and size of an oyster shell held cold potato soup. But piercing the shell, a long pin skewered a hot potato ball, a cube of parmesan, and--what was it--white truffle? You pulled the pin out through the bottom of the shell, the skewered items instantly fell into the cold soup, and you took the whole thing, in one bite, like a shot. It was perfect. It was cold truffled potato soup. It was hot baked potato with parmesan. It was...over.
Listen, I'm not someone who needs an "Endless Bowl" of pasta and a 40-oz Country Club to be happy, but after it was gone, Lang and I sat at our big baronial desk left to do nothing but taunt Scott (and his equally solicitous assistant, also Scott).
I almost forgot: Lang and I each individually almost dropped dead during this meal That's right, as I nibbled at our second fish course, a cured, then dried, and then fried Opah, the meat shattered in my mouth, lodging in my throat a foreign tickle that I could not get out. I coughed and coughed, tears streaming down my face-- no water would do it. About 5 minutes later, when I had finally calmed down, I left my fish untouched in fear. How inorganic could this texture be, that my trachea literally freaked out about it? Solicitous Scott, who I expected to pop out from under my table with a pack of Ricola and administer CPR if not a heart transplant (his own, clearly) by then, was conspicuously absent, perhaps not wanting to be booked as an accessory to Food Murder.
Then, two dishes later, as Lang took her first bite of a Matsutake mushroom bread pudding with a sort of pine nut and mastic powder garnish, she nearly choked to death, too. And we're not fragile bitches. We are sturdy bitches. I'm telling you, human throats are not prepared, at least by nature, for these artificial textures.
They waft up into your nose and stab your uvula in alarming ways.
The last thing I'll mention was the air pillow. Scott and Scott placed white linen pillows with plastic lining in front of each of us, with a crinkly sound not unlike that of a diaper being placed in the trash. Air perfumed with mace leaked up and out of the pillow into our faces, with an accelerated intensity when the Scotts subsequently balanced atop each of them a plate of duck confit, foie gras, dried onion and I believe quince gelee of some sort.
Unimpressed with our lack of ostensible awe, Scott prompted "Do you smell anything?"
"We have colds," I apologized, which was true. Still, I felt like we weren't paying enough homage to his hero.
We were young, rowdy out-of-towners looking deliberately for something weird, but I couldn't help spying on our neighbors, an elegant older couple. They reminded me of my parents a little, although they were fancier. They made the mistake of odering the wine pairing, which ensures that Scott will basically be in your lap all night, spinning long yarns about the way the sun hits a hillside in California -- "you're gonna wanna go ahead and notice the color of that Chardonnay" -- etc. Watching them hold paraffin up to their muzzles and throw back soup like kamikazes, listening to them abide the intrusive lectures of Professor Scott, I wanted to apologize on behalf of my generation for how undignified we'd let things get. At least there was no music.
AM I STILL WRITING? Jesus Christ, Jules, LAND THIS PLANE already. But I have to say one last thing.
Our meal at Alinea, which ran us over $200 each, was well worth it, if only to stake out a farther end of a creative spectrum than I'm used to, and to taste things that I can honestly say were totally new to my tongue (...and windpipe, apparently). But the night I came back, I missed my boyfriend so I stopped by Cafe Gray, where he is a line cook, to get a Negroni and see if he had a minute to come out and give me a quick kiss hello. He didn't, but as I sat waiting for my friend Sarah, a waiter came and rolled out a placemat.
"Oh no," I thought-- I hadn't come there to be a burden, and it was a busy night. I didn't want him sending out 7 courses.
Obviously he-- or I should say they, the kitchen-- did send out a feast, and it was remarkable. The pheasant over lentils with foie gras sausage (!) was all the better for making us spit out a bullet or two (as a French hunter once said to me, "You thought it died of a heart attack?"). I hadn't formed a conclusion about Alinea but I will say that Gray provided something, in contrast, that was missing at Alinea. I'm not sure what is was exactly, maybe a combination of time, the privacy accorded by food that doesn't require a chaperone, by food that requests an audience of several minutes from you, or the luxury of flavors that could get a whole sentence out, rather than hiccuping fatally before resigning to an afterlife in your cerebrum.