Three times. That’s how many times I’ve been to Alinea — and then I might tack on a parenthetical, “so far”. Get tickets now, seriously. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (and of course, eaten). Best $600 I’ve ever spent… three times. Most of the world’s experts agree. That’s why Alinea has been ranked by basically everyone as one of the very best restaurants in the world at some point, and for some time, now. Arbitrarily listing its specific accolades or trying to distinguish the most important few among them is futile, even verging on disrespect for the constancy and hard-work with which the place secures its legacy.
Let me say first of all that an “alinea” is that little “c” with the two vertical lines running through it, that symbol your English teacher made on some of your papers. The alinea mark means “new paragraph”. The chef at Alinea, Grant Achatz, was wanting to make a new paragraph of a restaurant concept. As the world’s foremost molecular gastronomy experiment (with all due respect to the late elBulli), the food at Alinea emphasizes ideology. You really have no choice but to think about what you’re eating as you’re eating it. It’s not just because foodies go there and foodies analyze all their bites. A layperson, a mere civilian utterly uninterested in food criticism, can go to Alinea and still be joyfully compelled to face the philosophy of the food.
The first time I went to Alinea, it was because I wanted to cross something off my bucket list for my 30th birthday. My wife and I went, just the two of us. We flew to Chicago for 48 hours just to have this meal. It was almost 30 courses and it took three hours to complete. Neither of us drank a drop of alcohol, but we both ended up getting completely drunk on the ideas behind the food. That first time, when we were Alinea virgins, if you will, every single plate was a complete surprise. It was uncharted food, surreal territory. Much of this you can gather from looking at the photos on the website.
The menu changes frequently, but there are one or two staple items that stay fairly constant in the rotation. One of these items is the Truffle Explosion, a ravioli. The pasta is about an inch and a half in diameter. It’s whitish-yellow, round or oval, and the center looks soft and jiggly. Inside the ravioli is some kind of truffle emulsion. It’s foamy and watery and I’ve actually never seen the inside of it myself. Nobody outside the kitchen has seen the inside of the ravioli, because of the way it’s plated.
Achatz collaborates with Martin Kastner, of Crucial Detail Design Studios, to produce original serving pieces that you can only find at Alinea. The ravioli arrives perched languidly on a spoon that is sized somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. The spoon is itself then perched delicately on a tiny plate, touching the rim of the plate at the spoon’s tip and at its neck. The plate is just deep enough so the bowl of the spoon doesn’t touch it. The spoon is balanced like a hammock for this one bite of ravioli.
The thing is, you absolutely must eat it in one bite because the antiplate has no bottom — that’s right, there is a hole cut out of the bottom of the plate. So the spoon hangs in midair, above nothingness, the dark mahogany table laughing at you through the hole at the bottom of this perfectly diminutive white plate. You can’t rely on the spoon to catch the ravioli’s juices, and you’ll feel you’ve made an error if the juice squirts all over the table, so you have to put the whole thing in your mouth in one bite.
My wife and I ate this one bite and laughed out loud, trying to keep the truffle water from exploding out of our smiling faces. It was fun. We learned something. Then we couldn’t replicate it because there was no more ravioli. One and done. That was an extremely argumentative and memorable 30 seconds from the time the plate was put in front of us to the time where all that survives is our memory of it. This was just one plate among more than a dozen others that equally merited consideration of this depth.
We went back two years later. Because how could you not chase such a dragon? Now we felt we were more prepared. The first time, we probably missed half the actual deliciousness of the food because the fireworks involved in presentation were so elaborate that we were often blinded by the sheer performativity of the restaurant. So this was our test to ourselves. Even though so many of the dishes would be different, and thusly new and surprising all over again, we hoped we’d be more able to focus as the courses moved on into the third hour. As it turned out, this time we accomplished the meal is a little over two hours. I guess the first time we spent too long gawking. This time we looked less and tasted more.
Eventually, we hit the Truffle Explosion course. It was a guide post on a ridiculously long trek, suddenly reminding us that we were right where we’re supposed to be. The ravioli looked smaller. Maybe it actually was smaller or maybe we just romanticized the first one. Maybe the pasta was thicker, or the edging was done in a different style. No matter, we stuffed it past our smiles and sat there swooshing the truffle water around in our mouths, savoring it as best we could before our esophagi stole it all away from us. This was serious business! No laughing this time, just a quiet smile between my wife and I as we swallowed down the last of the one-bite wonder.
This second time, we did something super smart. We booked the absolute earliest, first table that they had for that night. We were at the valet at half past four in the afternoon, milling around and waiting for our early bird “old lady” table at five. As each room in the restaurant has only five or six tables in it, if you are the first table seated, your courses naturally begin before the neighboring table’s do.
This method crucially preserved for us the element of surprise. We saw the show before anybody else in our room. They were all craning their necks, trying to get a look at their own next course that had just arrived at our table. The neighboring tables wanted to see what we saw, and then they wanted to talk to us about it. There was more dialogue this time, and we were happy to be the guinea pig table, taking all the risks of the plate before our neighbors did. That was when we realized: we can’t come back to this show unless we bring some people who haven’t seen it yet.
