Understanding ALINEA

At what point does "dinner" become less of a meal and more of a performance?

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. Its sommelier chastised you quite publicly in front of the entire dining room for sneaking sips of your parents’ wine pairings while dining underage there nearly a decade ago. That encounter, though brief, impressed upon you an early example of the power of hospitality–at its best and its worst–to determine one’s impression of a meal no matter how breathtaking the food may truly be. Rather, it became clear that the food (though it ostensibly acts as the main attraction) forms just one, rather controlled, part of the experience while the dance of personalities–of server and served–was subject to more volatility and (perhaps) even supplied more pleasure.

Today is Halloween. The year: 2019. Location: Lincoln Park. Your Uber arrives at the familiar black edifice. The time is 4:48, twelve minutes before my 5 o’clock Gallery reservation. Alinea only offers its most extravagant menu at two times: a dreadfully early 5 PM, and a terribly late 9 o’clock at night. Still, how can one resist swinging to the beat of the hardest reservation in the city? Ticketed, two months in advance, prepaid (with tax and tip included). A small fortune that would make Hamilton fans blush. But worth it, oh-so-worth-it for a wondrous tour of that wiry Willy Wonka of the Windy City’s restaurant. Where the balloons are edible and the table turns into your dessert. Oh yes.

It’s eleven minutes until the reservation time. The reminder e-mail revealed that Alinea’s valet service starts at 4:45 PM, so surely that means doors open around the same time. Your dining companion (one of three) waits under the first snowfall of the year. The closed awning extending from the building’s front door is packed with four people. Not staff, but guests, peering at us with lifeless eyes, wondering just when the chocolate factory will beckon them in. Eight minutes until the reservation time, and one set of diners disappears. Yes, they were whisked in. A second later, the awning is empty. You both enter, open another door, and look across the lobby. As the first of the two couples is led away, one of three hostesses offers a welcome greeting. The other recognizes you, nods with a knowing smile. Have you actually met her before? Or have you been profiled that well in theirs notes, or photographed?

“Why yes, we did arrive by Uber this evening,” you answer. Now we are led through another door. You see your dining room, a long communal table. (Thank heaven you’re not being led upstairs). Two seats, side-by-side are selected, and the two of you sit. The centerpiece is orange, but not for All Hallows’ Eve. You are actually up in the clouds, edible birds strung before you (but it’s not time to eat yet). After three or four minutes of the other parties getting settled, one of the many servers buzzing about across from and behind you stops at your side. “Welcome back,” he smiles, then asks if your guest has joined you before (only four or five times).

The Dalí-inspired place setting from years ago was less abstract and uncommonly soulful for the restaurant.

Continuity of service. Now that has been a problem at Alinea. For whatever reason, the front of house team turns over at an alarming rate. This includes not just food runners, but servers, low-ranking managers, and sommeliers. Surely, the demands of tableside preparation and explanation are far steeper at a place that bills itself as “more than a restaurant.” But at what point can a dining establishment wipe their hands of that essential warmth, that familiarity that rewards repeat guests and facilitates the more filigreed expressions of hospitality. Indeed, a few familiar faces have lasted over the long haul, earning senior roles in the operation of the restaurant. They are sure to provide that warmth–whenever they are in the building–but, on other occasions, the team will be awash with new faces. These acolytes read the notes. They know who’s whom, who’s been here before, but knowing about someone is quite different from having forged a connection firsthand. Compare that to the dining room filled with servers who, even if they are not waiting your table on a given evening, are more like friends, kindred spirits, the kind of personalities that please just as much as that taste of a favorite dish.

No time to dwell on such trifling details. You failed to select a wine pairing when booking my reservation months prior, so you corral the server and direct him. Your party requires three wine pairings (one for yourself and the two guests who have yet to arrive) and something else for the guest currently at your side who has taken medication and cannot imbibe. There is no non-alcoholic pairing offered online (perhaps the restaurant resists giving customers a cheaper option than the three levels of wine pairing), but it is offered as a solution tonight. In contrast, you overhear the couple to your left asking for à la carte cocktails (in lieu of a pairing), and they are denied. The restaurant, their server explains, does not possess a full bar (never mind the pages upon pages of spirits you later spy in their wine book, and surely they must keep citrus on hand). What happens to them, however, is of no concern. Three wine pairings, one non-alcoholic, and, oh, could you bring the wine list by so that you may order an extra bottle?

