From the archives: An Exploration of Ethnic Identity and the Persistence of “Prairie” Cuisine
Ever promised the world and delivers first-time guests a pretty fine experience. And you think most visitors will leave the restaurant feeling satisfied by the novel food, polished service, and refined atmosphere. They’ll feel satisfied because the heightened expectations were just about met, but you’ve never felt those expectations were truly surpassed.
Diversity, the death of insight, and the necessity of playing nice.
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.
You cannot say you have eaten at Le Francais or Charlie Trotter’s in their prime, but you feel no fear in saying Smyth is the greatest restaurant Chicago has ever seen. And, by all accounts, the Shieldses are only getting started.
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.
The “enlightened” fine diner’s goal, when all is said and done, has little to do with fulfilling personal pleasure. Their goal should be an appreciation of an establishment’s distinction–relative to any other place in the world–through understanding what is done and why.
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…
CLAUDIA offers Chicago’s newest tasting menu, and, at $185 for a 10-course menu, the restaurant is clearly competing with “big dogs” like Smyth and Acadia.