Dinner Theater

June 14, 2016

What is a restaurant?

For eleven years Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonos have been pondering that question.

So if all you’re looking for is a delicious dinner, their flagship, Alinea is not the place for you.

In the years since they launched their first restaurant, they’ve opened others.  Next, The Aviary and most recently Roister.  But their main playground has always been Alinea, and when they closed it for a complete renovation, everyone with an interest in the future of restaurants wondered what it would now be like.

The answer: more theatrical.

You understand this most forcefully if you opt to eat in The Gallery, walking into an elegant dark room lit by ornate candelabras.  A communal table?  you think.  Did I really sign on to eat with strangers?

But you gamely sit down – after all, you’ve bought into the experience – and watch waiters set beautiful little ice sculptures filled with fancy tidbits – caviar, truffles, crab, egg custard – while the maitre d’ circles the table pouring glasses of 2002 Bollinger RD.  It’s pure luxury.

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Next you are invited into the kitchen for cocktails, where you eat a deconstructed pickle and watch an arcane drink get whipped up on this antique contraption (“There are only thirty in the world!” Grant says happily).

And you file back into the dining room. Or a different dining room?  In your absence, the set has been struck and the stage completely rebuilt; the long table and its candelabra have vanished, and small tables now float through the room.  Your party has become a private one. This is disorienting in the best possible way; an announcement that this evening may be delicious, but it is going to be about a lot more than food. Fasten your seat belts.

It’s quite a ride. One of the cast – it’s hard to call this revolving troupe of servers anything so prosaic as waiters – appears with a beautiful little bowl filled with what looks like crinkled sheets of paper. 

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As he covers it with hot broth the aroma of  just-picked corn fills the air and the paper begins to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Now they are supple sheets.  Noodles? You wonder. Not quite. These are made of scallops, and they’re pure magic in the mouth.  Even better are the little rolls of crisp nori that go crackling into the mouth to reveal a filling of creamy scallop mousse.

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Up next: “Yellow.”  Curry. Mustard in many guises – oil, seed, etc. Egg yolks. All wrapped around a bite of sweet potato and folded into flower petals. 

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“Eat this fast!” says the master of ceremonies, ladling a hot Parmesan dumpling into the bowl, where a little bubble of yellow tomato soup sits waiting.  It’s all hot and cold, smooth and crisp, a little circus of the mouth and about the most playful dish you can imagine.

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Behind you, a bowl bubbles merrily sending the scent of citrus wafting through the room as you watch a little mountain of  yuzu foam breath above white asparagus cream laced with lychee and shards of lily bulbs. There’s more here:  a lemon-scented bite of apple.

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More citrus, this time topped with Ayu, the delicious firm fish that is a harbinger of spring in Japan, sitting on a tempura tangle of tiny fish.  “It’s too beautiful to eat,” said the woman at the table behind me (she had, it turned out,  flown in from Tulsa just for dinner). 

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But I noticed that her plate went back empty.

This little purple sculpture (blueberries and Lapsang Souchang tea), is a hiding place for morels – big fat ones – coddled in cream. What I liked even better was the onion composition on the side; onions finally get their due!

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A mescal moment – which I forgot to photograph.  I was so enthralled with the theater here, the way one server passed by with a cloth and handed it off like a baton, then smothered the fire sending the scent of pinon and other woods in the air,

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that I neglected to take a picture of the Mexican flag chicken that came with this, or the little mescal-drenched bit of pineapple served on a colorful skull skewer.

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But then there was this – to paraphrase Clifton Fadiman, lettuce’s leap to immortality. A humble leaf gets pride of place; draw back the crunchy curtain to find a little scrap of beef cheek nestled underneath. On the side, a slice of melon, magically transformed into something approaching a liquid. 

Lamb, lamb neck, black garlic, blackberries.  The most straightforward dish of the evening.

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And then this: the Alinea version of a Reuben sandwich which involves, among other things, black truffles, crisped rye, cauliflower and gruyere.

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With the meat courses gone it’s time for dessert.

And there are a few. Rhubarb, strawberry, anise and campari, all deconstructed.

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Next comes the now classic edible balloon, which comes with complete with squeaky voice…..

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And finally one of the actors climbs up on a chair….

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removes a painting from the ceiling and the entire troupe comes tumbling out, like clowns emerging from a circus car, to dash around the dining room splashing food onto your plate, painting it with colors and flavors, constructing dessert.  Fruit, chocolate, cream, crunch – it’s a crazy, wild, halcyon delight, more Cirque du Soleil than Paul Bocuse, and a delicious way to end this raucous experiment in eating.

What is a restaurant? Alinea’s answer is that a restaurant is a place that feeds your brain as well as your body.

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8 Comments

  • Jeffrey Rothbart says:

    Every course description was detailed and precise except for dessert, …splashing food…”. What gives, Ruth?!
    Your review let me down.

  • Jim Dean says:

    I was fortunate to eat in the Alinea Salon on June 3. I find I’m unable to put a picture into this comment, but happy to share my pictures of that plate with you. For dessert, our plate came also with a strawberry film-formed helium balloon and a “strawberry leather”-like ‘string’. Playful.

  • anne taylor says:

    I’ll pass. Too Cirque du Soleil for me. Thanks for the head’s up.

  • Patti Lynch says:

    I enjoyed reading this because I appreciate that I get to see and hear about a restaurant experience that I will most likely never get to have myself. My birthday was yesterday, and I went to my favorite Italian place called Girasole’s in Bound Brook, NJ. The food was excellent: zucchini flowers stuffed with procuito and mozarella and fried, and then topped with a lemon butter sauce, balsamic chicken with summer vegetables, and an amazing marscarpone and cherry strudel topped with (you could really taste the) vanilla ice cream. But as amazing as it was, it will never come close to the upscale places that Ruth writes about. And I enjoy them vicariously through her. So, thank you for sharing, Ruth!

  • Wal Britton says:

    Ruth are you serious? When food is deconstructed to that degree it becomes a bad joke.

  • Vik Gumbhir says:

    Don’t judge Alinea until you try it. I did. Then my partner insisted. Our November 2012 meal remains the most illuminating and indulgent culinary experience of my life. Neither words nor pictures can do this experience justice–it simply must be experienced to be understood. And even then, I doubt that it can be truly comprehended. Just enjoy.

  • Alexander Smith says:

    The Alinea experience isn’t just a fun and wacky experience; it’s also extremely delicious. Anyone who dismisses it without trying it is making a mistake.

  • Brooke Newman says:

    When can we come. Where are you?

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