“Yes, of course,” is the response. Yet five minutes later, no list has appeared. You see a diner seated two guests down clutching one, but surely that cannot be the only one. You’ve been in this situation before. There are only a handful of minutes until the communal meal begins and browsing the wines becomes near-impossible. Not that the bottle must be selected this instant, but what if it needs to breathe? What nicer than for the two guests who have yet to arrive to be surprised by something exceptional you have chosen. Suspicion kicks in, exacerbated by the tardiness shown by the other half of your party. “They really do not want customers ordering off of the list,” you think, “the scheme is all about pushing patrons towards those tiered pairings.” And just who can stomach selecting the cheapest option to go along with The Meal of a Lifetime™?

Enough, you think, as you pivot in your chair. You catch the eye of a busser–scurrying about with a carafe of water–and ask once, twice more for the wine list. Sure that he comprehended the request, you turn back towards the table and the beverage book is deposited in your hands no more than thirty seconds later. It is quite a list and quite a shame that more diners in The Gallery do not get to peruse it. Of course, it has its share of price-gouging pertaining to the most esteemed producers and vintages. Nonetheless, there is plenty of good value owing to the fact that the restaurant has had more than a decade to stock up on and cellar some soon-to-be cult creations. The sommelier steers you towards some expensive Napa Cabernets (you had recently seen her at a Hundred Acre event), but, instead, you ask her to pick between the 2003 and 2005 vintages of Selosse on offer. She selects the latter, and it’s unquestionably the right choice.

While it is often a battle to get your hands on Alinea’s wine list, good options abound.

Your server now returns with the first pour of the pairing: La Grande Dame rosé for you, and some sparkling apple cider for the medicated guest. You clink glasses, take a sip, and he returns bearing bad news: “the chef would like to get started soon and is wondering when the other members of your party are set to arrive.” That sinking feeling hits you. It is fifteen minutes past the reservation time, and you thought it would be more respectful not to pester those other guests. Surely, something had held them up, but they knew the importance of this dinner and received your further plea to arrive ten minutes early. Still, you need to give an answer and, thus, send a text (with just a hint of passive aggression) stating, “the restaurant would like to know when you are going to arrive.”

The ellipses indicating a reply appear instantly, then stop, and then the phone rings. You think of stepping out to take the call but resolve instead simply to whisper. “Hello? Hello?” you answer with the upmost softness. The line beeps dead, then the text comes through: “I thought the reservation was for 6 PM. Leaving right now.” That pit in your stomach widens into a trench, maybe even a black hole. Such a misstep would have leveled any enjoyment of the meal years ago, but you know how things work at Alinea by now. With the thirty-minute arrival time quoted by Uber, they other diners should arrive neatly at the start of the meal proper. You take a sip of champagne to steady your nerves and look around so you might relay the bad news. The server appears, and your preface the awkward admission with profuse apologies. He seems fine, so long as you are fine with them missing the opening festivities (for, he repeats again, the chef would like to get started soon).

You could never think of disappointing Chef Achatz (or will it be Chef Davies this evening–or maybe, still, Sous Chef Alley?). The sommelier brings over the Selosse for a taste and then pours a full glass for you. The instructions given were to save that second Champagne for the other guests’ arrival; however, you figure the circumstances prescribe a bit more wine to keep your anxiety low. The Gallery’s opening bacchanalia begins–the details of which you now choose to keep sparse so that some of the dining room’s most dramatic “tricks” go unspoiled. Needless to say, as is often the case at Alinea, the bites are texturally and visually engaging but not quite so gripping in their actual flavor. The centerpiece of this particular service is a pea soup containing a peak of liquid nitrogen peas standing up through the middle of the liquid. The cold broth has a light, pure flavor, but you find the peas themselves a bit too cold (achingly so) and bereft of any additional flavor. You know your mouth is a bit more sensitive to frigid temperatures than most, but the companion by your side agrees.

