In Palazzo Spada, near where I lived in Rome, there’s a cute little Architectural folly by Borromini called Il Perspettivo- a corridor built in forced perspective to appear much longer than it is, that opens onto a garden with a statue in it. There’s a nice moment that happens as soon as you enter, when you see that the ceiling slants down, and the floor slopes up, and you realize that the whole thing is about 10 feet long and the statue is tiny. Alinea’s entry hall does a similar thing, and that cognitive shift- where something turns out to be something else, and we are surprised and delighted- is an important part of the Alinea experience.
Before we went, I knew about as much about this restaurant as one can without actually having eaten there. I love the cookbook- though so far I’ve just used it for inspiration- and I’ve read and heard many accounts of other people’s experiences there. Everything I learned told me that it justifies the hype. And the proximity (about a week off) of our anniversary provided all the justification I needed for such a lavish indulgence.
It’s funny- I was actually nervous going in, more so than I have been since I met Radiohead backstage last August. The trompe l’oeil entryway with the gleaming Star Trek doors on the left at the end does a nice job of underscoring the through-the-looking-glass-ness of your passage from the busy clamor outside to the busy serenity within; the doors pop open suddenly and from then on you are in the hands of some seriously talented people. It’s dim inside, with some tactile yet minimal canvases and a few abstract arrangements of plexi, glass, and plants (and a ceramic Chinese pig) that make for something to look at between courses. There are a lot of staff, but they move pretty smoothly.
I had been going back and forth about whether to get the wine pairing or not, and after looking at the dizzying pornography which is their wine list I decided to abandon myself to the pairings. It didn’t seem possible to choose one or two bottles that were going to play nicely with the zillion flavors to come. First they brought us a champagne cocktail: Henriot Brut with Chartreuse, Akvavit, and Orange Curaçao. The quantities of liqueurs were so small that the glasses looked like pure champagne, and tasted like champagne but with astonishing fruit and floral overtones. It would be more fun if they brought the glass without announcing what was in it, and let people try to figure out what the hell it was.
I’m going to publish some of the pics I took, but not all; the lighting is low and I didn’t use a flash. Some came out barely OK, many were useless. You can easily find beautiful pics of this beautiful food all over the internets.
Roes • traditional garnishes
Blis roes of Arctic char and steelhead trout with flavors of brioche, dill, and sour cream all transformed into foam, quenelle, and, uh… cream respectively. It was sublime- a tired canapé from the 60s resurrected as the irresistible club mix of the late aughts.
Foie Gras • daikon, shiso, yuzu
Dönnhoff “Felsentürmchen” Riesling Spätlese Nahe 2006
I didn’t even take a picture of this, because the soup bowl has a rounded bottom (which I like) and required holding to prevent spillage and humiliation. I would love to make bowls like this, notched on one side to allow for a little fork to rest on top, but my guests normally don’t take direction the way cowed Alinea guests do. We dutifully ate the bite on the fork- hands down one of the most elegant bites of food I’ve ever tasted- and savored the syncopated counterpoint of flavors which danced around the creamy core of foie. The soup was so clean, yet so powerfully flavored with daikon, shiso, and yuzu; it was the wet dream of all the little first-course soups I make and I’m going to duplicate it if it kills me.
Pork Belly • iceberg, cucumber, Thai distillation
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007
This one was mighty. Super-shreddy aromatic pork confit on cucumber-infused lettuce with Thai essence and basil seeds, plus a panoply of herbs, flowers, and garlic chips on top and a cayenne-bell pepper pudding on the side. I didn’t take any notes at all- this is from memory; I’m going to miss some flavors and get a few things wrong, so bear with me. The spicy sauce was a welcome high note and the wine matched well. Later on we began to miss the spice, since there was not much to be found in subsequent dishes.
Green almond • juniper, gin, lime
This one was a variant on the version in the cookbook, but with a different gel and no cayenne. It was lovely, but fell short of my expectation; I really like the idea of having tiny corners of intense salty, sweet, sour, and spicy that embellish the main flavors and elegant textures. This could have used a pinch of fire.
