Alinea is perfectly conceived in every way. The name itself sounds beautiful and is meaningful, too; it’s the name of the typographic symbol that denotes a new train of thought (¶). And Alinea, in its unprecedented design, seamless execution and acute attention to detail, represents a very welcome new train of thought in contemporary American cuisine.
To say that chef-owner Grant Achatz is talented is an understatement. His genius lies in the cumulative understanding of dining as art, science, innovation and curiosity. While he is often referenced at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, Achatz, to my relief, disassociates himself from that reference. He is an artist who strives for excellence, not a mad scientist, using chemistry only to achieve his artistic vision. He does not manipulate food just for the sake of altering its properties, and he doesn’t compromise the form or taste for playfulness. Inspired by Ferran Adria’s postmodern cooking at El Bulli in Spain, this influence manifests itself in Achatz’s own unique progressive style. Be assured, though, that modernity never takes the place of elegance at Alinea; all is balanced.
Dining at Alinea is an “experience” — not just a meal — that begins the moment you step through the doors into this spectacular space. First, the eye is drawn straight ahead to the floating glass and metal staircase that leads to the dining rooms upstairs. From the same vantage point, to the left is a small dining room, and on the right, in plain view, is the immaculate open kitchen. The transparency of the kitchen at the entrance of the restaurant comes as a bit of a shock, as I expected the execution of the cuisine to be somewhat of a mystery, but the decision to disclose the action is a quite appropriate display of total confidence. There is a steady stream of movement and energy all about the kitchen, from the point of entry and exit and surging deep within. A big part of dining is the rhythm of the experience. Sitting in the dining room across from the kitchen, I could observe all the action, but the staff at Alinea made it look easy — that in itself is an art.
Once seated, guests are offered a choice of two degustation menus: the twelve-course “tasting” ($135) or the twenty-seven-course “tour” ($195). While both sound excessive, each course is either bite-sized or precisely designed to offer a taste of intricate flavors rather than fill you up. Wine pairing from a wonderfully diverse list is also available.
The design of the serving ware is as precise as the food itself. For the first course of the tour this evening, a piece of duck topped with banana pudding and Thai herbs was placed meticulously on a fork that sat across the bowl over the butternut squash soup with banana froth within (see photo above). The waiter very seriously asked that I not place the bowl on the table but to eat the duck first, then lay the fork on the piece of glass that had been placed on the table to hold it. Finally, after finishing the soup, I could set the bowl on the table. There is a methodology for consuming each item presented. The waiter’s instructions are important, as it is often not obvious how to eat the items in any graceful manner.
I’ll share a couple of my favorites.
The kuroge Wagyu (Kobe beef) with matsutake panade and yuzu pudding was served in a bowl completely covered by cedar branches. I couldn’t see the contents underneath, except for a single silver pin sticking out of the leaves. Apparently, matsutake mushrooms grow under cedar trees, which was the inspiration for this “piece.” It was so poetic, and the aroma of the cedar branches was an integral part of the experience of the dish. I was instructed to simply pull out the pin that holds the beef and mushroom panade. Voilà! And in a single bite, it was gone, as the seared cube of marbled meat melted in my mouth.
One of the most interesting dishes was apple cider encapsulated in a cinnamon shell. The sphere, made by dipping frozen cider in cinnamon-infused cocoa butter, sat in a glass of walnut milk. I was asked to drink it in one gulp but to pay attention to the fact that the sphere looked smaller in the glass than it actually was. Once the sphere broke open in my mouth, the cider and cocoa butter mixed with the walnut milk to create a burst of refreshing and wonderfully combined flavors.
The hot potato/cold potato (see photo at the top of the page) was my favorite dish! The black truffle, hot potato ball, butter, parmesan and chive on a pin was a miniature sculpture unto itself, so beautiful that I didn’t want to destroy it. Nevertheless, I slid the pin out of the dish, watching the hot contents drop into the cold potato soup, and then I drank it in one gulp. I love potatoes, but regardless of my bias, this dish is perfectly balanced in flavor and so well orchestrated!
About halfway through the tour, I was served a single piece of pineapple candy with bacon powder and black pepper (photo above). The clear pineapple leather wrapped around a soft, chewy bacon and pepper candy that looked like a marshmallow but is made with bacon fat, black pepper mixed with sugar and maltodextrin. The flavors complemented each other, though the pineapple leather kind of stuck to my teeth like fruit rollups.
A “frozen pumpkin pie” made a grandiose entrance as the finale to the meal. The frozen filling encrusts a brown sugar pâte de fruits center and is then deep-fried tempura style. It was served in specially designed pronged setting pieces (see photo above). Smoldered leaves were attached to the “pie”, so the branch acts as your utensil as you pick it up to eat the pie. I couldn’t think of a more dramatic or more delicious way to end the meal. I was in awe! My senses had been challenged and though I was full, I craved more.
There is no one in America doing what Chef Achatz is doing at Alinea: pushing the limits of our imagination beautifully and tastefully! Gourmet named Alinea the number one restaurant in America in 2005, but I think what counts more is the thought that, upon leaving the restaurant, customers are forever changed and understand what truly evolved dining is.
All I can say is thank you!
Note: Chef Grant Achatz was diagnosed with advanced squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) of the mouth this summer and has been receiving medical treatment. Our thoughts go out to Chef Achatz, and we wish him a full recovery.