CHICAGO, Ill. -- 'Do any of us," muses chef Grant Achatz, "want to have a five-hour meal anymore?"
Coming from any other chef in Chicago, that remark might sound wise, or possibly envious. But from Achatz, who set the culinary world ablaze with his 30-course, assumptions-shattering menus at Alinea, it smacks of self-blasphemy. For more than 10 years, Alinea's scarcity of available bookings proved that, yes, hundreds of dining enthusiasts wanted a five-hour meal, at least from Achatz.
It is no small matter to serve up two dozen courses and still have one's audience eager for more, but Achatz and his team did so, consistently, in an elegant two-story house in Lincoln Park.
Then, in January, eight months past the restaurant's 10th anniversary, Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas broke the Alinea mold, swept the fragments to the curb and phoned the recycler.
They stripped Alinea to its bones, replacing its modern-industrial look with a timeless, classic one. Away went the shrinking black hallway, sliding entry doors and steel-and-glass stairway; in came alabaster walls, ceiling-hung artworks and a gracefully curved staircase that would look at home in a 1930s musical. One could imagine Fred Astaire tapping his way down these steps, were they not carpeted.
The theatrical look is hardly coincidental; the Alinea experience today combines a dozen or so courses (always in unexpected forms) with performance art, and service that borders on choreography. "I feel like we're one of the few restaurants in the world that have the responsibility to exude a certain amount of creativity," Achatz says. "I feel that we have to perform in a theatrical manner; it has become our personality."
And with some dinners clocking in at 3 1/2 hours (short, compared with Alinea 1.0) and others even less, the comparison to a theater performance is even more apt now.
The showmanship is most evident in the Gallery Room, the street-level space that seats 16 people. You start the meal among strangers, with a DIY course in which you sample from iced tumblers each containing a single element: truffle, king crab, herbs, caviar and egg custard, ready to be spread in any combination on brioche toast points. There's not nearly enough toast, you will think to yourself, but as you pick up that penultimate piece, bread ninjas — silent and almost invisible — deliver a fresh supply. This while other servers are wordlessly refilling your flute with Bollinger Champagne.
Just as you're settled into your environment, you're asked to leave. It's off to the kitchen, to nibble on leaf-wrapped cylinders of feta, fennel, lemon and yogurt (Achatz calls it a veggie nori roll) while taking turns shaking cocktails using a hand-cranked, cast-iron contraption flown in from Amsterdam. ("We had been looking for it for three years," says Achatz. "There are only 30 of them in the world.") Then it's back to the dining room — which has been completely transformed in your absence. Only then do you realize that you've been part of a magic trick, and the cocktail shaker has been the gorgeous assistant who diverted your attention.
The culinary sleight-of-hand continues. A speckled bowl filled with brittle sheets of dehydrated scallop is doused with broth, and suddenly there's an overwhelming aroma of fresh corn, and the sheets, rather than dissolving, assume a texture that's like a cross between a noodle and Japanese yuba. It's like eating scallop pasta coddled in corn and butter. Off to the side, there's scallop puree wrapped in crispy nori, providing like flavors in different textures.
Vivid-yellow chopsticks on art-glass rests herald the arrival of a monochromatic array of curry, yellow peppers, mango, flowers, mustard seeds, jicama and sweet potato, served on a flexible silicone sheet that's placed on your hand. When the waiter asks you to hold out your hand, offer your nondominant paw. It's kind of a street-food experience, holding your dish with one hand and using chopsticks with the other; my pet theory is that Achatz is just making it more difficult to take pictures.
More treats: Icefish, a Japanese delicacy with a ridiculously short season, served in a deep-fried tangle over super-tart fermented kumquat sauce, a bold little pride-in-purveyance bite. Brittle-as-glass blueberry leaves, hiding a cache of seasonal mushrooms (digging through the leaves provides the sense of foraging) and foie-gras sauce. Tiny onion sandwiches, hidden within purple allium. Lamb loin, with blackberry and black garlic in a presentation that was so straightforward that I kept waiting for it to levitate.
The "smoke" course is a virtual Mexican fiesta that includes a molcajete filled with burning palo santo sticks (soon to be snuffed with a cloth, releasing a cloud of citrusy-wood aroma), alongside a volcanic stone bearing chicken thigh (sauced with white sesame, jalapeno and arbol to mimic the Mexican flag), chicken-liver mousse rolled in dehydrated huitlacoche and hoja santa (the crunchy, smooth-center ball looks a bit volcanic itself), and a cube of coal-charred pineapple skewered with a skull pin. This is served with a tiny clay saucer bearing a few sips of smoky mezcal.
The "cloche" course had me expecting a silver-dome presentation in the French tradition. Silly me. Instead there is a compressed romaine lettuce leaf topped with soy, fish sauce and coriander buds, which cloaks veal cheek coated in green chili sauce; alongside, a long marrow bone bears squares of sushi rice (fried and molded with wagyu fat) draped with A5 wagyu topped with slivers of myoga (Japanese ginger).
One of Alinea's conceits over the years is the placement of an object, in clear sight of the diners, that eventually proves to be part of the dinner. This happens in the Gallery Room. I will not say more.
For dessert, Achatz lets his inner child out to play. After a relatively sedate composition of rhubarb, anise and strawberry, with sugar-dusted fennel fronds, the silliness begins: edible helium-filled balloons, so you can eat like a kid and sound like one too, and then a landscape of chocolate, cherry, liquid-nitrogen meringue and thick marshmallow sauce that looks as if someone turned a pack of 5-year-olds loose in an ice-cream store. You're invited to break up the pieces of meringue; preventing shrapnel from exiting your plate is not a priority.
The two upstairs dining rooms serve the Salon menu, which is shorter and costs less, but still includes most of the hits from the Gallery menu. My dinner upstairs lasted just longer than two hours, and apart from one or two participation moments absent at the Salon, I didn't feel that I'd missed much. The Salon menu includes one dessert that isn't served downstairs, a chocolate-encased square of caramelized-fennel ice cream atop fennel-pollen creme fraiche. The dish is an inside-baseball nod to Achatz's love of fennel and chef de cuisine Simon Davies' love of Klondike bars.
Considering that the Gallery seats are $345 and the Salon seats can be as low as $165 (tickets vary with the day and time), those upstairs tables are mighty appealing.
The priciest ticket is the $385 kitchen table, which has all of six seats, overlooks the chef activity, and includes a menu with "some pretty cool stuff" (Kokonas' words) that even the Gallery guests don't get. Someday ...