One of the biggest stories in American fine dining this year was the closing and subsequent reopening five months later of Alinea in Chicago. Chef Grant Achatz told the Chicago Tribune, “Do any of us want to have a five-hour meal anymore?” With that in mind, Achatz cut the length of dinner from 5 hours to about 3.5 hours, and he orchestrated an experience that gets you out of your seat, makes you laugh, and eventually makes you cry (because it passes too quickly)—and it is far from gimmicky. Patrons buy tickets in advance for three set menus served in one of the three sections of the restaurant: the upstairs Salon, the Gallery, and the Kitchen Table (which is sold out through the end of the year). Here’s a taste. (alinearestaurant.com)
While the old Alinea was industrial and modern—futuristic even—the current iteration looks intentionally staid. The restaurant closed on New Year’s Eve in 2015, and 47 members of staff set out to travel the world creating pop-up restaurants. If you knew it before, you won’t recognize the place. When I went in July, my server told me, “I walked in and was completely confused.”
As you walk into the Gallery to begin your meal, a waiter seats you at either side of a long table. You think of shouting over the classical piano music to your dinner companion, “How’s this for decadent?” as you dive into five little cups of osetra, king crab, truffle, herbs, and egg custard. But considering the formality of the room, the sheer width of the table, and the height of the candelabra between you, shouting doesn’t feel right. So instead, you think to yourself, “This is going to be a long dinner.” The food is already rich and old guard, and you basically prepare it yourself as you spread different combinations on triangles of brioche toast. You make eye contact with the waiter and glance at your empty champagne glass for more Bollinger La Grande Année 2005. Three-and-a-quarter hours to go.
In the Salon, you are seated in groups of one, two, four, or six, so you can see and hear everyone you came with. The second-floor dining rooms feature 10- to 14-course tasting menus from $175 (versus from $295 in the Gallery). All the main dishes make it upstairs, but several theatrics are reserved for those dining downstairs.
“We need your help,” says your waiter. You can tell he is kidding, but he wants you and everyone else at the long table to get up and walk into the kitchen, where 16 empty cocktail glass are perfectly lined up on a stainless-steel countertop. Chef Simon Davies fills two cocktail shakers with ice cubes made of tomato, lime, cucumber, and chili. He pops them into a green, 1800s throwback machine, turns the crank, and soon pours 16 drinks, all frothy and refreshing.
Back in the dining room, the long table is gone, and you can sit and talk with your party. A white card on the table reads “Communal,” “Shaker Roll,” and “Crunch Paper,” which turns out to be brittle sheets of dehydrated scallop. They look like paper, but when the waiter pours broth over them, the pieces melt into a sort of noodle, brightened by the taste of sweet corn.
Dishes continue to arrive. Next is Yellow. Even the chopsticks are yellow, as are the curry, peppers, mango, flowers, mustard seeds, jicama, and sweet potato
When the Glass Petal arrives, you immediately want to take your fork and break the shiny blueberry panels into smaller pieces. Pieces of deep-fried icefish accompany the dish, doused in fermented kumquat sauce, seasonal mushrooms, and foie-gras sauce.
Despite its bare-bones presentation, this dish is not to be taken lightly. Do not underestimate the glory of wagyu over rice fried in wagyu fat. The pop of carnivore heaven (“the best rice crispy treat you’ll ever eat,” says our server) is also rich enough to tempt you to eat the green leaf on the plate. The full piece of romaine was compressed in palm sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce and topped with coriander blossoms and fennel. Beneath the cloche is more meat: braised and pan-fried veal cheek in a green Greek butter. The slice of melon alongside cleanses your palate in between.
Here’s where you start laughing. One by one, waiters walk out with candy balloons. You’re just giddy to still see them on the menu (a throwback to the original restaurant). And then you put your lips to the candy. The dinner companions you previously couldn’t talk to across the table have popped balloon all over their faces and hair. You are bowling over with giggles from the reserve wine pairing as much as the helium. Fine dining lives.
One of the waiters brings a black stepladder into the room and starts taking down the abstract art from the ceiling. Pieces are set onto the dinner tables as a family-style dessert plate. Then the lights go out. “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem begins. Chefs come out of the kitchen holding white bowls of chocolate, cherry, liquid-nitrogen meringue, marshmallow sauce, and spoons. They each add an ingredient to the artwork platter, and then the meringue drops, and the whole thing starts smoking in the dark—and then you cry.
Robb Report | November 2016
Jennifer Ashton Ryan