I’ve often heard people talk about food as art, but I’ve never seen it that way myself until I was treated to a fabulous experience last week involving food. Although it took place at a restaurant, I felt like I was sitting on an art museum stage, participating in a performance piece.
My sister Louise was celebrating a special birthday and invited Michelle and me to celebrate with her at Alinea, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park neighborhood. Alinea is located in its own two-story building. The décor is sophisticated and modern, befitting the temple of food created by chef/owner Grant Achatz.
The approximately twenty courses on the tasting menu feature marvels of molecular gastronomy as well as more traditional morsels. Although it may sound like more food than you could possibly eat in one sitting, the courses are small and are spaced out over a serene four hours. Since each course is designed to surprise you, you don’t actually get to see the menu until the end, when you are given a souvenir paper listing what you’ve eaten.
You simply take your seat and let the chef and his army of cooks and servers begin the show. The waiters didn’t actually sing or dance, but they were definitely choreographed. In a space no bigger than my living room, a half-dozen waiters circled around the five tables in our area, setting up each dish, reciting the ingredients, and explaining how to eat it. Although they didn’t go so far as to bang a gong each time they served us, each course was announced with the fanfare of a royal decree.
The food is presented and served in or on an amazing array of implements and dishes, from doll-sized dishes and tiny pedestals to a lit branch of oak serving as a skewer and a bowl constructed out of metal puzzle pieces. One of the dishes was placed on a white pillow of Earl Grey-scented air, releasing the distinctive smoky smell of bergamot to complement the Earl Grey tea, lemon, pine nut, and carmelized white chocolate favors in the course.
Alinea offers wine pairings, but we decided to order by the glass as the spirit—so to speak—moved us. The wait staff were helpful at making suggestions as to what type of beverage—alcoholic or not—would be most appropriate at any given stage in the meal. We started out with a delicious champagne cocktail, mixed with bitters and spices, and progressed to wine, beer, and a home-made purple carrot soda.
The meal itself began with a trio of what the servers called “edible cocktails,” and that’s what they were – luscious little bites infused with bitters, brandy, rum, fruits and spices. Each was just a single tingling mouthful that left me craving more. The Golden Trout Roe—one of my favorite dishes of the evening—followed beautifully. It was a soupy orange bowl that zinged with Dijon mustard, rutabaga, grapefruit, and the roe. I would have gladly made that my entire meal.
One of the most delightful surprises of the evening was how well they catered to my pescovegetarian diet. Louise told them I didn’t eat meat when she made the reservation, and the kitchen rose to the challenge. Unlike some fine dining establishments I’ve been to where the chef gives little thought or creativity to vegetarian cooking, the kitchen created vegetarian or seafood simulations of the courses containing rabbit, short rib, duck, venison, foie gras, and bacon that were every bit as dazzling as the meat dishes.
The final course was a chocolate, peanut, blueberry, cream, honey extravaganza that was literally painted on our tablecloth. The servers deftly poured liquid chocolate and other substances in circles, dots and swirls all over the table, then cascaded mounds of peanut nougat, frozen chocolate mousse, and other delightful substances on top. We were each given a large spoon to dive into this artistically arranged mess. It made an extravagant finale to an unforgettable meal—or should I say performance?