Food as puzzle and delight — dinner at Alinea

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Glowing edible orbs contain spiced orange juice, one of 14 courses in a $425 dinner at Alinea, the 3-Michelin star restaurant in Lincoln Park. | Neil Steinberg for the Sun-Times

A shaving brush.

Sable bristled, set on a white plate. Four white china bowls arrayed nearby. Plus a big wooden bowl of hot salt with tongs stuck in it, and a fancy seltzer bottle. Bacon, mixings for clam chowder.

We were at Alinea, Sunday night, the super-pricy, world-renown 3-Michelin star Chicago restaurant. If you read Wednesday’s column, you know the chain of circumstance that led my family there.

If I had to encapsulate the experience in one word, I’d say “surprise.” That or “mystery.” Alinea is food as puzzle and delight.

What is the shaving brush for? I assumed it would be put its usual purpose, to whip up a lather, some froth having to do with the clam chowder. Molecular gastronomy restaurants — though Alinea prefers the term “progressive American” — are known for bursts of flavor, wafts of aroma, spoonfuls of tasty foam.

That wasn’t what the shaving brush was for, though …

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning. A black non-descript building on Halsted Street. No sign; it’s not like they’re expecting walk-ins. The website warns you that if you aren’t there at the appointed time –– ours was 5 p.m. — you’ll cut into your own dining experience. At 4:50 we reported to the front desk 10 minutes early, as requested.

The surprise began at the greeting. No high formality, no brisk fawning of fancy French restaurants. A cluster of young folks, then we were ushered into a large room and sat in the middle of an enormous table; my wife and younger son on one side, the older and I on the other, with five feet between us. The table sat 16 and was decorated with big bowls of flowers. Others filtered in.

No menu. You eat what you are given. We waved off the wine course dangled before us, and they brought excellent sparkling cider. We toasted the boys and talked for a while — if I had to say the best thing about the staff at Alinea, they never cut off a conversation. They excelled at absence, part of what I began to realize is a conscious effort to keep the focus on the food.

The first course arrived: a bowl covered with a clouded glass dome. Lift up the dome, a waft of campfire smoke. Why smoke? No idea. The soup was parsnip with osetra caviar and a crescent of fish mousse. Two-thirds of the way through, a waiter showed up and proffered a paddle holding a single dollop of meringue banana bite.

“Eat it and it will change the taste of the soup,” he said. I liked the soup fine, but ate it anyway, and liked the dollop, too.

A parsnip soup with osetra caviar covered with a dome containing woodsmoke, part of the sensory experience at Alinea, a Lincoln Park restaurant considered one of the best in the world. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

A parsnip soup with osetra caviar covered with a dome containing woodsmoke, part of the sensory experience at Alinea, a Lincoln Park restaurant considered one of the best in the world. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

We were told to stand and troop into the kitchen, where we lined a long counter. Before us on a wooden bowl, a single pepperoni, fennel and basil puff. An elaborate show was made of preparing a cocktail. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Grant Achatz (rhymes with “packets”). My older son had primed me by showing a Chef’s Table special on Achatz. A man who, in a Job-like reversal, found huge success with Alinea in 2005, but two years later developed an aggressive cancer of the mouth, a death sentence he slipped, thanks to doctors at the University of Chicago Hospital, who saved his life and taste. Achatz looks like a Civil War colonel who traded his Union blues for chef’s whites, stepping out of a tintype and into a kitchen, where he commanded his troops with an intense, if slightly amused glance. Nothing clattered. No one yelled.

We ate the best pizza puff ever, then marched back into the dining room to find it … well, here I had better draw the veil. I’m not expecting many readers to run to Alinea, but some might, and surprise is an essential part of the experience. So I will be discreet. To find it transformed.

The next course — three of 14 — is the one I’ll remember most. “Wet Snow.” The waiter spoke some verbiage about the end of winter in Chicago. The menu we were given later described it as “Asian Pear, Roe, Shiso” but that isn’t helpful. It was a bowl of slush so good I felt a tingle, a shudder, that I really can’t recall ever feeling, the dish reaching into my brain, grabbing whatever gland produces dopamine and twisting. I held the bowl in both hands, hunched over, furtive.

Even as the meal went progressed I despaired at relating the experience. Food glowed — gorgeous balls of spiced orange juice. It lurked — soft artichoke puree spheres concealed upon a plate of wet stones. It morphed — a hard dry square of paper changed into a noodle in a langoustine bouillabaisse.

Lights dimmed and rose. Scents wafted — scallops arrived set upon a spray of lavender warming on a brazier. There was that chowder with the shaving brush, used, not to froth anything, but to dust the salt off Yukon gold potatoes that had roasted for 10 hours. A maroon cylinder of beet next to an exquisite mustard sauce.

Criticisms? Art and rigor are not friends. My son’s first request for a glass of wine yielded no result and it took a second try. (His glass and my wife’s added the extra $80 for those who noticed the discrepancy between what I paid in April and the final tab. It was, they tell me, extraordinarily good wine). Not every course was a delight: the shot of pineapple juice, aloe and shiso sucked from a glass test tube tasted to me exactly like what you would chug out of a can of Dole.

Otherwise, it was all whimsy and strangeness, flavor and fun. Their signature edible balloon filled with helium was a challenge to consume. You “kiss” the balloon, inhale some helium, say a few squeaky words, then eat the thing. Green apple. Mmm.

The penultimate desert defies description — your entire table turned into a palette, music pumping, chefs hurrying out, Achatz among them, sprinkling powders and sauces, scattering cubes and discs as we all go at the wreckage with spoons.

“What is this I’m eating?” I ask, gobbling away, unable to identify the delicious powder. Some kind of dehydrated ice cream.

I’m not as good a writer as Achatz is a chef, so I’m failing to capture the three-and-a-half hour meal we experienced at Alinea. It was lighthearted — “Enjoy!” a waiter cooed, striding away after setting enormous, empty bowls before us. It was mysterious — billows of dry ice fog rolling out of bowls of fruit. It was a little dangerous — hot coals were left on little plates for while. I wondered if a diner ever popped one into his mouth.

“Out motto is, ‘dinner with a shot of danger,’ the waiter replied.

“A once in a lifetime experience,” my wife concluded happily, delivering both praise and a subtle admonition.

“In three years,” I whispered to the boys. “When you graduate from law school.”

If I’m going to dangle a carrot in front of them, it might as well be a carrot cooked by Achatz which, now that I think of it, would turn out to be a carrot reduction ganache disguised to look like a raw carrot.

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