Soft Shell Crab • carrot, five spice, duck
Melville “Verna’s” Estate Viognier, Santa Barbara County 2008
It’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a more extravagantly beautiful plate of food. And the wide-ranging yet tightly compatible flavors- from crunchy crab to unctuous duck, impeccably liased by creamy carrot- were marvelous. Little bright floral and herbal notes popped out in different bites. It was downright musical. The only weak spot for me was a sesame-chive nougat sort of thing (in back, with a little flower on top) that was a tad too arid for my taste; it had the saliva-destroying power of halvah and might have worked better as a powder in smaller quantity. The wine was remarkably non-California tasting, having undergone no Malolactic fermentation, but still paled next to the 2002 Cheze Condrieu we had recently.
Blue Crab • carrot, five spice, duck
Gustave Lorentz Grand Cru Pinot Gris “Altenberg de Bergheim” Alsace 2004
Where the last plate would not be out of place in many top-notch restaurants, this one was a seriously deep sci-fi remix of many of the same flavors. Served chilled in an entasized shot glass with a spoon, it was one of the most profound dishes of the night. Everything had been turned into cream, or gel, or foam; the fibers of crab offered the only resistance to the tongue. Dense yet ethereal, funky yet weightless, complex yet harmonious, this was a goddamn masterpiece. If our tongues were longer we surely would have swabbed these glasses clean.
The wine was insane. It tasted years older than it was, and had the honeyed, layered, deep yellow vibe of some mutant love child of a Chave Hermitage blanc, the Cheze Voignier, and maybe some Meursault thrown in as lube. My wine find of the night.
Black Truffle • explosion, romaine, parmesan
His most famous dish, and the only one he brought with him from Trio. Very nice, but then I knew what was coming. Christine did not; I have a nice sequence of pics documenting her progress through the five stages of trufflicious explosement. This is stage one: anticipation.
Pigeonneau • à la Saint-Clair
“Alter Ego” de Château Palmer, Margaux 2004
Chef Achatz has been incorporating more classics into the menu, and here was a little piece of Escoffier reimagined as a Zen garden. Elegant, perfectly executed, and deeply satisfying. Something I noticed throughout, though, is that given the size and subtlety of some dishes, even a sprig of thyme was a tad overblown at times, crushing the more delicate flavors. Making it into a powder would have allowed for the same intense brightness, but made it available to more of the bites and integrated it better. Quibbling, but nonetheless it happened several times.
The wine was a closed fist. Good young Bordeaux- even a second wine like this- is just not worth opening. It’s hard for me to imagine that they couldn’t find something more drinkable.
Bacon • butterscotch, apple, thyme
This is Claudia‘s now-infamous “bacon on a sex swing” and it does deserve the name. On balance, though, it’s a tad heavy on the sweetness; this is the point at which we started to get a little fatigued from the sugar in many dishes. They’ve reordered the trajectory of the menu so that it undulates back and forth between savory and sweet, but because we use so little sugar at home and have many more bitter, spicy, and pickled components to our meals, it got a little cloying. Not to say that they weren’t wonderful, just that we could have used some kimchi or tsukemono type flavors here. Overall there was a dearth of sour and hot in the meal, and cumulatively it made for a heavier experience than it could have been. The bacon was so polite it almost didn’t register; I wanted feral intensity like in our hillbilly bacon to counterbalance the sweetness of the apple and butterscotch (and again with the thyme sprig!)
Sweet Potato • bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon
The presentation was terrific, but it hit at the wrong point in the menu for us.
Mustard • passionfruit, allspice
Freaking genius. One of the best bites of the night. Served on the Eye, a chilled glass that helps keep these antigriddled lovelies cold for their harrowing trip upstairs from the kitchen, the combined flavors were a revelation- and, just as importantly, they faded away after the one bite, making us scramble to remember the sensation.
Hot Potato • cold potato, black truffle, butter
Bruno Paillard “Première Cuvée” Brut Rosé, Rheims
Another classic; the temperature contrast adds a new dimension to the layers of richness (you pull the pin, dropping the hot potato and truffle into the cold soup, then knock it back.) Eating off of parrafin kind of squicks me out, though. The Champagne was good, but not as good as I wanted it to be. Kind of tight and restrained- a more opulent style like Egly-Ouriet might have been interesting.
