Any meal that begins with osetra caviar garnished with brioche (foam), egg (custard) and capers and onions (clear aspic) that is served with the suave 2005 Special Club Champagne is fine with me. More than fine.
But what makes Alinea such a fabulous experience is the sheer exuberant fun of the place. It's a carnival of food delight that takes you on a journey around the world; I found myself laughing throughout the meal. This is food as performance, food as surprise, food as you've never seen it before. I loved every minute - and the meal lasted more than four hours!
Who could resist this huge block of seaweed-draped ice, which arrived singing gently, murmuring of the sea (there was dry ice beneath the ice). On top, delicate little bites of sushi - abalone wrapped with green almond, ahi with avocado, kampachi mixed with quail egg yolk to spoon on crisp kombu crackers. A tiny oyster. A little bite of green almond, with its surprising softness.
Over the top? Silly? Definitely. Inside that log with the metal straws was a cold nasturtium soup: its rather austerely prickly flavor seemed like a contradiction, the opposite of its presentation. On top, a tiny little bite of frog's leg to wrap up with more nasturtium. The tiny tangle of flavors reminded me of nothing so much as the Thai appetizer, miang kam. It was especially lovely with the S.A. Prum 2009 Riesling, all sweetness edged with acidity.
More silliness here, but great fun. Hidden in this twig basket are two strips of salsify jerky. For a moment I was afraid we wouldn't find it. In the end, it was a purely tactile search: the jerky was softer than the branches.
For this dish we're in India. But it's a gentle India, the curry of the lobster tempered by little dots of coconut and cubes of Earl Grey aspic. My favorite flavor on the plate was the almost candied cauliflower in the back and those little pearls of grapefruit.
Wine: Vin de Pays de L'Herault Mas Julien 2008
This is black truffle - lots of black truffle - resting on a bed of bone marrow and the first asparagus of spring. Served with a 2006 Puligny Montrachet from Benoit Ente it was, hands down, one of the most luxuriously delicious dishes I've ever tasted. I think I actually said wow!, although I'm sure I did so under my breath.
Now we're in China - sort of. A little take-out box containg tiny bits of fried sweetbread with ginko nuts in an orange sauce. The fun here? Eating it with "chopsticks" made of two long cinnamon sticks.
Wine: Vouvray Domaine du Viking 2011
And back to Japan. Ebi. Celtuce, the beloved lettuce stem of Asia. Yuzu.And lovely little sea grapes, popping gently in the mouth.
Charcoal? Yes and no. Hidden in that pile of binchotan is a cube of wagyu beef and another imposter, a rectangle of parsnip. Rescued from the fire, the charred lumps are carved, at the table, to reveal a heart of red in one, a pristine white interior in the other. Pure delight.
Junmai Ginjo Sake, Sudo Honke Shuzo
A little palate cleanser of sliced lily bulb with rambutan and tiny little beads of finger lime, each one a single squirt of juice. Extremely refreshing. Afterward we're handed a heap of newspaper (it was even my hometown paper), and asked to create a tablecloth. And out comes....
which brings us right back home. We're solidly in Chicago now, eating lake Michigan smelt.
To drink: a sparkling Riesling Brut Sekt from Von Buhl.
All night a branch of rhubarb has been circling just above our heads, suspended from the ceiling on an almost invisible wire, twirling silently. Now it is cut down, and we get this lovely little dish...
crisp rhubarb, gentle celery, and tying them together, an almost invisible slick of licorice that makes this more salad than dessert. With it, the loveliest candy-pink rose from Arnot-Roberts in Clear Lake.
A tiny bite. An edible pun. Wood ear and pig ear, with a frisk of cracker, a squish of black garlic puree, some garlic blossoms. The joke here is that the pig ear is, by far, the most delicious morsel on the plate.
Wine: Priorat Clos Figueras 2006
"Truffle explosion." Need I say more?
There was a duck dish before that, all smoke and fire spreading across the table, but my pictures, I'm sorry to say, do not do it justice. And then, just a few desserts. This, for starters
The flavors are pistachio, strawberry, black walnut. The bites are tiny. The wine is a Sauterne, Chateau Tirecul la Graviere.
And then this...
A balloon made of green apples and helium, that turns every diner in the place into an instant child.
This would have been a perfect ending to the evening. But wait! There's more! This show never seems to stop. The chef came striding into the dining room and right there, at our table, constructed a chocolate tart. It was an astonishing performance, Grant Achatz using the table as a canvas, dotting it with cream and violets, making a painting and anchoring it with a tart, much in the fashion of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It was so beautiful, and so delicious that I found that I did, in fact, still have an appetite.
And that, in the end, is the genius of this restaurant. Eating at Alinea is so exhilarating that you find yourself eager for just one more experience, one more flavor, one more moment of being completely and utterly in the moment - and happy to be exactly where you are.