Where does the line between food and art fall?
That’s the take home from our meal at Grant Achatz’s Alinea. A little self reflection project, to chew over if you will.
From the street the ‘best restaurant in North America’ looks and feels more like a gallery. It’s nondescript dark grey brick building with deep set doors. Inside there’s a glowing long pink hallway that leads you to a magical set of sensor doors that seem to suck you, StarTrek-style inside. Inside everything is hushed. It’s very minimal. It’s very clean. There’s a series of rooms, each housing dark chairs and glowing lights. Against the walls there’s striking modern art interspersed with amorphous arrangements of pink blossoms in clear vases.
Our table upstairs is a blank canvass in the corner of a square room that will eventually seat just nine diners. It’s only 5.45pm. We’re the early birds. It was the only booking I could get. In the corner are two good looking men in their twenties or thirties, standing erect and carefully watching us. Throughout the restaurant there’s a ratio of around one watcher to every chair. It’s pretty unnerving. One of them soon ceremoniously sets two gossamer thin flags at bisecting angles at the head of the table. Pressed between the fluttering sheets are a pattern of buds and leaves.
“Please,” he says. “Resist the temptation to eat them- yet”.
I’m not sure how many people instantly tuck into the table decorations at restaurants. But then maybe I’ve been going to the wrong places.
At Alinea there are no menus, just a brief discussion that there’s nothing we don’t eat; that we’re happy to do a tasting menu of 12 dishes (twelve is the minimum. Others in the room will be starting on an odyssey of 28). And that we’re happy to take their suggestions for wine.
It feels a little like Space Mountain. The rollercoaster is about to begin and we’re in the dark. Except the edible cocktails then brought are about as far from Disneyland as you can get.
There are three, like petit fours on miniature raised cake stands. A frozen pisco sour is chewy like a marshmallow that keeps expanding.
A ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a song in a cube of cucumber, and a sazerak is a wake up call of bitterness with a wallop of booze in a maraschino cherry shell.
To kick off the edible part of the adventure there’s a tumble of mint green down the side of a water glass where fresh shoots and tendrils threaten to escape over the top. Tucked in and around this frozen english pea mousse are six jewels of flavour in different textures. Each is designed to complement the peas in different ways.
Plundering the cold we find balls of honeydew melon, spherified bombs of sherry, hints of basil, olive oil, the nutty taste of Spanish Iberico Jamon and some buffalo mozzarella with honey. It’s a little like speed dating for vegetables. Except we can’t pick one which is the perfect match. Luckily I think polygamy is ok for peas.
With it there’s a glass of bubbles that has a surprisingly crisp and warm end. Soon we find out why. “Oh- that”. “Yes, we add a touch of birds eye chilli mead to the bubbles, just to clean it up a bit”. But of course.
The flatware for each course ranges from the intricate, to the downright sculptural. A golden puff comes suspended in the claws of a spiked and inverted cone. Wiggling its way out of the top is the long black tail of a vanilla pod. It’s the handle by which you pick up a crisped ball of Maine lobster with gruyère.
A vanilla pod feels like a pretty hedonistic piece of cutlery, but its sweetness gives the gruyère and shellfish an extra grace note of spice. It’s a slightly nutty combination that really really works.
The reserved interactions we’ve had so far with the straight-backed waitstaff crumple when they arrive at the table bearing pillows. “Nap time?” we ask.
“No.” And the next bit they try to say with straight faces. “This pillow is filled with the aroma of freshly cut grass. We’d like you to eat off it”.
And from then on, the veneer is cracked. As much as it smells like spring and summer it is very difficult to take anything seriously when you’re trying to eat off something akin to an aromatic stable-table.
The smell of grass has a purpose. It’s there to complement a collage of tomatoes, plated like a Kandinsky. Taken together, it’s a song about summer.
Among the blanched heirlooms and skin thin slices of beefsteaks are things that get on best with tomato. There are slicks of olive oil gel, fennel fronds that look like wafting anemones, some ‘soil’ of balsamic, sticks of dehydrated red pepper dipped in red chilli, fritters of burrata, crisps of parmesan and buds of basil. The fact that it’s so unstable to eat – elbows flying akimbo as you try and find the equilibrium on the grass just adds to the giddy fun of it all.
The staff are definitely part of the appeal at Alinea. Our sommelier has a touch of Sideshow Bob to him. Hair in wild corkscrew curls, unfurling from his head like the contents of a pinada. He speaks in droll tones, like there’s a punchline lurking around the corner from his every description. There’s a slightly maniacal look in his eye as he puts down two clear liquids. “This is a distillation we have made to prepare you palettes. It’s of Thai flavours; lemongrass, fish sauce and lime”.
I’m slightly worried. Firewater is what comes to mind. Instead it’s clean, crisp and clear, with hints of warmth and salt. It’s a gentle steam clean for your tongue.
What it’s preparing us for is a bucket load of fun. It’s time to eat the decorations. But only after you figure out how to assemble a wooden box of interlinking metal buttresses into a cradle. Figuring out how the two fit together is part technical lego, part sobriety test. Only when you’ve completed the construction do they drape the flag as a decorative rice paper base. Infront is a pristine portrait of Asian flavours; miniature mounds of young coconut, diced red onion, half moons of mango dipped in curry powder, chilli, cashew nuts and blossoms.
You can choose to add as much or as little of the baby sized buffet as you like to a mix of warm pork belly cooked in curry. You then roll it up and eat it; a mix of warm, sweet, nutty and gently sour in the prettiest rice paper roll you could imagine.
