My quest to eat at Alinea began before Alinea was even a place to go, and certainly before I'd ever heard of Grant Achatz. As it turned out, the way I discovered the genre of food Alinea serves became the best way for me to describe to people why I wanted so badly to eat there.
In the weeks leading up to my dinner at this Michelin three-star venue, I described it as the country's top molecular gastronomy restaurant. But that just turned out to be ineffective shorthand. "What's molecular gastronomy?" people asked me.
"It's really the epitome of processed food," I said.
I stopped giving academic definitions and started describing my 2004 meal at Minibar in Washington D.C. At the time, it was the most expensive dinner I'd ever eaten: $85 for the tasting menu, but with the wine pairing, tax, and tip, it came to closer to $140. I also described that meal as worth every penny—it was part dinner, part science experiment, part entertainment, and part ever-so-beautiful mind alteration. I walked away best remembering dishes like the "Deconstructed Glass of White Wine," which featured a selection of powders--served on top of a bed of wine gelee--that captured the essence of the layers of flavor held in a single glass, or a perfect orb of canteloupe puree encased in a gel-like shell and topped with a few crystals of salt and a tiny mint leaf, which tasted as if the perfect summer morning had burst open in my mouth.
That meal featured flavors I already knew and loved—watermelon, cotton candy, Philly cheesesteak, feta—combined in such ethereal, interesting, thought-provoking ways that it permanently changed the way I looked at food. It also set me on a path to continue seeking out gastronomic experiences that filled my brain as much as, if not more than, my belly.
How to celebrate a 40th birthday
After Alinea opened in 2005, I started scheming about how I might be able to get a seat at one of their tables. I knew it would take what I had discovered at Minibar to a whole other level. But it's not a meal one does alone—you need a dining partner who will appreciate it alongside you—and I didn't know anyone who'd be willing to drop the cash required to get in the door. I knew plenty of food lovers and food writers, but the right opportunity never materialized.
But as my 40th birthday approached, and as I thought about ways I might celebrate, I realized it would fall on a Saturday night. Chicago is totally within range for a weekend's trip from Oakland, and I decided if there was any time to take the leap at what I fully expected would be the best meal of my life, that milestone birthday was it. I told my husband I could see no better way to celebrate than to go to Alinea, and dropped $702 (including tax and gratuity, but exclusive of any of the beverages we ordered) on two tickets to dinner at 8:45 p.m. on July 13.
A note on the "tickets" concept—these are nonrefundable, though Alinea provides an online system for reselling the tickets to other interested parties. Trust me…with only 64 seats, this is not a restaurant where tables go unsold. It was nice to have paid for that portion of the evening up front (though our beverages, including two $150 wine pairings and $9 worth of espresso, added another $409 to the total)—it meant a big chunk of the evening's expense was out of the way.
The night begins
I'm not kidding when I say I walked in with high expectations. I'd spent hours combing through websites to read others' experiences. I'd read the memoir co-written by Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, Life, On The Line, which documented their incredible commitment to every detail of creating one of the best restaurants in the world. I'd replayed that meal at minibar and my one dinner at The French Laundry (which is not modernist, but is a truly stellar experience) in my head, trying to prepare myself to once again experience food as art.
The payoff came with the first bite. The dish, called "Osetra, classical," was a spoon coated in creme fraiche, with brioche crumbs pressed to the bottom tip of the utensil. Resting in the spoon's bowl was some Osetra caviar and a select few ingredients including a small ball of butter that, when you touched it with your tongue, exploded in pure flavor and melded with the other flavors perfectly. I would rank this as one of the most exquisite things I have ever eaten, and as soon as I put it in my mouth, I started to cry.
Let me just stop there and say that again. The first bite of the evening literally made me cry—it was that artfully perfect.
The best meal of my life
From that first bite on, the meal completely engaged all our senses. In one course, lemongrass-scented smoke poured from dry ice in the bottom of a dish as we ate scallop ceviche. In another, we experienced squash blossoms as an eye-popping garnish to a Dungeness crab dish that also featured squash custard, cardamom and saffron.
Image Credit: Genie Gratto
The meal included Achatz's signature Black Truffle Explosion, which I have long wanted to try. A single ravioli is delivered on an "anti-plate," which holds a spoon in place on which the bite rests, but which has no bottom to the dish. You place the single bite in your mouth, press your lips together and your tongue to the pasta, and a truffle broth fills your mouth.
Image Credit: Genie Gratto
The most interactive dish was a five-way preparation of duck that included 60 different garnishes. The waiter encouraged us to mix and match the garnishes with the different preparations as we'd like, but left what each garnish was as a mystery. Some were obvious (olive slices are hard to disguise as anything but themselves), but many were not and we found ourselves trying them all as the course wound to a close so we could try to figure out what each one might be.
Image Credit: Genie Gratto
There were also moments of great whimsy along the way. For example, one of the current signature dishes is a green apple "balloon" filled with green apple-scented helium. Diners are invited to bite the balloon and suck in the helium, like so:
This was the course I suspected would make us giggle, and I was absolutely right:
From start to finish, through tears and giggles, it was the best meal I have ever experienced. Every bite was exquisite, and there was so much to think about along the way. It exceeded all my expectations at every turn.
Food elevated as art
Some people travel to Bayreuth to see Wagner's Ring Cycle performed. Some people travel to the Great Barrier Reef to scuba dive the S.S. Yongala. Others save up for years to attend the Olympics or the World Cup.
I appreciate artistry in so many forms, but I am willing to pay hard-earned money to eat spectacular, mind-boggling food that plays on all my senses. It is ephemeral—the photos I took don't come close to capturing the range of emotions I felt as I ate that dinner, and I decided not to take the kind of notes that would be required for a clinical retelling of the meal, so I know there are things I will forget, in fact, have already forgotten.
But two weeks later, I'm still teary-eyed at the thought of that caviar bite. I'm still pondering how one dehydrates a squash blossom and turns it into a delicious and delicate fan. I spent much of my flight home researching molecular gastronomy techniques that I might play with someday.
Or I might just leave it to the genius chefs who have made it their mission to create art on a plate…or anti-plate.
Oh my gosh. Magic. Just magic. And I literally burst into tears at the first bite. Thank you, @alinea. Thank you.
Here are some other posts from bloggers you might be interested in checking out:
- Jessee of Eat Here recounts a July 2007 meal at minibar, which features a description and photo of the Deconstructed Glass of White Wine I mentioned above.
- RJ of Vampire Vocab captures beautifully how a meal at Alinea can change you.
- Carol Blymire of Alinea At Home describes a June 2010 dinner at the restaurant, including notes about how the kitchen accommodated her gluten intolerance and other food allergies.
- Allen Hemberger's The Alinea Project blog is a gorgeous journal of his journey through the Alinea cookbook, and in an early post, he talks about sourcing unusual ingredients needed to make the dishes at home.
- Here are my photos from the night we ate at Alinea.
Have you experienced a molecular gastronomy dinner? Did you think it was worth the cost, or did you think it fell flat? If you haven't been to one of the restaurants that serve food in this genre, do you want to do so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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