Complexity and renewal in "the cuisine of the moment:" Why I like Alinea so much
When people learn of my foodism, they often ask me to name the single best restaurant meal I have ever consumed. I never had a good answer to this. There are simply too many kinds of restaurants and too many kinds of food to allow a meaningful comparison at the highest levels.
However, at some point during my first dinner at Alinea, it was clear to me that I had never enjoyed a meal as much as I did this one. It was without question the best meal I had ever eaten, based on my own subjective standards. And it has since been surpassed by Alinea meal number three, and possibly number four as well.
I couldn’t possibly post in detail about every one of the more than 100+ courses that I’ve now consumed at Alinea. Many of the details will escape me, as much of my time in Alinea’s dining room has been spent too deeply in rapture for me to remember them. And there have been a great many details to remember. The food at Alinea is very complex. I’ll elaborate on that point a little later, because I think it is highly relevant to a discussion of Chef Achatz’s cuisine.
I suspect that some descriptions of Alinea meals may leave the reader with two general impressions of Chef Achatz: that he is a very creative chef, and that his style is dominated by technical innovation. I’ll agree that his creativity is extraordinary, and is a major force behind his talent. But I think the second generalization is a misleading one.
Inarguably, Achatz’s meals are replete with technical ingenuity and unorthodoxy. In many ways, this is readily apparent. For example, here’s a dish described as “Lobster: chanterelles, ravioli of coconut powder:”
The curvilinear thing in the foreground is a “lobster cheeto,” and that really is what it tasted like. The essential flavor of a lobster, quite precisely and deliciously realized in a puffy, crispy form. Why would someone want to make a lobster cheeto? I can’t claim to know the chef’s motivation, but I found the altered substrate for the lobster’s flavor to be a very effective means for combining its flavor with that of the jus, which was easily soaked up by the cheeto. Maybe that’s one reason. Whatever his motivation, Achatz is like some other chefs who have been labeled as avant garde, in that he seems to enjoy deconstructing an ingredient by separating its flavor from its substance, adjusting the former, frequently by intensifying it with some sort of reduction or extraction process, and then re-rendering it, either in an entirely new physical form, or sometimes in a kind of synthetic mimic of the original form. Parenthetically, I should note that I had altered the plating of this dish prior to photographing it, by removing the cheeto from on top of the other items, resulting in what in retrospect now looks a bit like a person’s face.
Though I would disagree, some might argue cynically that Achatz turns a lobster into a cheeto simply because he can. The cheeto can be seen as a kind of gimmick that would attract attention in a magazine review, or a FoodTV promo, and therefore keep the restaurant full. This “technique for technique’s sake” argument is, I suppose, further prompted by the many of Achatz’s technical touches that arrive on the table with even greater flourish. In some of the most memorable, aroma is carefully manipulated as, if you will, a condiment. Realizing that much of what we perceive as taste is actually olfaction, or smell, Achatz employs some elaborate devices that seek to augment the taste of a dish by adding an aromatic stimulus. This next dish illustrates one such device:
The food is placed in a small bowl that sits on a bed of inedible, highly aromatic material that has been spread out in a larger outer bowl. When the dish arrives at the table, the server pours hot water into the outer bowl, liberating a fragrant cloud of vapors that deliver an olfactory burst to the diner as he or she eats the dish. In this case, the food is a light custard with shellfish and chestnuts, which struck me as something like the lightest, silkiest New England clam chowder that I had ever tasted. The aromatic augmentation is here provided by flower petals, but, in a similar dish served during the Fall, I have seen Achatz use a sort of Autumn underbrush potpourri in the outer bowl, complete with hay. That one was wonderfully effective.
My last few meals at Alinea haven’t included the “bowl of vapors” device, but Achatz has been presenting dishes featuring a large fabric pillow filled with air that has been scented with one of various aromatics. The plate is placed upon the pillow, gently compressing it and liberating the scent within.
Here, however, is my favorite of the aroma-enhanced dishes that I’ve tasted so far:
In this one, Achatz has created an indescribably wonderful little one-bite tempura from, among other ingredients I’m sure, pheasant, cider, and shallots. The dish is presented using an intact tree branch (oak, I think) as a skewer. Just before it is brought to the table, the leaves on the branch are ignited, so that they’re still smoldering a little when they arrive, releasing a smoky autumn fireplace scent. I could feel the scent enmeshing itself with the flavors of the dish as I savored it. Enormously effective, not only as a way to enhance flavor, but a trigger for emotional experience. In discussing a similar “burning branch” dish that he developed at Trio, Achatz once noted that the power of olfactory stimuli ranges beyond their domination of the sense of taste. Because the brain’s olfactory pathways are closely linked to the primitive limbic system, which is involved in memory and emotion, aromas are especially capable of rekindling memories and invoking powerful feelings.
