Down the Alinea rabbit hole

On Thurday, we spent five and a half hours eating our way through 24 courses.

The restaurant was called Alinea.

For my mother’s 50th birthday four years ago, my father took us to a place I hadn’t heard of in Evanston, Ill., called Trio. The meal we ate there became the benchmark for all other meals. Lamb, cooked sous-vide before it was cool, with four different flavors. Beef short ribs served in a glass and flavored like root beer. Seared foie gras as part of a deconstructed mince meat pie. Candied nori in chocolate for desert.

When the chef of Trio, Grant Achatz, left, he left to begin Alinea. The restaurant received good press and we were excited about eating there the first chance we got. When Gourmet named it the best restaurant in America, I was worried that we wouldn’t get the chance to even make a reservation.

When I called three months early, I was told I had to wait until November for the restaurant to open its January reservation book. When I finally got through, at 11:00 a.m. on November 1 while sitting in the j-school’s resource center, I was told that they would be closed for the two weeks following our anniversary.

Flash forward to 5:30 p.m., January 4, 2007. It is pouring in Chicago, the rain filling every crack, depression and gutter in the street. Laura and I get soaked just hailing a cab during rush hour.

The cabbie can’t find the restaurant. Nobody knows what to look for. The restaurant, it seems, has only large, white numbers proclaiming its address on the front.

Alinea works hard to keep its dinners off guard. Opening the large black doors, you enter a hallway that is constructed in such a way as to skew perspective. The black floor looks like it’s running down hill, the right wall — covered with floor-to-ceiling panels that encroach into the hall — seems to want to eat the dinners.

At the end of the hall, a sudden SWEESH!

Doors in the left wall disappear into the wall ala Star Trek, exposing the restaurant. You are clearly no longer in Kansas.

Everything about Alinea is unconventional. There are no table cloths or chargers at your place setting. The centerpiece is minimalist — ours was two sprigs of rosemary, each in a small, metal base — and becomes part of the meal. The menu, which the waitrons practically refused to give us, has two options: 12 or 24 courses. The food is served on ware known as “the antenna,” “the squid” and “the anti-plate.”

Then, of course, there’s the food itself.

The opening course was soup. Sort of. A bowl small enough to fit in your hand is brought to the table and set in front of you. Suspended above the cold soup by a small pin sticking through an equally small hole in the side of the bowl is, in order from top to bottom, a slice of black truffle, a warm ball of potato, a half-inch section of chive, a cube of Dutch butter and a cube of Parmesan cheese.

From here it continued, for five and a half hours, for 24 courses. Poached monkfish, fried munkfish and munkfish mousse served with shards of “onion paper.” Duck confit, duck breast and crispy duck skin with various puddings served on a plate on top of a pillow that emitted juniper-scented air as it deflated.

Beef short rib served under a sheet of warm — yes, warm — Campari gelatin. Skate wing served with browned butter, capers and lemon. Each in powered form. With banana slices. (Who would dare pare capers and banana?)

Three medium-rare lamb medallions served on a brick so hot the meat still sizzled and each topped with a different flavor. Venison rolled in granola topped with oatmeal foam.

And while four dessert courses — each with its own dessert wine — almost put me in a coma, I wouldn’t have hoped for a better meal.