Alinea: it converted me
I know there are other threads on Alinea here. I am starting a new one because I don't think my post falls directly within the initial post subject of the other threads. If it gets relocated, so be it. But my sense is that it (both the post and the restaurant) deserve a new start. And so:
Elswhere, I read the following: "Word of caution: a good amount of what Alinea is all about is surprise. Is too much press a bad thing? Possibly. If you’re planning to go, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time reading reviews, looking at pictures, reading press articles. It ruins some of the surprise and takes some of the fun away…. I feel as though I would have benefited slightly by knowing a little less prior to going."
That was the single best piece of advice I received before going and I’m especially glad I took it to heart. And for precisely the same reasons, I will invoke more of the same writer's words: “If you haven’t been but plan to go, you might skip over the next few paragraphs…—I’d hate to ruin any surprises you may experience. I feel as though I would have benefited slightly by knowing a little less prior to going.” Amen.
Despite my insistence that I had absolutely no interest in trying Grant Achatz’s brand of high-tech cuisine, the Lovely Dining Companion knows me better than I do myself and so we went about a month ago. In retrospect, it having been Yom Kippur, I can safely say that I can’t imagine a better way to break a day-long fast (on one’s birthday) than to eat at Alinea.
I was more than skeptical, I was downright opposed to trying Alinea. Why? Because several years ago, at the annual Food & Wine bash at the MOCA, I tried some cockamamie invention on an impossibly high-tech “skewer.” The skewer reminded me simultaneously of the pins they use to display butterflies and some Tom Swift-y gizmo that he’d copped from the hospital. The food was decidedly not to my taste—so much so that I’ve completely blocked any memory of what it even was. I’ll take my food the old-fashioned way, thank you. Identifiable items served on good old-fashioned plates, with forks and knives!
Since we came back from Alinea, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about Achatz and about Alinea. The best piece has been Corby Kummer’s piece, “The Alchemist.” That it appears in a magazine entitled Technology Review is precisely the kind of information that would have confirmed me in my ignorant opinion had I known of it before we went. If you’ve been to Alinea and haven’t read it, I’d urge you to do so. It’s remarkably insightful. If you haven’t been, let me emphasize dddane’s suggestion above: the less you know the better. While foreknowledge won’t ruin your meal, an essential element of dining at Alinea is the theatricality involved.
“Theatricality” or “theater” is a word that has appeared repeatedly in many of the articles that I’ve looked at in the past week. And I should make clear that I use the word purely as a descriptor, with no negative connotations whatsoever. As Kummer’s essay shows, Achatz has thought long and hard about food and about eating. And my own take on the experience of dining at Alinea is that he has—forgive me, Jacques Derrida—deconstructed the experience. He has considered the elements that comprise a pleasurable meal and he has uncoupled them, the better to emphasize them, the better to alert you to their significance. By doing so, he highlights the synergy that can produce a truly great meal.
We all know, on the one hand, that sight is an integral element of eating anything. Why would so many chefs spend so much effort on presentation were it not so? Indeed, the hoary experiment involving eating or drinking or something with your eyes closed is still a powerful demonstration of just how critical seeing is to eating. Hell, go to your refrigerator at 3 a.m. and pull out a carton of juice. Drink some of it without turning the lights on. Can you even tell what kind of juice it is? You might be surprised. I know I was.
Smell, on the other hand, is a sense equally acknowledged to be critical to our enjoyment of food. And yet how many chefs do much—or anything—to enhance the olfactory experience other than to plate the best food they can? That’s not to denigrate their efforts by any means. Only to highlight what I think part of Achatz’s achievement is.
We had the tasting menu. Several times during the course of the evening, Achatz went out of his way to accentuate the olfactory component of the course being presented. Thus, in the course of an evening, you may find your food served in a bowl placed on a deep charger with a large sprig of hyacinth and orange peel. Even as you are engrossed in the beauty of the presentation, the server ladles hot water over the “decorations,” releasing the perfume of the flowers and the citrus. Achatz also serves duck on a pillow filled with lavender-scented air. He uses a smoldering cinnamon stick as a skewer. He hides a piece of wagyu beef (and matsutake broth) under a stack of cedar and places a rosemary stem where it will be all-but-ignited by a hot brick showcasing small pieces of lamb. Then there is the rabbit served in glasses that, until a moment before, had been filled with the smoke from burning oak leaves. Even the bread and butters (both cow’s and goat’s milk). And on and on. As the cedar and oak leaves show, the scents need not be of the food itself to enhance the experience.
(I should interrupt myself here to note that the “hyacinth” course, featuring lobster, was easily our favorite. The bowl containing the lobster also held another long, butterfly-impaling pin at the end of which was a tiny pastel-colored cube dusted with fennel pollen. Underneath, several chunks of lobster, some braised sunchoke, and slivers of orange, all wading in an rich buttery broth. The cube—Jello with a Ph.D.—set the stage: concentrated with just the right amount of acid. The lobster itself was probably the single best two or three bites of food I’ve ever eaten. “Velvety” or “silky” cannot begin to describe the lobster or the sauce: sheer unctuousness, almost obscenely decadent. Had more than three bites been offered, I shudder to think of the consequences.)
