ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.
In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.
Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung. Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement. In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?
Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.
Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.
It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.
A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?
Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.
Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.
There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)
To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.
Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)
Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters. Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo? Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.
Life is too short to be confused by your food.
(Oohs and aahs not included)