It was magic in the middle of September. It was everything I’ve been hoping for and dreaming of for the better part of my adult life- a culmination, of sorts, an ascension into an adulthood that came with an ache in my wallet realizing that I was at the helm of this experience. Just me, the Bedfellow, and Grant Achatz one night for a few brief hours, a reservation made on a giddy whim in the heat of July in a sparsely decorated sublet. Alinea came and went as smoothly as its service. We were seated next to the worst dinner party, as it were, a guy and his three prisoners. Someone asked how many times he’d been there- “Oh, probably a dozen,” before he accosted the sommelier. For Alinea, I would easily do the same.Down the dark red hall, the world opened up into the well-oiled wizardry of the kitchen. I can’t remember a time, not the Macy’s Christmas displays, not Bloomingdale’s, not Sadaharu Aoki or Pierre Herme, that I have pressed my nose up against a glass panel with such wonder like this, and certainly not with a glass of champagne. There we stood watching the orchestration take place before we ascended.Alchemy above! Chekhov’s peppers loomed above our heads as the amuse bouche arrived- nectarine, micro basil, Murray River sea salt, white chocolate ready to burst atop a Calvados snow reminiscent of Dippin’ Dots. The fruit was crystallized and shrunk in the style of 1980’s shrink rays, the experience was ethereal, encompassing ad campaigns, films, the sensation of bursting as the chocolate shell exploded and showered every cell in our mouths with the buzz of stonefruit and herb. Champagne was poured into the antique glass, and the dots fizzed. The meal had begun.Each date of service here is unique; your truffled corn microfoam will not be my rehydrated smoked squid. You will start to doubt the very senses you were born with. Like a fingerprint, each dish spoke of the end of summer, the return to fall, and drew from the wealth of the world’s cuisines along the way. With that, our tapas arrived, photos underneath wobbling lenses with samples, lab-like, balanced on top. Bread with jamon iberico and manchego cheese was condensed into a neat cylinder, shaped like a compressed pill, savory gildas- anchovy, olive, and salt jiggled in gelatinous cubes, and patatas bravas sat in small sheets on the plates, all very twentieth-century, futuristic midcentury. If the Jetsons invented the food pill, Chef Achatz has perfected it.The meal took a turn from the clinical to the sexual as we were presented with a hollow tube alongside a vessel shaped downright femininely, widely set at the bottom, narrow in the midsection, and expansively on top, able to hold all manner of items, and were told to suck the cream out of the middle. Don’t mind if I do. The foam and tapioca may appear prosaic given the proliferation of Thai teahouses in Lincoln Park, but none of those offer burrata foam or pumpernickel bubbles. On top, a tomato-flavored strawberry and its counterpart, a strawberry-flavored tomato, with frozen shattered burrata and pumpernickel crumbles. The noise levels at each table quieted and intensified in turn as the discussion turned from talk to suction.Our char roe was presented in a garden at dawn, a small smoking bowl glowing with near-translucent globes of pea spheres around fresh daisies, nasturtium foam, chamomile yogurt, green apple gelee, and truffle oil. The roe overwhelmed the more floral aspects of the dish, and the acidity in the gelee was not enough to counter the more briny flavors. The smoke was more mirrors than guns.Having traipsed through Chicago’s sidewalks with sore feet, the next dish hit closely to home, my heels aching up through my arms as I took in the composition of Chi-town in summer, served on a slab of concrete with a lonely truffled carrot emerging from the dust and rubble on the plate. Our server brandished a bottle and temporarily took on a Banksian role as he sprayed a design on the stone, not in spray paint, but carrot vinaigrette, the paint still tacky on our forks and black truffle meringues as we cut through to the dirt and radishes underneath. A play in three acts: imagine a dish by Chekhov, Kurosawa, and Ives, lit on fire. Suddenly, you are the only two people in the room, bracketed by a fairly substantial, but well-tamed fire. The smell of a beach. Smoke. A teapot carefully balanced atop long briquettes. You have s’mores. No, that’s prosaic. You have small pieces of raw unagi, glistening with soy, speared together with a slice of pickled plum and rolled in white sesame seeds. These are available to roast on the fire, if desired, but they are better, more tender, raw.The