You think, however, that these opening set pieces have rarely offered any real “winners” in the memorable flavor department. They do more to demonstrate the kitchen’s mastery of so many textures, along with the front of house’s flair for presentation and deception. Considered as an opening “course,” the selection of bites and pea soup are subpar, yet, when thought of as an elaborate amuse bouche, the presentation is whimsical. It whets the appetite without giving you any one fantastic flavor memory, whipping the slate clean for the delights that are yet to come. This meditation on the mediocrity of the kitchen’s opening salvo is suddenly interrupted by an announcement: “we would now like to invite you into the kitchen. Please follow us this way.”

The glass of La Grande Dame lies empty, but you wonder whether to bring the Selosse. Your other guest still has some cider in her glass and asks the same question of herself. The other customers start shuffling along to the end of the room, so you jointly resolve to leave them in place. Alinea’s kitchen coasts along with its typical, quiet energy. So many cogs twist and turn in perfect rhythm without any need for speech. There he is! The wispy, red-haired (and mustachioed) magician. And Simon Davies too. It may be a Thursday, but the Alinea A-Team is in the house. The lead server arranges you and the other diners along a metal counter that mirrors the pass upon which the chefs are working. You stand directly opposite a large, metal ice shaver with two empty place settings to your right. Nice of them to anticipate the remainder of your party’s arrival, you think, even though it’s still at least fifteen minutes from the time you gave.

One of the cooks introduces this evening’s welcome cocktail: some sort of margarita paired with some sort of black bean and tortilla bite. You’ve seen it all before, and the opportunity to observe Grant Achatz at work is much more captivating. It has been many years since the end of your “foodie” phase: geeking out over this or that chef, dick-measuring against other diners who have traveled here or there. You take great pride in the restraint you have cultivated over the years, for chefs are craftsmen (not cult leaders). They also are not zoo animals that exist to be greedily photographed and posted on some asshole’s braggadocious Instagram account. Gushing about how great they are does little to advance their artistry. Thoughtful comments, discernment, presence is what, you think, impresses them. Not that you are trying to impress them, but, rather, show appreciation. An honest, unembellished appreciation that, as is the case with all art, can only come about by way of a confrontation between one’s deepest, truest self and the artist’s work.

There is something mysterious about Grant, something captivating. We all know the trials and tribulations that surrounded Alinea’s opening, the tragic irony of a chef who risked losing his ability to taste even if he did survive. The allure has nothing to do with that, but rather his quiet commitment to advancing the craft of cookery. Your first visits to the restaurant were breathtaking. Every parlor trick struck you with their full force. Then, as you came to know fine dining on both the country’s coasts, Alinea’s stagecraft receded and the cuisine itself came under harsher focus.

The restaurant has always been one that demands a second meal afterwards. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with embracing the law of diminishing returns in fine dining. (Ironically, many guests found the menu too long and too filling in the restaurant’s first year). But, at a certain point, the kitchen’s concern seemed to shift towards visually appealing food made from ingredients that were transformed in novel ways yet that rarely regaled one’s tongue. Pre-renovation, the restaurant could always hang its hat on bites like the Black Truffle Explosion and Hot Potato Cold Potato–huge bursts of comfort in small packages. These stalwart crowd pleasers–along with the original iteration of the table dessert–were sacrificed upon Alinea 2.0’s opening. Taking their place as the one item that never left the menu was the edible balloon.

How can a diner possibly remember such a course? The visuals, the assemblage, yes. But the content? The connection to a time and place?

While raising diners’ voices with helium works brilliantly to puncture the pretension that surrounds fine dining, the “floating food” balloon has always been bereft of any real memorable flavor. That it’s edible at all seems to be the marvel. Fair enough, but it was hard to see Alinea champion a bite of “clear” pumpkin pie or glowing orbs of orange that did little to tantalize the palate. Rather, they lit up social media while the rest of the menu indulged in a style of experimentation that, as always, runs the risk of leaving customers expecting Chicago’s most renowned restaurant to serve the best tasting food feeling nonplussed.