Some of Achatz’s devices, particularly those designed to deliver aromas, impart a sense of theatricality that I think some diners could mistake for their primary goal. Occasionally Achatz may mean to shock or amuse the diner, but I believe that he seeks an emotional, rather than an intellectual response. I don’t believe he’s in the business of producing what one chef I knew called “concept food.” That chef, for example, tried to provoke critical discourse by adding blue food coloring to his otherwise ordinary mashed potatoes. Actually, I have had the opposite reaction to Alinea. If a meal at Alinea is theater, then it is not the theater of magicians, jugglers, and acrobats, but rather that of the symphonic orchestra, the final game of the World Series, and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. It is a carefully engineered series of sensual events designed not to engender admiration for their technical underpinnings, but to guide the diner through a powerful emotional experience. The diner (this diner, anyway) spends the evening not soberly considering how Achatz went about turning butter into a powder, but euphorically savoring a dazzling parade of wonderful sensations as they unfold upon the eyes, the nose, the lips, and the palate.
This last statement, I think, clarifies why I generally prefer to think of Achatz’s cuisine not as theater, philosophy, or doctrine, but just as very, very good food (and why I prefer to be consuming it, rather than thinking about it at all!) True, if I had to use one phrase to describe the food, I might choose “extremely manipulated.” But Achatz’s radically unusual manipulations are employed most often in the service of the most basic, ordinary culinary values. Achatz’s dishes offer delicious flavors that are realized with extraordinary clarity, and are combined in breathtakingly ingenious but, fundamentally, complimentary ways. Whether he’s filling a hollow sphere of blue cheese with walnut milk, or just poaching a lobster, he attends relentlessly to the smallest details of flavor balance, texture, mouthfeel, temperature, and aroma. And what, other than these attributes, do we attend to when we’re simply having a quick meal at our favorite neighborhood bistro? However extraordinary Achatz’s manipulations of food, emotion, and memory may be, they would be unsuccessful if they weren’t based upon a solid and overriding dedication to making food that’s just plain good. It’s just that the feats of balance that he achieves are all the more impressive when one considers the intensity and singularity of the flavors that he combines. Despite the stratospheric level of difficulty, I can think of only two or three dishes that have really missed the mark, out of more than a hundred dishes that I’ve tried. An astonishing batting average, indeed.
Support for my interpretation of Achatz’s technical innovation as a secondary rather than primary element of his cuisine can be found in the fact that many of his manipulations are nearly or completely inapparent to the diner. For example, consider this squab dish, with a foie gras sauce and cubes of watermelon, which I was served during my first three Alinea meals:
This was one of three dishes in meal number one that struck me as perfect. Certainly, I had previously experienced excellent dishes that had no flaw that I could identify. But these three were the first that seemed to me as though, in some absolute sense, there really could be no flaw to be found. The squab was probably the most pleasing of those three. Indeed, it was so viscerally, intoxicatingly satisfying that, after eating its rendition in meal number three, I felt as though I might never again experience food that good. I found myself abandoning both decorum and analytical acuity as I wildly mopped up the last drops of the sauce with pieces of bread. The servers apparently were accustomed to such behavior in the context of the squab dish, as they were standing by to provide immediately the extra pieces of bread that I required. Indeed, I’ve been told that some diners have actually lifted the dish to their lips and attempted to drink the sauce as though it were a beverage. This is clearly one of Achatz’s most widely appreciated dishes. Yet, apart from the tiny cube of fennel gelée on a stick that sat atop the dish and served to prepare the palate for what’s to come (this picture was taken after I had removed that element), there’s really nothing outwardly unconventional about the appearance or the taste of this dish. The squab was tender and flavorful, as you’d hope squab in any dish would be. The sauce was rich and velvety smooth, as you’d hope any foie gras sauce would be. It struck me as only mildly unusual that the server finishes the dish by grating some licorice root onto it at the table. And it was not until my third sampling of this dish that I noticed the licorice root’s unnaturally featureless and un-rootlike appearance. When I mentioned this to my server, he acknowledged that, indeed, the licorice had been, in his words, “highly extracted.” I suppose this meant that the flavors of the licorice had been freed from the root by some solvent, concentrated, and then reconstituted into a solid form that once again looked something like a licorice root.