Yuba • shrimp, miso, togarashi
This was a crispy spine of yuba that supported a helix of prawn, orange taffy, and miso mayonnaise, garnished with black and white sesame seeds. The salty miso and gentle heat from the togarashi balanced the sweet orange well, but the much subtler sweetness of the prawn got a little lost. I loved the serving dishes.
White Asparagus • arugula, white pepper, honey
Tentaka “Silent Stream” Junmai Daiginjo Sake, Tochigi
This soup kind of let me down. Texturally, it was super creamy, but the sweetness overall and lack of definition in the pickled asparagus made it a little flabby. My least favorite of the night. It’s important to remember, though, that in another context it may well have been mind-blowing. The sake was incredibly aromatic and clean- a very special treat.
Lilac • scallop, shellfish, honeydew
Albert Mann “Vielles Vignes” Auxerrois, Alsace 2006
And then maybe my most favorite of the night. I love eating lilacs (though my experience cooking with them is limited to making ice cream) and this dish was a stunning accomplishment. There’s a point when one contemplates a great work of minimalism- whether music, painting, sculpture, or anything- that the narrow constraints of the piece crack open and reveal something close to infinity inside; it’s like seeing the universe in a grain of sand. This dish was like that. The impossibly subtle sweetness of the shellfish with tiny compressed honeydew balls and celery in the gentlest of cream sauces, studded with little lilac “pillows” surrounded by an ethereal lilac foam- it was a perfect little world in a bowl, and downright moving in its beauty.
Wagyu Beef • powdered A-1, potato, chips
Jean-Michel Gerin Côte-Rôtie “Champin le Seigneur” 2003
At this point our enigmatic centerpiece came into play. It’s another trademark of the establishment that something mysterious is placed on your table at the outset, and becomes part of a course later on. This evening it was a solemn black vase that sat atilt on a black rubber circle developing a nice rime of frost around its base while we ate. It obviously had dry ice inside, but what would they do with it?
The answer came in the form of the most divine piece of beef I’ve ever had. I’ve had wagyu before, but this was so unspeakably sublime it wiped the others from my memory like doodles from a dry-erase board. Like a hard drive in an MRI. Like I just learned that Soylent Green was made from PEOPLE. What put it over the top were the accompaniments: a cube of hot, silken mashed potato crusted with salt and vinegar potato chips and a little plastic pouch containing the powdered essence of A-1 steak sauce: anchovy, tamarind, raisin, and clove. There were also little piles of Maldon salt and black pepper. A slice of this übersteak, swabbed in a bit of each powder and chased by a smidge of creamy, crispy potato bomb was an utterly brilliant take on numbing steakhouse fare. And just the right amount- by the fifth bite, the awe had subsided and it was time to move on. Bite six was a fond, longing farewell to what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime pleasure.
The dry ice had aromatics in it, so when they served the food they poured water (I’m guessing) into the vessel and fragrant fog gushed forth onto the table, giving this moment of profound decadence a nice B-movie touch. The wine, as with the Palmer, was WAY too young. There is just no point serving something that says Côte-Rôtie on the label when it’s this tight. I can think of several $20 bottles that would have matched this so wonderfully- not to mention how a glass of something truly special and ready to drink would have elevated this into the stratosphere. I know they need to be able to source large quantities for the list, but there has to be a better wine choice for such a magnificent plate of food as this.
Something else that didn’t quite sit right with us was the bread. Throughout the meal, lovely little baked bready things were placed on our small side plates, and we had two gorgeous butters to slather on them- goat, and cow with black Hawaiian salt. Now there’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that it stood out as such a weird restaurant trope to hang on to, given how many others had been discarded in the name of innovation- like a vestigial tail you can’t see because it’s behind you. It would have been so much more fitting to have grains and bakery-type notes interwoven with the courses of the tour. As it was, there was almost no grain to be found in our meal.
Lemon Soda • one bite
Served on a linen-wrapped wand of sorts (looking a bit like a ruler) these were two small triangular envelopes of isomalt (probably) containing lemon-flavored pop rock powder. They evaporated in a pleasant citrus fizz and cleansed our palates for what followed.