Perhaps that is what makes watching Grant at work so beguiling. His food is not geared towards pleasing guests so much as it is meant to be thought-provoking. If not pleasure, comfort, or satisfaction, just what can a dish communicate? Just what does Chef Achatz think about when he tastes his team’s menu? These questions present themselves in the most alluring way when he’s in the building, for any given dish that evening which fails to delight a given guest can be chalked up to some vision of the chef that simply lies beyond any plebian palate. Likewise, when Grant is absent–and maybe, on occasion, his understudy Simon is as well–the kitchen’s abdication of pleasing guests (albeit in favor of experimentation) takes on a much different character. That $350 menu (plus tax, tip, and pairing) starts to seem like a rip off. The portions are perturbing, and the parlor tricks tacky.

The truth of the matter, you have come to find, is somewhere in the middle. At the surface level, Alinea intends–first and foremost–to shock and awe its first time diners. Such is the purpose of those superficial, flavor-bereft creations made primarily to treat one’s eyes (and one’s social media followers). The smells, sounds, and overall “action” at the table is unlike anything seen elsewhere in the country. They are sure to surprise guests, even if the end result of all the excitement is a few meager bites of food. Most customers are content with one single visit to the restaurant over the course of their lifetime, and the memories made by way of all the stagecraft will still resonate years, perhaps decades, later. Instead, it is the more frequent diner that begins to suspect that Alinea’s emperor has no clothes.

You would return two or three months later to find the same centerpiece, the same opening bites, the same kitchen cocktail, and a menu comprised of seventy or eighty percent of the same courses. Some of these courses can actually last the course of an entire year! There might be tweaks here or there, but the dishes always remain “interesting” rather than breathtaking in their flavors. This reflects the restaurant’s key tension: you are willing to do without lifechanging flavors in the interest of experimentation; however, the menu does not change drastically enough to embody the spirit of invention and reinvention. While restaurants like Smyth and Kyōten craft new dishes on a weekly (perhaps even daily) basis, Alinea remains betrothed to platings that do not particularly impress. The restaurant seems to rely on the trickery of its presentations to dazzle diners, but any diners who makes a second visit in the span of the year is almost sure to be disappointed.

To the restaurant’s credit, they always serve the most superlative truffles in the city.

And that is why you enjoy watching Grant work so much. Is there something you are still not getting? Something that only he will ever understand? In the past year, your opinion of Alinea 2.0 has warmed just a bit. For quite a while, you were insistent that the pre-renovation restaurant offered a much stronger menu. Lately though, the kitchen has been sending you new dishes to try, truffle gnocchi, and little bites like the Black Truffle Explosion that you were sure you’d never see again (outside of The Aviary, of course). These bonuses work well to soothe your stomach, to offer the sort of special attention that makes the experimental (though static) core of the menu go down more easily. But such treats are not offered to your average guest, who still need rely on all the action of service to impress them.

Still, too, your palate has grown. You have grown to look beyond gustatory satisfaction as the only measure with which to judge a restaurant. There is something to be said for putting flavors and textures together that have never melded before. There is, of course, much to say with the manner in which Alinea’s food hides in plain site and then appears. Surely, the use of ambient aromas and music reflects the future of food and inter-sensory imagination. You will never hesitate to admit that the restaurant is remarkable in many ways. Likewise, its flaws strike you more harshly than ever: a rigid hospitality staff stretched far too thin to create “magic moments” for individual guests, a lack of any sense of place (surely, there should be something rooting the restaurant to Chicago), a bias towards the visual that comes at the sacrifice of culinary (read: flavor-focused) achievement.

All the being said, you admire what Alinea does because they challenge you. Being the city’s lone “top dog” for so many years now, the temptation is certainly there to bastardize and cheapen what they have created. Instead, nearly fifteen years later, the restaurant continues to confound, to push themselves towards some vision not immediately apparent. Alinea 2.0, it must be said, is a bonafide reboot. It’s a restaurant that still gets better with each visit, even if it has a ways to go in putting all its pieces together seamlessly.

One Pineapple: good hospitality in line with expectations, a restaurant that operates competently as a business but little more, fine food lacking nostalgia or soul.