The “Mickey Mouse factor” refers to the phenomenon in which children who are picky eaters at home are willing to try all sorts of new foods within Disney’s theme parks. If you extricate the concept from its theme park setting and apply it towards dining writ large, the mechanism actually proves quite enlightening.
Like children staring up at Rainforest Cafe’s artificial night sky (or shaking from the booms and quakes of its fake thunderstorms), Alinea’s customers are served an illusion. They are led to believe that a food’s trappings are valuable even when divorced from satisfying flavors, from nature, or from nostalgia. They are tricked into thinking that a restaurant which denies dining’s transcendent, human dimension has any value as a conjurer of culinary gibberish. They are, ultimately, suckers who are being sold a future where a restaurant’s quality grows with how “Instagrammable” the experience is.
Reviewing restaurants with respect to “reality” rather than “hyperreality” means enveloping oneself in the insecurities of an audience that has little to no experience with “fine dining.” It means preserving the magic, educating the consumer when necessary, but never letting one’s cynicism infect the experience (let alone the political axes one has to grind). A critic should challenge their reader without ever blowing smoke up their ass.
In the final analysis, it is hard not to look back at all four events you attended as a mere cash grab, driven by branding Alinea as the “sort of group” that puts on “wine dinners” in a weak market where they, as usual, will escape any meaningful criticism.
It has taken you quite some time to appreciate Alinea, and, in many ways, it still confounds you as a restaurant. You will admit that you long harbored a slight grudge against the establishment…