The third time we went to Alinea, we took my brother and his wife there over the winter holidays. They have a high school education and pretty much live, economically speaking, month to month, but they like to eat and they like to think. This was an adventure for which they’d saved up and gotten excited about for six months. I couldn’t wait and the results were as gratifying as expected. I felt like all of it was made new for me in the eyes of the Alinea virgins we had brought along, that we could vicariously live our first experience there over again and regain some of that particularly fresh quality of excitement.
Don’t get me wrong, any and every trip to Alinea is amazing, entertain and educational. But during that second trip, we realized we were missing the feeling that goes along with having a bigger audience.
There’s the rub. Yeah, everybody comes away with a slightly different take on how the show went, what the dish means or how it tasted. But there’s definitely something to be said for doing it for a crowd much bigger than a dinner party at home, where even the best food is far less interesting than Achatz’s. The collective experience of his show, of new people across your own table and strangers whispering to you from their neighboring tables, helps in a crucial way to support the more differentiated individual memory of the show at Alinea.
This begs the question: how large does the audience need to be for a restaurant to effectively become a show? It seems to me from the performer’s perspective, from the perspective of Achatz and his crew preparing all the items needed for each course at each table, Alinea is for sure a show. But from the audience perspective, maybe there’s a point at which each eater’s individual experience of a meal becomes supersaturated, and we need other people comprising an audience to reach a particularly peak level of experience that truly makes going back to Alinea a worthwhile endeavor.
Indeed, part of the show is the crowd’s approach to it. I think we’re accustomed to equating a jam-packed waitlist with a restaurant’s success and there’s this idea of “half the seats were empty, so the show must not be compelling to people”, but how many butts in chairs does it take to feel like you have a show in the first place? Is the fact that one person or one city has seen it enabling Achatz to dismiss staging it for a larger number of people? No. Definitively, the chef in this case would like a wider audience.
For the first three months of 2016, Achatz is taking the show on the road. He is bringing all of Alinea, from stemware to servers, to two far away residencies. First he will be in Madrid and then he will go to Miami, and all the tickets for both are sold out. I would have liked to experience those food events, as my imagination cannot accomplish what the Alinea kitchen can. I’m convinced they would be very different shows from the one performed in Chicago, and well worth seeing.
Also well worth seeing are the Alinea Group’s other projects, Next and The Aviary, which are equally ambitious in their intellectual reach. I can’t get enough emotional distance from Alinea to try either of them myself — and then I might once again tack on that parenthetical, “so far”. If I can only go back to Chicago for a few nights a year, it’s hard to get beyond my first love to find food and drink elsewhere, even if it is sprung from the mind of the same man. It’s rather like those people who curl up with Pride and Prejudice every winter without any interest in giving a little side-eye to Mansfield Park or Emma.
As for the original Chicago space, the restaurant’s website declares that Alinea is “evolving”, that “extensive renovations” will result in version “2.0”. How much better could it possibly be? How much more versatile could it possibly get? The only thing not open to question is the fact of my intention to return there and see, with more Alinea virgins in tow as my guests. I’m not worried that Alinea’s determination to be “better” will fizzle into something that is merely bigger. A place as thoughtful as this can never disappoint, because any failure is absorbed by the audience as the cost of the show.
I want to illustrate this by telling you about the lady who got the taffy balloon stuck in her hair at the table across from us on our second visit! She was so snobby and giving every server death by a thousand little thin-lipped remarks, then when her balloon came it was so huge and unwieldy that she could barely pop it. It was bigger than other balloons delivered to tables near us, and a little part me hopes that the chef had heard tales of this rude guest and sent her up that cheeky bit of reckoning. I mean, you could also say that the balloon was not made to such exacting specifications as the others, and consequently the plate failed because it mostly went into the guest’s hair. But everybody in our dining room stole tiny peeks at other guests, and all of us silently agreed that she got what was coming to her. I think I had to restrain myself from clapping; it was such a good show.
This display is light years away from someone like Richard Blais, to whom we can credit the novelty of a burger joint that serves milkshakes made by liquid nitrogen. That’s showy more like a circus and even though delicious, it’s not exactly a show. For me, a show must offer some kind of new paragraph.
Alinea is my kind of noun, shot through with an intentionality so thorough in its precision and detail that it teeters wonderfully on the edge between magic and psychosis. It still leaves everyone dizzy, still takes away the collective breath of everyone in the dining room the way exceptional theater will do. Bring some good talkers when you go, no matter what they know about food. Alinea is a Joycean endeavor in its feats of technique and a Brechtian endeavor in the instruction of its guests. Achatz drills deeply into his menu with an irony that is never tempered by despair; he is not content to settle for any reliable one-trick ponies or rest on the laurels given to last season’s menu.
His guests all become Sisyphus. You can see how reluctant I am even to wrap up this homage to Alinea’s absurdity, such is the passionate addiction I have to the contemplation of Achatz’s work. The study of molecular gastronomy is a wonderfully punishing endeavor — just ask Martin S. Lindsay, who blogs about his efforts to make every recipe in the Alinea cookbook over at Alineaphile. To revisit the restaurant more than once, let alone to try reproducing any part of it at home, you must be more than a little crazy. Why surrender to pushing the rock up the hill again and again? Indeed, how can we want to volunteer for such an undertaking?
The plates at Alinea will always be enough to fill my heart and feed my mind. That is why I bring others to witness the ideas embedded in the food there, spreading the good word of this painstaking religious experience dreamed up by Grant Achatz. As Camus said, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”