Letter From Chicago

Strange and scientific culinary doings invade the Windy City

Hey Jonathan: A zillion thanks for your recommendation! We New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as one jump ahead of everybody, restaurant-wise, but Chicago's Grant Achatz makes our Wylie Dufresne seem dull by comparison. Here's my report. Located on a quiet stretch of North Halsted west of Lincoln Park, Alinea has no sign to identify its modernistic facade. A man in a black leather jacket loitered outside, and, really, we received no confirmation we'd reached our destination except for a brief nod from the bystander, who surprised us by lunging to open the door. The dark vestibule proved even stranger. Buffed to a high gloss, the black marble floor reflected the walls and ceiling, making it seem as if we were stepping into a puddle of water; moreover, the undulant walls converged as we splashed forward. We'd almost despaired of finding the exit, when there was a faint whir of machinery (à la "The Pit and the Pendulum") and a secret panel slid back. We were greeted warmly and conducted upstairs by a smartly dressed couple into a spare, dumbbell-shaped dining room with an imperial amount of space between the black mahogany tables.

The amuse came in a shot glass, a perfect yellow ball the size of an egg yolk dimly perceived through a greenish fluid. We were instructed by the waiter to bolt the whole thing in one gulp, then expect an explosion. The fluid turned out to be celery juice, the ball something like curry-laced white chocolate, and the explosion came from spurting apple juice as the orb fractured. The effect was awesome. Each of the ensuing 11 courses depended on scientific principles and ungainly ingredients. If you wrote them down, they didn't add up, but on the plate they proved wildly delicious.

Thus a gob of moist pheasant breast cooked tempura-style came thrust on an oak branch. The leaves had been briefly ignited, so the pungent smell of burning autumn leaves accompanied the tasty morsel. Another course was announced by a waiter arriving ceremoniously with white pillows on a black tray. These were set down in front of us, and the oblong plate of crusted lamb cheeks surrounded by colorful dabs, streaks, and foams of flavor was deposited on the pillows, which deflated sassafras-scented air into our faces as we foraged. The weirdest dish was probably the marshmallow ball on a dangerous-looking fencing foil, which wagged back and forth as it was set in front of us. We were told to clasp our hands behind our backs and bend forward to eat it. Browned as though a Girl Scout had just toasted it, the gooey white mass concealed a shard of tart apple, accentuated with sieved foie gras.

We soon fell into the rhythm of the three-hour meal and realized that we could not possibly retain all the details of each dish, which typically flaunted five to 10 flavors, some familiar, some strange. Each course looked like a little abstract painting. My favorite was kobe beef lozenges encrusted with toasted pumpkin seeds mired in sweet taffy, arranged along a ribbon of dehydrated orange squash. The bill for two, with tax, tip, and a bottle of wine, came to $475.

Tell me, Mr. Gold, do you have anything like it in Los Angeles?

 
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