I suspect that many other dishes at Alinea contain a number of unnamed ingredients that have been carefully and laboriously manipulated, like the licorice root, without the diner’s conscious awareness. One detects these hidden complexities now and then – perhaps a few grains of salt at the edge of the plate that actually turn out to be crumbs of a dehydrated sauce. Or some fruit that would have been perfectly acceptable in its natural form, but which instead has been converted instead to a gelée, in order to achieve a slightly higher level of textural harmony. It must sometimes be quite tedious to work in Achatz’s kitchen, or perhaps even to be Achatz. If someone were to convince him that his restaurant’s tap water would taste minimally better if it were loaded into a tanker trunk, driven to Sheboygan, and then driven back again, he’d hire someone to do that right away.
The squab dish is one that hides some complexity of preparation in a presentation that feels gloriously simple on the palate. In contrast, other dishes on Achatz’s menu seem to celebrate their complexity, in several different ways. For example, consider this dish, which I first experienced in my most recent Alinea meal. Please pardon the blurriness of the picture. This was a “time-sensitive” dish, and I had little time to snap its picture before I consumed it.
This is called “Hot Potato: Cold potato, white truffle, Parmesan.” Like many of Achatz’s smaller dishes, it is to be consumed in a single mouthful, in this case by sliding it from its dish, like an oyster from its half-shell. It looks simple, but after I had swallowed the last of it, it continued to play out on my palate for many minutes, like a very complex wine. Heat and cold alternated, as though paced by a slow, silent metronome. The Parmigiano waxed and waned in intensity, ducking and feinting between jabs of saltiness and nuttiness. The flavor of the white truffle somehow lingered more intensely and more persistently than I think it could have if I had just chewed a handful of truffle shavings.
Complexity of a different sort is manifested by another dish, which isn’t a new one, though I particularly enjoyed it in my most recent meal:
The main element of this dish is the chestnut puree, which seemed a simple concoction, though it was as silky and gorgeously flavored a specimen as you could hope to find. It was beautifully paired with the jus that fills the bottom of the dish (parsnip jus, I believe). Those two elements alone would have constituted a phenomenal appetizer at most restaurants. However, Achatz has arranged about the plate an array of different garnishes, which I have labeled as best I could. The idea is to taste the puree and the jus first with one of the garnishes, and then with another, and then with another, so that there are, in effect, nine excellent two-bite courses served on a single plate. I’m not exaggerating when I say that all of the combinations were superb.
This may be the most striking example of Achatz’s practice of composing dishes containing multiple elements that are spaced far enough apart on a plate so that the diner may taste them in different combinations, thereby generating a richer variety of food without adding significantly to the bulk of the meal. The notion of allowing the diner to regulate the unfolding over time of a complex dish such as this one is, in a way, the antithesis of the complexity demonstrated by the potato dish, above, in which the diner consumes the dish all at once, and the dish plays itself out on the palate entirely in its finish.
Both devices are used frequently and effectively in Alinea’s tour menu. They contribute to a sense of the meal as something like a story, with unexpected twists and turns, and little climaxes and resolutions that one may continue to relive long after the meal is over. It feels as though one is enjoying far more than the 24-27 courses that are actually served, and the pace of the meal contributes to a flowing sense of euphoria and sensual stimulation that would be impossibly fragmented if the staff actually had to deliver a hundred different plates of food to the table. As it is, it’s hard to praise the kitchen and dining room staff enough for the seemingly effortless skill with which they bring Alinea’s menus to life. Even the very best of restaurants occasionally seems to have trouble bringing one course of a three- or four-course meal to the table in a timely manner. And yet, somehow, Alinea’s kitchen and servers coordinate an extraordinary ballet of food presentation, serving nearly ten times that number of courses without significant error, in my experience. This is despite the fact that many of the dishes are incredibly demanding in their presentation. For example, the potato dish above would be far less successful if its hot and cold elements were left to equilibrate their temperatures, denying them their power to alternate enchantingly in their finish. The brilliant one-bite pheasant tempura would be a tongue-searing weapon if served too hot, and an oily mundanity if served lukewarm. While carrying out their astounding feats of organization and efficiency, the staff members remain friendly, cordial and relaxed, cheerfully joking with the diners when appropriate, and sharing their pleasure. The staff’s affect is not one of self-importance, or of reverence for Achatz and his wizardry, but of joy. They love the food, and they want to make people happy. If they weren’t working at Alinea, they’d be dining at Alinea, and having a great time.
I’ve said a lot about Alinea’s food, but nothing so far about Joe Catterson’s wine program. Those planning to dine at Alinea may be curious enough to peruse the wine list, but they should never consider ordering a bottle from it. To skip Joe Catterson’s wine pairings would be to miss out on one of the really stunning features of this restaurant. The pairings include a wide variety of excellent wines of different styles, both traditional and uncommon. In my last meal, I drank a Grand Cru Burgundy, a 28-year-old Madeira, a Slovenian white, and a very intriguing colorless pinot noir from Lombardy.
