Like some others, I always have a running list of restaurants locally that I’m eager to try out, but rarely do I have an irrepressible desire to travel to dine someplace. There are exceptions — El Bulli for the scientific innovation, L’Arpege for exulting vegetables to their highest form, St John for quite the opposite reason — but domestically only one restaurant has piqued my curiosity in recent years.
Alinea, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, was the brain- and palate-child of chef Grant Achatz, a young maverick who had trained with the likes of Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, and by all accounts had taken that training and run with it to new culinary heights. For years I’d ignored the urge to go for one simple reason: It’s in Chicago, and we are in San Francisco. Helluva commute.
But then, as our anniversary approached, I took stock. We had a certificate for a free night at a Kimpton hotel, ample airlines miles on United and an itch for some spontaneous travel. Why not?
One Monday in July I called and left a message requesting a reservation. The restaurant isn’t open on Mondays, and so no one was there to take my call, but being forgetful as I am, I decided it was better to call and get it out of the way. Later that same morning, a press release hit the wires that young chef Achatz, age 33, had been diagnosed with stage-four squamous cell cancer of the mouth.
Still, the next day I received a call from a reservationist at Alinea, who quietly and politely offered seating options for the full 24-course tasting tour at 5 pm, or the shorter 12-course tasting menu at 9 pm. My inner glutton cried out for the 24-course groaner, but reason prevailed. After all, we would be on Pacific time, and a 9 pm seating was ideal for our needs. Besides, 24 courses, however small, is just too much.
Knowing what I did about the restaurant, I was not gravely concerned about Chef Achatz’s not being in the kitchen. Food of this caliber and requiring such technical finesse is not made by one person alone, but by a well-trained team of artisans. I remained confident that Achatz’s deft hand would remain present even in absentia.
In the cab en route to the restaurant, my excitement and anxiety grew. I felt jittery; butterflies fluttered in my stomach. We were about to consummate one of my greatest culinary wishes, a dining experience I sprung on my unwitting husband, who didn’t know that we were going to this restaurant (or, for that matter, what it was) until 48 hours before. Would it live up to my expectations? Would it thrill and inspire DPaul as much as I hoped?
As we arrived at the restaurant, walking down a corridor ambiently lit in lavender, I was taken with a sense of serenity. Entering through the main door, we were met not by a host station and a bustling restaurant, but a lone man in a dark suit, standing there as if he were waiting for us all night. To our right we had a clear view into the kitchen. There were no clattering pans, flames flaring up from cooktops, harried cooks racing about. Each of the cooks were going about his or her business with methodical calm.
We were led upstairs and seated at a table large enough to seat six (ahem, by San Francisco standards). The deceptively large space was broken up into sections that lent a sense of intimacy and, yes, serenity. There were only five tables in our room; an adjacent room was similar, and there were other rooms as well.
And so it began. We gave ourselves over to our skilled army of waitstaff and the sommelier. We opted for the wine pairings, which is not only recommended but an obvious good idea. Who would have the hubris to think they could select a single bottle of wine to pair with what was about to come? We gladly accepted the assistance.
Chef Achatz has earned a reputation as a mad scientist chef for his use of high-tech equipment, custom-designed service pieces and otherworldly presentations. Rather, I think he’s more of an inner child chef, playing with his (and, by extension, our) food to come up with creative, whimsical and sometimes outright silly presentations that simply never failed to delight.
What’s more is that though the presentations were astonishing, the flavors were every bit as strong. Almost every ingredient seemed to be distilled to its purest essence and delivered in its most intensified form. Not every dish knocked it out of the park, but surely every one was at least a solid hit.
It is a sensual experience. Obviously his dishes delight the eyes and the palate, but there is a tactile element, and an almost over-the-top attention to olfactory stimulation. The only sense that was not overtly courted was hearing; though I suppose the novelty of being in a quiet restaurant was in itself a sensory experience.
I was also struck by how many dishes conveyed a sense of place. While Chef Achatz’s presentations are rooted firmly in Japanese kaiseki, the flavors we tasted roamed the earth. We tasted the mountains of Italy, urban English comfort food, the moodiness of the Pacific Northwest and straight-up Midwestern bravado.
I also appreciated the rhythms expressed in the menu. Certain ingredients, like truffle, were used more than once to develop resonance between non-consecutive dishes. And then there was the key lime. Well.
Oh, and at the end they present you with a printed menu to remind you of everything you’ve just experienced. What a souvenir!
And so, without further ado, I present a blow-by-blow of our exceptional (count it, 15-course) meal at Alinea.