Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dinner at Alinea

On cedar: sweet potato with bourbon, pecans, jalapeno cotton candy
This is a guest post by Josh. He wanted one thing and one thing only for his birthday: the chance to dine at Alinea. This is his report.

Diners at Alinea are rewarded with a copy of that night’s menu, and it is pushing midnight when you finally see in words what you just ate and found indescribable. And indeed, the items on the menu only partially capture the magic of the dining experience. But the meal doesn’t end with the symbolic punctuation-mark memento of the four-hour, 23-course, ungodly expensive meal at what many consider the best restaurant in America and one of the best in the world as well. No, the final part of the Alinea dining experience is the inevitable blog debriefing trying to describe the Alinea dining experience.

Which I won’t do (and probably couldn’t do, either). I will say it was a dreamlike evening, probably the closest an adult can come to the escape, childlike whimsy and wonder of, say, Disney World, albeit several decades removed. And those extra years past youth really do make a difference, since you can actually appreciate the time, skill and expense that went into creating such a fascinating, at times overwhelming meal. In fact, were it not for the price (which, it should be said for point of reverence, is about the cost of our particular family of four descending on the Magic Kingdom for a disposable couple of days, considerably less once you factor in food, souvenirs and flight as well as a place to stay, not to mention the potential degradation of your soul – and Disney doesn’t come with the option of wine pairings, though maybe it should), I’d easily recommend that everyone give it a shot.

Still, I left Alinea with mixed emotions (no doubt heightened by a hungover morning after, when the last thing on my mind was food of any stripe). The meal (a lavish birthday gift, and with good friends, I should add) was truly one of the best of my life, maybe the best once you factor in all the incidentals. I left awed by the restaurant’s attention to detail, its depth of knowledge, its near-inability to be stumped by my increasingly pointed, specific questions about the stemware or the custom-designed sci-fi utensils. Every single person, from the server to the guy who escorted me to the bathroom, appeared prepared for any query and every contingency. Even Chef Grant Achatz quietly explained why dessert does not afford him the culinary freedom the rest of the meal does as he and another team member readied out a totally indulgent dessert by draping the table in a silicone mat and spreading chocolate, blueberries, peanut sauce and other goodies around a steaming block of chocolate mousse that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen.

And yet, I was troubled by the decadence of the evening, the sheer hedonism of sharing in such an almost supernatural meal that felt akin to spending a lot of money on a work of art and then eating it. What a luxury. What opulence. But what bittersweet feelings basking in the glories of the Greatest Chef in the World, knowing not only that I’m not likely to ever do it again, but that most people will never be so lucky as to do it a first time. I feel fortunate, and I’m glad I went, but like the best dreams – both the good ones and the bad ones - I’m left vaguely haunted by its afterglow. 

Colorless halibut with black pepper, vanilla, lemon and coffee
So what did I think? It was certainly one of the most memorable meals--even experiences--of my life, but I'm still trying to get over the sticker shock. If I was to do it over again, I'd skip the wine pairings and focus my taste buds exclusively on the food. This would cut the bill almost in half and have the added benefit of my not being drunk and queasy by the end of the evening. I also wish Alinea still offered a more abbreviated tasting as I as so full and overwhelmed by richness that I couldn't enjoy the last 3 or 4 dishes. That said, I can't wait for Next.