driftwood and seaweed reveals a treat, tender raw percebes, or Spanish goose barnacles, brined in seawater and ash and cold-smoked. Sour, oxidized, and fragrant. The camp experience is brought to a heightened sophistication with a tororo kombu cracker with a sliver of hamachi on top, balanced atop a platter that appears to mimic a spaceship. Corn is also present, caked with powdered uni, nori, and togarashi. The fire burns and the kettle heats. Each cinder dwindles down to a wisp and the charcoal is stacked.One is sliced- an imposter slowly roasting in the mix, daikon! Carefully roasted and shaped to resemble the other pieces, and another is unraveled to reveal chicken, cooked inside a banana leaf. The smoking pepper and lily are taken down and are ruthlessly chopped with the meat and vegetable, layered with kombu, and poured from the teapot, a broth that has been simmering as you spoke. A visually contentious dish. Tender, perfect chicken, timed as the moment slipped from your brain.New Achatz meets classic with a subtle interlude from the contemporary- each meal allows for a moment to enjoy the dish that started it all- hot potato, cold potato, arguably the spherified catalyst that put America’s obsession with molecular gastronomy into motion. It is a dish that, visually, would make designers like Ray and Charles Eames swoon with its balance; a wax half-moon dish filled with cold cream of potato soup, balanced with a pin teetering a hot sphere of fried potato with a slab of black truffle, dusted with sea salt and black pepper, meant to be eaten in one fell swoop- a swoop that damn near slows time. MFK Fisher expounded on the virtues of potatoes, numerous critics have perfected it. This is the caviar, the champagne, the noble ascent of potatoes from dirt to throne.But was it my favorite? Not by a long shot. It was when a large ficus was brought to the table and we were told to reach inside for our bread that my brain exuded all of the chemicals that make up childlike whimsy and a dopamine high as I pulled out a massive, cloud-like hunk of frothy, spongy olive cake; olives and mushrooms being two of my least favorite textures and flavors. I rooted in the tree for more to sop up my lamb, arguably the most staid (alchemistically speaking) but most technically perfectly executed dish of the evening.
The architecture rivaled the Acropolis, concentric circles of yogurt sauce leading to the sweet center, rare lamb tenderloin and belly splayed across slices of grape, olives, and eucalyptus leaves. While it was not lamb in 86 different iterations, it was perhaps the perfect one, harkening back to the classic Grecian preparation and flavors. We were wise to keep some of the cloud-bread in reserve as it served as a magnificent sponge for the sauce leftover from the lamb.Our savory palates satiated, dessert was plated. Perhaps at a restaurant like Golden Corral one would expect a dessert like cheesecake to be prosaic, but the interpretation with matcha powder, hibiscus, and berries was anything but. If anything, the cheesecake took the back burner to its accoutrements, a modernist canvas of gelatin sheets and powder swirling from the surface alongside pickled blueberries.Arguably the most famous dessert amuse of Alinea is the balloon, flavored like green apple and held aloft by a sharp silver pin and a craggy piece of apple taffy twine, serving as a wistful reminder as you suck the helium from its innards that you are indeed, little more than a child with a credit card. Nobody declines the offer of kissing the balloon and nobody suppresses their helium voice.The man behind the acetate curtain came out for the final course, plating small dishes around the perimeter of the skid-proof silpat tablecloth lining and arranging the piece de no resistance, a globe of frozen coconut gently smashed atop as the focal point for scattered constellations of freeze-dried, dehydrated, fried, caramelized fruit gemstones arranged around loops of sauces with flavors straight out of the East Indies. Pure drama, part comedy, and a show Achatz has clearly played before but never tired of. With a final toss of edible glitter atop our golden pineapple, we dug into our dessert, a full hands-on affair with all senses engaged as our evening dwindled to little more than scrapes of sauce on rubber, the remnants of a night well-spent.It has taken me a month to put my thoughts together, it takes Chef Achatz hours in the kitchen, laboring over recipes and chemistry to blow our fucking minds. Beauty takes time, time takes beauty. We discarded our finery at the top of the Hilton and ate Lou Malnati’s at the abandoned Bean until it rained.