Yogurt • pomegranate, cassia
A beautiful sphere of yogurt with a liquid center in a pomegranate syrup, downed as a shot. Rich yet clean, and again the instant nostalgia trying to capture all the subtleties of the interplay between the tangy yogurt and that slightly metallic earthiness of pomegranate. In some ways the single bites were the most powerful because they forced one to pay attention, stretching time out to contain more individual slices of experience.
Bubble Gum • long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
The flavors of bubble yum captured in a glass tube which one pulls on hard like a stubborn stogie. A flood of fleeting associations, and a lovely chewy bite to the gels. Really nice.
Transparency • of raspberry, yogurt
A paper-thin glass of raspberry, dusted with sweet yogurt powder. It dissolved into pure flavor, then vanished.
Rhubarb • goat milk, onion, lavender air
Elio Perrone “Bigaro” Piedmont 2008
This plate came on a pillow filled with vaporised lavender essence; the weight of the plate and our pressure on it slowly forced the fragrance out into the air around us while we ate. Onion cotton candy, different textures of rhubarb and goat milk- it was beguiling. The wine, a Moscato-Brachetto blend, was an excellent match, and had hints of the the tangy Brachetto stank that helped keep it from being too one-dimensional.
Chocolate • blueberry, tobacco, maple
Smith-Woodhouse 1994 Vintage Port
Now I don’t know why they chose us for what happened next. It may be that they research their guests and they discovered what a giant food nerd I am. It may be that one or more of our (all-male) wait staff told Chef that one of the great beauties of our time was sitting upstairs and he should come up and gaze upon her. It may be that all my geeky banter, especially with Craig the wine guy, distinguished us from the more taciturn and/or thoroughly disoriented diners around us. It may have been plain dumb luck. But I didn’t see anybody else get the following treatment.
One of our servers came up at this point and said “Chef is going to throw you a little bit of a curve ball.” They cleared everything off the table and vanished, returning with a rubber mat, which unrolled across the whole table. Then, suddenly, Chef Achatz was standing there, with a helper on the other side. We said hello, and he explained that sometimes plates offer a too-small surface for composition; this was an effort to expand outward onto a larger canvas, as it were. And they got to throwin’. Tobacco cream, blueberry syrup, spheres of blueberry jam, pickled blueberries, walnuts- praline and powder- jiggly spheres of maple extract (the wood, not the sap) and chocolate mousse that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen. And thyme. Did I mention the thyme? We chatted a bit and they went back to work. It was a delicious finale. I resisted the urge (probably because I’m over 30) to insist upon a photo with him, and I didn’t even hump his leg or anything.
Here’s the result, after a few initial passes of the spoon (just, you know, to make sure it was OK.)
Pound Cake • strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean
A tiny circle of dense, chewy swirl formed on the end of a vanilla bean from somewhere in the happy, happy place between cake and candy. Not much more to say about it, except that I had wisely saved a sip of port to wash it down.
And that was that. A mere four hours (at around $200 per hour) and we were done. Was it worth it? Sure. For what it was, there’s no question, especially compared to how easy it would be to drop that kind of coin at even a mediocre place. This was astonishing, and in places it was simply as good as food can get. The staff are excellent, and quickly get a read on what kind of guest you are; if you show some familiarity or interest, they become more personable and less formal. I abhor the sniveling sycophant style of service, and they do an admirable job of finding the sweet spot where you feel most comfortable (though little things like replacing your napkin every time you go to the can seems a bit over the top, and uses too much bleach.)
Portion sizes could be a little smaller in some cases, since plate fatigue can set in with the larger courses, no matter how sublime. And the pretty hard tilt toward sweetness bogged us down in a few spots. But we are not normal Americans that way. And this is all small beer. The man is a genius, plain and simple.
We had a little visit to the kitchen on our way out, and it’s fascinating to watch. There are many, many people employed there, and they do their work with remarkable efficiency. The staff run all the plates upstairs (many were sweating by the end of the night) and the atmosphere is one of frenetic calm- like a Ferrari engine humming at 7500 rpm. Inept as I am, I would love to stage in that kitchen for a month- not just to learn the wizardry and the process, but to see the interface between the real world outside and the kitchen within- to learn about the sources, and producers, and exotic materials, and to see how Chef Achatz, like Borromini, takes the language of classicism and warps it in his magic mirrors until it becomes positively psychedelic in its revelatory power.