As a longtime subscriber to Gourmet magazine before it went the way of the vinyl LP, I almost cancelled my subscription in 2008 when it declared the best restaurant in the country was not in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even New Orleans, but of all places Chicago. Of course Chef Grant Achatz trained at the elbow of the master, Thomas "French Laundry/Per Se" Keller. I had even thought that Eric Ziebold of Washington, D.C.'s CityZen had already surpassed the teacher, but didn't think it could happen again so soon. So, I had to check out Alinea.
My dining companion was my wife. The changing expressions on her face throughout the meal may be better testimony to the dinner than any food photos. Horror gave way to disgust, to sheer pleasure, to outright giggling, and back to annoyance. The frozen edible solid "cocktails" were the amuse-bouches (in case you've never eaten your Manhattan before). We soon discovered that in the mind of Achatz, the entire meal is intended to amuse.
The first dish was British-inspired which, like the cocktails, involved very frozen English peas with Iberico, burrata and solid spheres of sherry. The dish invoked spring, the British countryside and a still frozen box of Jolly Green Giant peas. The lobster tempura with lychee, Gruyère and ginger suspended on a vanilla bean was genius. Heirloom tomatoes resting atop the grass perfumed "whoopee cushion" as Anthony Bourdain described the pillow intended to stimulate the olfactory senses into thinking "meadow" was nevertheless wonderful with its "powdered" condiments.
The distillation of Thai flavors was little more than a shot glass of lemongrass and fish sauce though the waiter wouldn't admit it until after my wife gagged. The pork belly DIY spring rolls put a smile quickly back on her face after assembling a puzzle-like herb-infused rice paper flag waving from the chopsticks that were inexplicably serving as the centerpiece of the table.
Crab three ways was as delicious as the ovoid vessel that held it, was creative. Crab mousse followed by crab sashimi, followed by a warm crab, as the bowl was disassembled with the temperature variation heightening the experience. A deconstructed Vietnamese chao tom followed — a shrimp wrapped yuba with a miso dipping sauce — a Vietnamese flashback.
Lamb tartare and saddle with corn transported us to the Elysian Fields which also happened to be the name of the Pennsylvania farm where the lamb had been born and bred. Hot potato, cold potato was another dinnerware interactive play. Pull the pin like a hand grenade to dunk the clown-like, little round hot potato with its comical black truffle hat into the cold potato soup underneath.
A butterscotch coated slice of bacon came on its own mini-trapeze. I needed at least ten more strips. A truffle stuffed ravioli "explosion" needs no further explanation. Tournedo à la persane, an homage to Escoffier complete with 19th century glass- and flatware was marvelously marbled with fat from the wagyu. The trio of sweet dishes, a solid lemon soda shot, raspberry "transparency" that looked like cellophane, and a bubble gum tapioca cream shake in a long glass tube were all eyebrow-raising.
For dessert, solid Earl Grey tea followed by frozen chocolate mousse, menthol and coconut served on the table without any dishes, on a latex condom-like tablecloth, and then mashed together in a Jackson Pollock inspired pattern.
Was Alinea the greatest restaurant I've ever dined at? Hardly. Most memorable? Absolutely.