For anyone who doesn't realize that visiting Chicago fine dining mecca Alinea goes well beyond sitting at a table and being served dinner, the Alice in Wonderland-esque shrinking corridor of an entryway filled with sweet-smelling hyacinths in small vases suspended through mid-air provides an immediate clue. Another hint: Servers bear clay pots overflowing with a fog that encompasses a combination of citrus, ginger, lemongrass and coconut aromas. When the dish eventually reaches your table, the wonderment only increases as the pot's lid is raised to reveal a closed scallop shell engulfed by that fragrant fog. When you lift the shell, you uncover a preparation of diver sea scallop amid "fourteen textures" all while dry ice gurgles underneath. By the time you've popped into your mouth a bite of raw scallop amid an impossibly bright combination of other flavors (including seawater foam, kaffir lime pudding and white soy sauce tapioca), you've been delighted in all five senses.
"This is an amazing dish," agreed Larry Matasar, a criminal defense attorney visiting Chicago from Portland with his wife of 34 years, Sandy.
Eight years after it opened in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, the city's sole Michelin three star restaurant (also ranked number 15 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013) continues to offer happy surprises to first time visitors such as the Matasar's and returnees like Chicagoans Domark and Johnson. These couples, strangers at the evening's beginning, were seated together (with yours truly) at a long dark, mahogany table. There would be little possibility of awkward silences given the constant wow factor and conversation starters presented by the 13 dishes served up by chef Grant Achatz––the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef in 2008.
How can you not loosen up when one of the courses is a floating green apple leather balloon filled with helium, so that when you eat the thing (including the string), you wind up talking like Alvin and his chipmunk pals? Then there's the dish listed as "DUCK…..?????.....!!!!!!!!!!!!!" that entails five duck preparations— seared foie gras, mousseline, breast, neck rillette and confit—plus a large square glass plate (or two in our case) in the middle of the table offering 60 mix-and-match accompaniments: a smoky gel here, some caramelized banana there, some form or other of pineapple, green olive, chocolate, pistachio. Mind you, in most restaurants, five duck preparations would be more than enough, but here you also get the, "did you try this?" and "what about this?" inter-activity that raises the experience to another level. Said Domark, "I feel like I'm in a candy store, and I want to try everything."
"Your chocolate tart," Achatz pronounces before forks and spoons take aim at the middle of the table.
"How often could you just eat off the table since you were a kid?" Domark asks between bites.
"If it didn't taste good, it would not be the same," Larry Matasar said. "This tastes really,
Aside from the food, these guests appreciated the front-row seats to see one of the world's greatest chefs at work, especially given the inspiration that Matasars had found in Achatz's memoir (written with Alinea partner Nick Kokonas), Life, On the Line, which chronicles his culinary ascent and harrowing but triumphant battle with Stage IV tongue cancer. (That book and Alinea's massive cookbook were included in goody bags each guest received on the way out). "I don't think of this as dinner," says Domark, "I think of this as an event."
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