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Thursday, September 30, 2010

A symphony in 21 acts: Overture

I recently has the pleasure of dining at the Chicago based temple of molecular gastronomy, Alinea. This was a special occasion, as I don't indulge restaurants with as onerous as dress code as requiring jackets on their male diners, but having tried to cook out of Grant Achatz's cookbook at least once, I figured it was worth the sacrifice. The meal came in 21 courses, and I won't attempt to detail them all in one post. This will be a series, roughly in temporally congruent order, and I hope to convey some of the experience.

Just stepping into the restaurant is a bit of a surreal experience; motion activated Star Trek-esque doors are the portal to the bar and waiting area, and a glass wall ensures a display of active kitchen/industrial laboratory.

The staff was cordial, attentive, and somehow detached enough to convey an air of knowledgeable snobbishness. Not unpleasant. The dining area was on the second level, and small touches abound that try to ensure focus on the flavor and the food. For example, water was served sans ice, and just chilled enough not to numb taste buds, and overhead vents have diffusing plates to dissipate unwanted drafts.

With so much focus on flavor, let's get right to the dining experience, then. First, a decorative place setting was put in front of us.

It appeared to be a tapioca sheet embedded with herbs and flowers, and suspended pinched between a pair of chopsticks. Meant to scent the table, my impression was less floral and more medicinal. The server came by to confirm my dietary restrictions: notably no alcohol or shellfish. Which figures in greatly, as the first course was a series of solid cocktails.

In order from from to back, these were to represent a Pisco sour (reinterpreted as a lemony frozen marshmallow), a mojito, and a Manhattan. Or in my version, a lemonade, a virgin cucumber mojito, and a root beer. So, with a kampai (or should that be itadakimasu? Very clever, Mr. Achatz.), I toss back my chewy lemonade - only to choke as the unmistakable sear of ethanol runs down my throat. I push away from the table, gather my composure, and inform one of the roving waiters that perhaps someone at the kitchen made a mistake. As they took away the remaining unconsumed cocktails, I was rather tersely informed that the kitchen didn't make a mistake, but they will re-make my course just to be sure.

I was willing to chalk it up to a simple bit of confusion in the hubbub of creating a customized change in a complex dinner seating, but I could really do without the subtle implication that I was simply being difficult. After all, the remade cocktails owned up the promised nonalcoholic versions.

So, Alinea flubbed the first bite (which says a lot, as most of the courses of this tasting menu are no more than a few bites at most). An account of the next courses are in future postings.

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