Eating expectations (turned into warm gels and self-encapsulated) at Alinea

Alinea, chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant, relies heavily on subverting its diner’s expectations. And in his latest post on The Atlanic’s food channel, Achatz hints at what might be the restaurant’s next trick: a dish that changes in some fundamental way halfway through its eating.

Imagine a salad-like composition of raw vegetables with supporting garnishes including starch based crunchy components that act as croutons, encapsulated herb juices exploding with vinaigrette freshness, and pudding-like condiments of liquefied cheese being transformed by the application of a rich, extremely hot, dairy-based broth, being poured over the course at the midway point of consumption. The former light, crunchy, and cold characteristics of the salad turn into a rich, hot soup. In a moment, everything has changed, even the utensil required to eat moves from fork to spoon.

The crouton elements turning into dumpling-like textures while they take on liquid, the vegetables yield from the tableside cooking process, and the spherified herb juices become floating raviolis of much needed brightness in the rich, chowder-like soup.

I’ve put off writing about my most recent meal at Alinea, eaten during a trip to Chicago in January — after all, what could I add about a restaurant that Gourmet called the best restaurant in America? (I wrote about the first time I ate there a couple of years ago.) So my discovery of Achatz’s recent piece will have to do for motivation.

It’s hard to explain what it means to eat at a restaurant of Alinea’s caliber. It means impeccable service (when my father knocked over one dish, which promptly exploded on his pant leg, he was gingerly whisked off and the staff proceeded to mop, carpet vacuum and switch out his chair like a seasoned pit crew). It means eating for five hours and it being fun and relaxing and, afterwards, feeling only moderately gluttonous. It means eating course after course after course — the menu listed 24 in all — prepared by cooks who aren’t satisfied with the status quo and are always exploring new ideas.

Expectations are a huge part of a meal like this, at least for me. Take, for example, the first time I ate Achatz’s food. It was at a the now-defunct Trio in Evanston, Ill.

Achatz had just struck out on his own after working at The French Laundry for Thomas Keller, the only American-born chef with two three-Michelin-star restaurants. I was just starting to exit my picky-eater phase, which had lasted through most of my teens (and the vestiges of which continues to crop up occasionally).

No one in my party really knew what to expect except a nice meal for my mother’s 50th birthday. Caviar, which I didn’t care for but have learned to love, was followed by foie gras, which I only get to eat rarely. Beef short ribs that tasted like root beer. Beautifully sous-vide-cooked lamb with four different flavors. A truffle milk shake for dessert. It was easily the best meal of my life.

Or was it just the most memorable? Or favorite?

Achatz has become, as common sense suggests and by all accounts, a better chef since that meal. So why haven’t my meals at Alinea — more elegant, more refined — supplanted the earlier meal at Trio?

Mostly because my meals at Alinea proceeded with such loftier expectations, it would be nearly impossible for the accomplished chef to exceed them. The expectations and the hype and my own previous experience sapped Alinea of one of its key weapons in the efforts to wow diners: surprise.

This isn’t to say that Alinea left me disappointed; this meal was exceptional, but it will never be seared into my memory like Trio.

While this time around I saw some of Achatz’s old tricks, such as the gelled-sheets-of-sauce trick and the smoldering-and-smoking-aromatics-on-the-plate trick and the cocoa-butter-encapsulated-yogurt-in-a-shot-glass-of-pomegranate-juice trick, he had new ones.

Such as the bubble-gum-flavored-goop-you-suck-from-a-tube trick and things-that-go-well-with-(self-encapsulated)-butter trick. So, yes, it was amazing.

It still couldn’t supplant the lesser meal at Trio.

But that problem, created by his own success, is what Achatz is trying to solve by developing new preparations and dishes. And that’s why people will go back. And someday, I hope, someone will surprise me with a meal that will, if not supplant, join my memories of Trio.

Apparently, today is Alinea’s fourth anniversary. It’s survived enormous expectations and the chef and owner’s cancer whose treatment cost him his sense of taste. Congratulations.

10 thoughts on “Eating expectations (turned into warm gels and self-encapsulated) at Alinea”

  1. What’s so tricky about a course that changes while you eat it? Just this evening I made a pie that cut like a pie, but then disintegrated into something the consistency of fruit sauce.

    I have also made fudge that crystallizes into toffee and meat balls that turn into meat sauce.

  2. What person doesn’t want to be surprised and delighted? That is the edge that our meal at Trio has. It was utterly surprising. And every course was amazing. Those emotions are very memorable.

  3. But was every course at Trio better than every course at Alinea? I’d say no, objectively Alinea was better. The environment was more controlled at Alinea. Achatz was a better cook and his technique was more refined at Alinea. The waiters more professional at Alinea.

    What Trio had over Alinea was the element of surprise. Ang that made up for its faults and puts it ahead of Alinea in my subjective opinion.

  4. Too true, man. I almost don’t want to eat at Alinea, because my expectations are impossibly high. There’s simply no way even a chef of Achatz’s caliber could conceivably meet them.

    But that probably won’t stop me.

  5. Wow. That’s some post. How was the truffle ice cream? Did it taste flavored with vanilla or did they go for broke with nothing but truffles, milk and sugar?

  6. As I remember it, the black-truffle milk shake was very earthy and had the subtle salty tang of truffles. Achatz very well might have used seasonings other than truffles, but if he did so it was in a way that didn’t distract from the intensity of truffles.

  7. What Trio had was that funky little library across the hall. The odd atmosphere somehow contributed. I loved that it was in that cute hotel.

    First time I ate at Trio it was a Sunday night. I was by myself and the only person in the place. Grant brought me much of my food himself and I remember it so much more clearly than my meals at Alinea, as amazing as they were.
    Matt steigerwald

  8. It was odd that Trio, such a nice place, had those old-school shared bathrooms with the urinals that went all the way to the floor.

  9. Every memorable meal, be it in a four star restaurant or a friend’s backyard, enters our long-term memory for a combination of reasons. My guess is that the meal at Trio came at a better time in your life as an eater, and changed your expectation of your reaction to an expensive multi-course meal.

    Frankly, I find simpler dishes more enticing than these forced “experiences” at the table. I understand them and think they have their place, but to me, a dish that contains a thought-provoking arragement of ingredients in an elegant way is a more satisfying experience itself.

  10. I have yet to eat at Alinea, and living in France, it'll probably be a while before I get around to it, but at Trio I experienced an lasting emotional impact that went far beyond the culinary refinement and understated perfect service. I am sorry to hear it is closed, as it was indeed quite a meal. I don't know whether a restaurant such as Alinea should be considered the best in America, as it redefines what a restaurant is, to my mind. It becomes almost performance art in the plate, and while fascinating in a carnival kind of way, I think that a good restaurant should wow without completely stealing the show from the human interaction of the guests. Rather, it should enable and heighten. We go to restaurants for more than taste bud titillation and mere sustenance, right?

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