Kummer wrote: “…it was the rosemary scent mixing with sizzling lamb fat—an almost primeval emotional trigger, the kind Achatz says he wants to pull--that made this the climax of the meal…. Semiridiculous as these tricks sound, they exploit the evocative power of scent, memories of which lodge in a primitive storage area in the brain. Scent works: that lamb is the dish I still think about months after I had it. But the meal did not lack for other high points, in which artful visual and olfactory shocks were essential.”
That’s it. Precisely. By diverting your attention to the presentation, including its emphasis on not just the visual but the olfactory, too, Achatz forces you to recognize that the experience of eating a piece of beef entails far more than just eating the meat, no matter how superb the beef and no matter how perfect its preparation. It’s unlikely that you will think as much about the experience of eating at any other restaurant in the world. (Hyperbole but still largely accurate)
Our meal was not perfect. There were courses that we both agreed didn’t work—at least not for us. But the two or three such courses that happened to fail us were so far overshadowed by the astonishing achievements of the other courses that it would be churlish to complain. Given the nature of the meal, the timing requirements, the number of other diners, we were served by some four or five different people. Some were more excited by the theatricality of the presentations than others, a few of them overly so. Some were clearly reciting scripts. Notwithstanding the surprising range of seriousness about the food itself, all were engaged and engaging—save perhaps that evening’s sommelier, who was intent on both demonstrating his superior knowledge and doing so with occasionally snide condescension. Several attempts to engage him in a serious discussion about a particular pairing failed.
A word about the pairings. As with the food, it would have been too optimistic to expect every pairing to be perfect. But, notwithstanding two glasses that I flat out didn’t like (Franco Martinetti Monferrato Rosso "Sul Bric", Piemonte 1999 and Gianfranco Furtan Castelcosa Schiopettino, Venezia Giulia 2005), some of these choices were inspired. I knew I was in for quite a ride when the first glass was set down: an extraordinary concoction of champagne, Lillet blanc, and aquavit! Among the especially successful treats were a breathtaking sake (Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo, Hiroshima Prefecture) and a just-about-perfect Moscato d’Asti (La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti "Bricco Quaglia" Piemonte 2006)
As I noted, some of our servers seemed more taken with their role as magician than with recognizing that the magic was in the service of the food. But to deny the essential place of that magic would be to diminish Achatz’s achievement. Theatricality is part of the experience at Alinea. Knowing in advance what will happen won’t affect the taste of the food but it will, inevitably (and, in my judgment, negatively) alter your experience. And Achatz’s point, if I may be so bold as to presume that I understand what he’s trying to achieve, is the totality of the experience. You could go back the next night and have the same exact dinner (pace Heraclitus). The food will taste as wonderful, but the “shock of the new” will be gone. Textures, tastes, combinations, will all still be “new”—but they won’t be shocking because you’ve had them before and you know what to expect. You know that the fascinating creation awaiting your pleasure will be hot or cold, velvety, bitter, or will simply explode in your mouth. And that shock is truly indispensable. It is what makes Alinea, Alinea.
Smells and presentations are only the visible part of the iceberg, however. Achatz has taken extraordinary care and effort to think through virtually every aspect of the dining experience. He has partnered with a designer to create unique—and uniquely appropriate—“implements” for presenting and serving some of his creations. Hence the surprise that a lot of the courses come with instructions. The server tells you how to eat what he or she has placed before you, or handed to you. (And no, it’s not always intuitive.) When Achatz places the food on “plates,” the plates are similar enough to ordinary plates to deserve the name but distinct enough to catch your attention and focus it on the food in a way that ordinary plates never will. I could go on and on: the design of the room, including its lighting, colors, decorations, and even the tables and chairs. The Alice in Wonderland surprise that awaits your first steps inside the front door. Achatz has forgotten nothing. His attention to detail, his meticulousness are literally inspirational. You may not agree with or even appreciate every detail, but I cannot imagine anyone eating at Alinea and being able to walk away without having had his or her preconceptions about dining out challenged—in the best possible way. You may agree with Achatz, you may not, but you won’t think about the experience of eating food the same way, ever again.
P.S. Some may wonder, as did we, whether Achatz’s illness has affected the quality of the food coming from the kitchen. We have no way to know whether he was there when we visited, but judging solely by our meal, there is no cause whatsoever for concern.
P.P.S. I have purposely not illustrated this post with pictures. For the terminally curious, there are close to 2,000 photos posted on flickr.com All you need to do is go to the website and type in “Alinea.” You’ll see a wide range of shots, some excellent, most merely okay, but all illustrating the imagination and meticulousness I’ve written about above (as well as the serving…“implements” and plates). Or if you want to see stunning pics and a wonderful review of the 24-course tour, take a look at the blog, skilletdoux.
Hi Gypsy Boy,
Really enjoyed your attempts at articulating the experience of this kind of cuisine. Here are two attempts of mine from the past (there are several others, but I can't seem to find them//there's also stuff on egullet):
I came to this conclusion: "The point is that these works do not represent anything; they signify". That provocative statement might or might not resonate with your own "the scents need not be of the food itself to enhance the experience".