jump to: prologue : part 1 : part 2
I just had the most devastating, incredible meal of my life. Through a series of conversations and circumstances, Lav and I found ourselves in Chicago on Saturday night at 9:15 pm to commence an overwhelming and unforgettable experience at Alinea.
Molecular gastronomy and the avant-garde... lots of divergent opinions in this realm. Form or function? Style as a gimmick or with a purpose? I'm not going to engage in the debate of whether this is the best restaurant in the U.S. or its "ranking" against the best and most revered, legendary restaurants around the world. That's entirely irrelevant (and ultimately purposeless because of the underlying subjectivity, I think). If you ask me, the point of going to a restaurant like Alinea is to open your mind, cast aside your prejudices, and immerse yourself in the culinary theater of an incredibly talented and creative chef (and team). It's the opportunity to allow the paradigms and contexts that have defined your concepts of "food" to be wholly deconstructed -- or really, obliterated -- and to enjoy the results of hypermodern, radical reconstructions, prepared and presented thoughtfully, intentionally, and with just the right combination of earnestness and humor.
Alinea is gorgeous on a number of different levels. The design of the restaurant is a mirror of the care and precision used to prepare each of the stunning dishes. From the exterior, the restaurant seems like a simple townhome, emanating a subtle glow of modern accent lighting from within. Upon opening the front door, we were drawn into a hallway whose main feature was its function as an optical illusion of a shrinking ceiling height. This clever tease gave us a not-so-subtle hint of the mind-bending culinary illusions to come.
When we got to the end of the hall, the wall to our left slid open with a surprising velocity, but with almost no sound. The host greeted us and invited us to look into the large, immaculate open kitchen, where we observed teams of chefs working in near-seamless integration... a coordinated flurry of deliberate and precise activity but, as with the entry door, almost absent of any unnecessary sound. No chaos or clanging; only muted voices amidst the controlled execution... really an extraordinary operation to witness.
We were led up the glass and steel staircase to an upper room, demure and sophisticated in its modern design. Shortly after being seated at a generously spaced table, fresh branches of rosemary were placed as centerpieces, one for each of us. The rosemary was astonishingly aromatic; each time a server walked by, a gentle but pure and focused waft of fresh rosemary scent drifted across our table. The absolute precision of the restaurant's added touches and the substantive impact those touches had on the overall experience cannot be overstated; a spirit of perfection reigns here.
And now, before our meal is presented in its totality, I'll make a quick mention of one of my favorite accoutrements to any meal, the bread and butter. We enjoyed two types of bread. First, a scone-shaped biscuit, lightly crispy on the outside, dense and rich on the inside. Later in the meal, we were presented with a simple roll flavored with smoked paprika, the essence of which rested in amazing focus and balance to the texture and density of the roll.
We were served two types of butter: Wisconsin sweet cream butter topped with Hawaiian pepper and house-churned goat's milk butter, which was an absolute revelation. Imagine the flavor of your favorite, richest chevre with the texture of sweet cream butter. So very absurdly good.
So we've made this trip all the way to Chicago for this meal... it would only be appropriate to experience everything we could. Accordingly, against our original decision several weeks ago, and with a bit of trepidation, we opted to go forward with the 24-course tour. As you'll see in the posts to come, this was easily the most intellectually challenging food and wine experience I've ever had. The sheer number of distinct flavors, the constant onslaught of presentations never-before encountered, and frankly, the way all of our preconceived notions of food were completely annihilated, truly made this the most unique dining experience I could ever imagine... near uniformly successful, totally astonishing, and wholly unforgettable.
And as I write this days later, I find that I'm still processing the meal and its impact on my understanding of food as a nutritional necessity and as an expressive medium. I hope that you find the photos and commentary for the concepts of Alinea (which will be posted over the next week or so) to be interesting, inspiring, and thought-provoking.
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