The chapter on eating in my book centers around a visit to Alinea, acclaimed even then (2006) as the Finest Restaurant in the World, and becoming even more storied, famous, and busy since. I presented Grant Achatz, Alinea’s owner/chef/presiding genius, with a copy of the book, of course, but never heard back (nor did I expect to) although I did hear that Achatz’s business partner read it and started referring to me as “the guy who left hungry.” Which isn’t exactly what I was trying to say, of course, but I learned long ago, back in my collegiate lit-crit classes, that the reader’s interpretation is paramount.
Despite the fact that we just loved that meal (as it turns out, I may have neglected to mention that in the published text), my wife Beth and I didn’t make it back to Alinea until just last Friday night, to celebrate and mark our 15th wedding anniversary. We were welcomed with a level of hospitality that was surprising; on the one hand, they are a four star restaurant serving an international clientele with exacting expectations of service, but on the other hand, I had referred to chefs such as their proprietor “reaching up behind their perfectly tailored chef’s jacket with their names embroidered on their breasts” and pulling recipes out of their asses. So they would have been justified in shall we say, turning up a nose.
But: no. We were welcomed by name, instantly recognized — “You were last here, I believe, the spring of 2006″ — and seated instantly, and then served the single most astonishing and inventive meal it’s been my pleasure to lick off custom serving pieces. Others have written better than I can about his cuisine; if you’re very curious (and you should be) you can take a look at the Alinea book to see what the food looks like and get a sense of the insane obsessive labors of invention and preparation that go, quite literally, into every bite. (Some of the “courses,” such as the famed Black Truffle Explosion, are, in fact, a single bite.)
People who have read my book have marveled at the place, and have asked me whether a single meal could be worth $700 for two (or more: prices have gone up since the meal described in the book.) The answer is: would you pay that for front row tickets to a concert by your favorite living musician? Would you pay it to see your favorite actor in your favorite play? Would you pay it to see the greatest living athlete — say, Michael Jordan, in his prime — play for a championship? Most people can find an example — some aesthetic experience worth the expense, because in the end we exchange our money for memories, something to talk about when we are rocking on the porch of the home.
What Grant Achatz and his insanely overworked staff at Alinea are doing is creating a once in a lifetime experience out of the raw materials of vegetables, meats, grains and sheets of gelatin. His creations make you stop just putting food in your mouth and start thinking about stuff you never think about — what you taste when you eat, what food feels like and and what you expect from food. When you eat, say, a “brioche foam,” a dollop of whitish bubbles like the kind you’d scoop off the top of a cappuccino, and you experience the complete toasty sweetness of a fresh brioche, except there’s nothing to chew except the air vanishing below your soft palate, your head starts to spin in ways fascinating to your dining partner.
His food is sculpturally beautiful; conceptually complicated, often quite funny — we would bite down and laugh, numerous times — but also extraordinary delicious. When put that single bite of Black Truffle Explosion in our mouths, closing our lips as the server instructed before biting down to release the flood of warm truffle broth, we both actually moaned in pleasure, like Charlie Brown eating a chocolate cream: MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM…. It would have been embarrassing if not for the fact that everyone around us would do, or had just done, the same.
Grant’s personal story, especially his veritably Faustian bout with tongue cancer, has been told elsewhere… I recommend the account in the New Yorker, here. But let me say this, because it apparently it wasn’t clear from my book: anybody who cares about food, anybody who cares about art, anybody who wants to get their head spun around like a top from a dizzying array of sensory inputs, anybody who wants to eat like the kings of old never dreamed possible, anybody who wants to be able to say, years from now, on the porch of that home, that one of the greatest chefs ever to have wielded a squeeze bottle personally drew chocolate sauce on your table, so you could scrape it up with a spoon — Alinea is open Wednesday through Sunday nights, and you’d better make your reservations now.