Saturday, September 29, 2007

Alinea: Pretty Food, Strange Experience

Well, after years of looking at the food porn in countless articles on Alinea--named Best American Restaurant in the October 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine--I finally bit the bullet, plunked down my credit card and had the smaller of the two tasting menus. So strong is the restaurant's reputation, that it's name doesn't appear outside the space except for on a small sign advertising the restaurant's $10 valet parking. It's simply a non-descript, but clean and crisp, charcoal building.

When you walk in, you are in a long hallway with panels jutting out from the wall so that it looks like you are walking into a funnel. There's seemingly no place to go, but then a sliding door that looks like an elevator with no buttons opens and you are greeted by the staff. The first question I was asked was, "How did you arrive?" It threw me and I didn't answer right away, so she followed with, "Did you valet park a car?" "No..." "Did you come in a taxi?" "Yes..." "OK, then we'll have one waiting for you when you finish your meal." "OK, thanks..."

So, the first dish that came out was accompanied by very detailed instructions on not only how to eat the dish, but also how to hold the vessel it came in. "I'm going to ask for your help with this one. When I hand you the dish, pleas do not set it down on the table or on the monocle. The weight of the fork will cause the bowl to tip and spill," he said. "Please do not dip the fork into the soup below. Eat it as a single bite, set the fork down on the monocle, and them drink the soup. At that point, you can set the bowl down and it will not fall over." And that was all before he got to the description of the food in the dish. It was a surf clam with several garnishes and chilled nasturtium soup.

The rest of the evening progressed in much the same way. Everything was carefully scripted and orchestrated with perfect precision. I'm sure the staff had memorized the script and choreography much as I had done when I did musical theater during high school. Our silverware was replaced for each of the 14 courses we were served, but not in the normal way...

"As you can see, we designed the restaurant with mahogany tables and no cloths. I'm setting down this pillow so that we can rest clean silverware on it for you. We ask that as you use it, you do not replace any used silver back on the pillow so that we can keep reusing them. Please rest the used pieces on your plate and they will be removed."
Like at WD-50, I didn't enjoy every item served. The ones that failed, for me, were those that attempted too many complex treatments on a food that can be so good on its own. Specifically, the wagyu beef. It was a single bite on a pin with matsutake mushroom served in a bowl underneath a forest of cedar branches. Unfortunately, I thought the scent of the cedar was so strong that the beef and mushroom--both imported from Japan, no doubt--were overpowered.

On another occasion, though, scent was used more successfully. The tomato course, the fourth served, the plate of varied tomato preparations was placed on a pillow that had been filled with hardwood smoke. It smelled like campfire and added a pleasant dimension to the cold plate filled with several single bites, all prepared differently. The plate, balanced precariously on the pillow, caused the smoke to slowly waft out under its weight.

Chef/Owner Grant Achatz, formerly of Napa Valley's French Laundry among other top restaurants, apparently has a fondness for courses needing to be eaten as single bites, pulled off a pin or cinnamon stick with the mouth, and spheres that explode--sometimes violently--in the mouth. At least three times that I can remember, we were told to take an entire item in our mouth and then close it immediately so that nothing is spilled when it explodes.

One flavor combination, in particular, comes to mind as being unexpectedly delicious. The chocolate course, a long, winding tube of dark chocolate ganache, was served with soy sauce in three ways: as a jelly, a marshmallow and a powder. On it's own, soy sauce isn't a common dessert ingredient, but with the chocolate it worked. If you've ever had a dark chocolate covered pretzel, you already know what salt can do to chocolate. And what is soy sauce, if not a very salty ingredient?

I wish I could recount each of the dishes, but it would take far too long. Instead, be sure to look at the restaurant's photo gallery. For me, the presentation was almost more exciting than the food, anyway.


Tim said...

looks more like art work than anything edible!

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