Of course, any decent sommelier could assemble an assortment of good and interesting wines, if allowed to charge enough money. Catterson’s selections are extraordinary not for their intrinsic quality, but for the synergy that they achieve with Achatz’s and Stupak’s food. In the past, I have counted on my most favorite sommeliers to produce, perhaps once per tasting menu of eight or nine courses, a pairing in which food and wine don’t merely compliment each other, but actually transform each other, as though each were a missing ingredient needed to unlock a hidden element of the other. I’ve often wondered how one achieves the skill to create such a pairing. I’ve not been able to do it on my own. In my Alinea meals, at least half, and sometimes more than three fourths of the pairings in each meal have achieved this superlative quality. The sommeliers put on a show rivaling that of the kitchen.
In every respect, Alinea is a restaurant now functioning at an astounding level. It has been a great pleasure for me to dine there, and to take part in what I feel amounts to not just an excellent restaurant experience, but really a special moment in American culinary history.
I use the word “moment” deliberately, and not without a twinge of unease, because I occasionally find myself wondering for just how long Alinea can continue to perform at its current level. Eventually, it seems, the best American chefs tend to tire of toiling away in a single kitchen, producing brilliant food, while their more famous colleagues are appearing on talk shows, attending fabulous parties on the yachts of celebrities, and judging international beauty contests. Chefs get tired, and they want to buy a nice car and put their kids through college. They open a casual “world tapas bistro” across town. Or a full-price clone of their original restaurant, in Las Vegas. Or a chain of fast food stands in the local airport. They design and market a line of signature salsa products. In other words, they trade their reputation for some well-deserved cash. And, most importantly for my selfish purposes, they stop preparing meals that I really enjoy. Alternatively, the chef’s passion remains, but the staff takes off for more profitable ventures, and suitable replacements can’t be found. Alinea as an operation is as complex and highly integrated as the dishes it serves, and Achatz, Stupak, and Catterson certainly are not the only people who are essential to its current success.
So when will Alinea start to decline? I’m happy to report that I see no signs of this happening in the foreseeable future. Quite the opposite. This feels like a young restaurant, with an energy coursing through it that is almost palpable. Cabrales touched upon it, when she mentioned the “pace of evolution” in Achatz’s cuisine, as well as his “curiosity and impetus and talent.” One who dines periodically at Alinea will find Achatz relentlessly disassembling and reassembling the menu – refining his ideas, introducing new flashes of inspiration, and adjusting the pace of the meal. Interestingly, an essential counterpart of this creative impulse is an equally powerful destructive one. Achatz strives to develop the perfect dish, and then, having done so, he retires it from his repertoire promptly when he decides that its time has come. The casualties of this perpetual process of renewal include even his finest creations, such as the squab dish that I mentioned above. Almost any other chef, having created a dish this exquisite, would ordain it as his “signature dish,” carve it permanently and irrevocably onto his menu, and then prepare to bask in a lifetime of adulation and imitation. But, as of this writing, Achatz has already removed the squab dish from all of Alinea’s menus. Its moment has passed, and you can’t have it any more.
To a fan like me, Achatz’s termination of his best dishes can be downright cruel. He’s not just disassembling and reassembling the menu – he’s wantonly destroying it, on a regular basis, so that he may rebuild it again. And he does so at a rate that’s remarkable, considering the size and complexity of the menu. After my last Alinea meal, I learned that Chef Achatz was planning to introduce three new dishes to the tour menu the following week, and seven more in the week after that. It must be an very taxing way to run a restaurant, but I think it’s a big part of what makes dining at Alinea so special. It heightens the excitement of the meal, in that each dish is the product of an actively ongoing quest for perfection. Achatz and his team not only have obsessed over every crumb that appears on your plate, but they have done so today. It’s another level of the “extreme manipulation” that I mentioned above. The kitchen aggressively manipulates not only the ingredients and their method of combination, but the position that each dish assumes in the meal, and even its very status as included in or excluded from the menu.
I like having every aspect of my meal fussed over so carefully. For me, it’s like listening to a great musical performer, who makes sure that every single note is imbued with as much feeling as possible. Furthermore, the difference between another great chef’s meal, in which a dish is refined until perfect and then left to stand as a complete creation, and an Alinea meal, in which a dish is continually adjusted until the moment it’s removed from the menu, is like the difference between a great musical performance captured on tape and a live concert. There’s pleasure in sampling the completed masterpieces of the world’s best chefs, but it’s something else to consume the cuisine of the moment, food that’s always changing, always the focus of nearly obsessive scrutiny, always preparing to disappear forever. I really believe that the food somehow tastes different and more alive when it’s newly conceived and constantly updated. And the difference is one that I hope to savor often, for a long time to come.