By now our team of waitstaff are starting to feel more like docents than distributors of food. They linger to chat, guiding us beyond the straight descriptions to what they think of the dishes.
when they bring to us a modern sphere of porcelain they have a sighty stern tone. They waggle a finger at our exploratory ways. “Only eat what you can see. And careful- the bottom is hot”. What we can currently see is like a lily on a green pond.
It’s a cold mousse of crab with candied lemon rind, hugging a heart of rhubarb and buttermilk sorbet, with dashes of violet. An offbeat combination that is cool, calming and sweet.
Once we’re finished with that we’re asked, “Are you comfortable with chopsticks?” When we nod, off comes the top of the dome to reveal a centre of just cooked crab with bisected pressings of rhubarb and avocado. The rhubarb is raw- and incredibly crisp and clean.
Once we’ve gently picked our way through it all, the last layer in the Russian doll of crab is revealed. It’s warm and comforting custard with confit fennel – the concluding string in a chord of fennel, rhubarb and crab. Three flavours that play neatly in tune.
When there’s nothing more to see, we stop eating. If only the phrase hadn’t been so battered by reality television participants I’d be more comfortable referring to these three dishes as a journey. But whatever it is, it’s food that takes you somewhere else.
The next few dishes also continue a vein of storytelling. A quiver of Elysian Fields lamb is speared on rosemary and accompanied on the plate with everything that helps make the lamb so good.
There’s the barley and corn that feeds the lamb- the corn in the form of a popcorn mousse. There are other elements from the land- bursts of blackberry that have been individually seperated from the stem- and crisped greens to represent the grass.
To follow is a lesson in gravity and temperatures. ‘Hot potato, cold potato’ is a sphere of comforting potato with a ludicrously large slice of black truffle on top, suspended over a dish of cold potato soup.
Pull the pin. Release the potato and truffle. Chug it all at once.
Then the plating starts to change. Out come ornate glasses and silverware- the kind your grandmother keeps for ‘specials’. Out comes an interpretation of a recipe much older than my late grandparents. It’s a combination from Escoffier.
It’s a tournedo of Australian Wagyu, with blanched tomato, bell pepper stuffed with rice and…banana. The three sides all have a similarly murky, funky sweetness. Without the installation on the table and the explanation of the origins, there’s a chance I’d raise an eyebrow and say, “Grant- Banana and meat? Seriously?” But…it works. Though I think it might go in the ‘don’t try this at home, kids’ box.
The last of the savoury courses is like a scud missile of kitchen confidence. When we later get given a menu, it’s listed as ‘Black Truffle Explosion’.
To your mouth it means a ravioli of parmesan and truffle that combusts like a soup dumpling, with tastes that play on and on.
Sometimes a meal is as much about what there isn’t as what there is. At Alinea there’s no music, no menus. No bread, no ‘white fish filler course (the scourge of tasting menus, a plain fillet on a pureed vegetable that usually turns up at course 4 or 5 to fill up space). And there’s no cheese, just a series of desserts that are
exercises in deconstruction and demolition.
The first is an ode to the flavours that make up Earl Grey Tea.
There’s some rubble of biscuit, dots of lemon pudding, pine nut custard and noodles of caramellised white chocolate. It’s served with a wine we well recognise; De Bertoli’s ‘Noble One’ Riesling, from NSW.
The next involves sucking hibiscus jelly, tapioca balls and vanilla creme fraiche out of a cigar. The noise it makes is rude. The volition in which the squishy balls of tapioca arrive in your mouth is slightly alarming. The flavours are a little akin to bubblegum. It’s great fun.
And the last is completely off the wall.
It starts with a blank rubber sheet.
Then a chef comes from the kitchen and starts to paint and create. Instead of acrylic, there’s liquid chocolate, coconut and a eucalyptus sauce.
Then the textures come.
There’s chocolate soil and frozen chocolate mousse that looks like artifacts from Mars.
There’s coconut ice and circles of molten pudding that are somehow cooking and setting on the rubber as the work is created. All in all it takes about eight minutes.
Then it’s left for us to destroy. Which once you taste the first, is not hard. The chocolate is both bitter and sweet. The eucalyptus has a hint of ‘cold and flu’ but more than that, it’s a refreshing clean up to a landscape of indulgence.
We’re laughing and scraping- fighting each other for the last bits.
It is some of the most fun we’ve had out in a very long time.
And that’s the end. There’s an espresso. There’s the presentation of a menu that’s more like a haiku than a written representation of what we ate. There’s a bill that was not inconsequential. There’s a taxi. And there are questions bubbling in our heads.
Is it artful food, or food that’s actually art?
Or is claiming a meal ‘art’ just a way to justify the expense and indulgence?
In the past three years I spent at the Australia Council for the Arts, I scratched in vain to describe what art was. I never came up with a really good answer.
This was all I knew; art makes you think. It makes you laugh. It takes you somewhere new. It makes you uncomfortable and it makes you talk. It builds memories.
For us, dinner Alinea did all of the above and much more. But at the end of it all none of it matters.
What I know is that dinner there was darn, darn, darn good. And we won’t forget it anytime soon.
(NB, Alinea has just refined their menu to one progression, of 21 courses).
1723 N Halsted, Chicago
Seventh best restaurant in the world in the 2010 San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’. Tick off another in our ridiculous ‘Quest for the best’.