It isn't a sprint... it's a marathon.
A light marathon, if there is such a thing, but a marathon nonetheless. It took a year and two rebooked reservations, but last night we finally got to Alinea, Grant Achatz' post-Trio venture. Achatz, along with Homaro Cantu, bears the torch of molecular gastronomy in Chicago and, arguably, the United States. It's a controversial little culinary niche these days, molecular gastronomy. Consensus seems to be that the godfather of the movement, Ferran Adriá, is a genius. The question is whether the chefs following in his wake are creative technicians who are changing the face of modern cuisine, or style over substance mimics whose days are numbered. In short, I fully anticipated that dinner at Alinea would be interesting. I hoped it would be good. But the only thing I was certain of was that it would be long.
The menu at Alinea consists solely of two options, the full 24 course tour, and a smaller subset thereof, the 12 course tasting. As such, it's a good thing that the room is comfortable. It's the kind of decor that pushes my buttons. It's a small place, modern but comfortable, dimly lit with table spots to highlight the presentations. Upon being seated and receiving the menu, Achatz' playfulness is immediately evident. The menu lists solely the ingredients contained within each dish, without any hint as to the preparations. It also employs a secret code of sorts. Between the primary ingredient and supporting ingredients is a fuzzy circle. Though indistinct in appearance, the information it conveys, though something of a tease, is anything but. The size of the circle is indicative of the relative size of the dish, the intensity of the grey directly relates to the intensity of the flavor, and its left to right position places it on a continuum from savory to sweet. Once a decision is made, the dishes start flying at a fair clip. Stretch out 24 courses too far, and you'll be there all night. Even at a brisk pace, our dinner clocked in at three hours and 45 minutes.
Dish descriptions and photos, unsurprisingly, are proportionately lengthy. But the only way to get a good sense of the place is to see them all, so they're all here... after the jump:
HOT POTATO - cold potato, black truffle, parmesan
Somewhat surprisingly, Achatz started off by easing us in. Yes, it's a funky presentation, but the dish itself is fairly conventional, if well-executed. It was the first of many one-bite dishes, and it was a good one. The small dish contains a very rich, creamy chilled potato soup, while the needle skewers a bit of parmesan, butter, chive, and a hot chunk of potato, and is then topped with a generous shaving of Perigord truffle. It was the first of many interactive dishes, in that we were instructed to slowly pull the needle out of the bowl, dropping the ingredients into the soup, before slurping the whole thing down like a potatoey oyster on the half shell. It was quite delicious, to be sure, but it also demonstrated right from the start that Achatz' gimmicks tend to be very thoughtful ones. This wasn't Cantu's edible menu, clever but tasteless. Not only was the serving piece beautiful and fun, but in a very practical sense it allowed the hot and cold elements to maintain their temperature until the moment before we consumed them.
LITCHI - oyster cream, chervil, osetra caviar
The second dish was a fun and tasty little number. Here, the mad scientist started to show some hints of his lunacy. It's a bit of fresh litchi, nicely paired with caviar, oyster flavored cream and chervil juice. This much is a creative combination, but nothing to build a reputation on. However, the final element, unspecified on the menu, is a small chunk of crystal clear horseradish gelée. Does the horseradish need to be in gelatin form? Not really. But texturally, it's more in keeping with the rest of the dish. And intentionally or no, it serves an aesthetic purpose as well. Its appearance is that of a miniature iceberg, floating in a very cool, refreshing dish.
PINEAPPLE - sesame oil, soy, bonito
With the third dish, Achatz let us glimpse a little more. It's exceedingly simple, and yet it was one of my favorites of the evening. For a sense of scale, this little fellow is about the size of a nickel. Perhaps a Life Saver would be a more appropriate comparison, since most of its volume is a small ring of frozen pineapple puree. It's topped with a touch of reduced soy sauce and sesame oil, and sprinkled with very finely shredded dried bonito. The pineapple, soy and sesame oil are a very logical trio, though I thought the dried bonito was a nice touch for a sweet dish. A beautiful touch, however, was the flavor progression that was achieved by freezing the pineapple. Throw these four ingredients together in their natural state, and the powerfully sweet pineapple is going to dominate. But when that element is frozen, the other flavors have a chance to take center stage, and then slowly yield as the pineapple melts and mixes in. The fact that it takes time to melt also forces you to give the bite the time it needs to develop, from its salty and savory first blush to its sweet, refreshing tail as the pineapple juice washes away the other elements. It was somewhat surprising, really enjoyable, and clearly no accident.
CRAB - peas, yuzu, lavender
Though there's some disagreement among those I know who have tried it, the fourth dish fell a little flat for me. Chunks of fresh dungeness crab are dressed with lavender, pea shoots, yuzu vinaigrette and some other elements I don't recall at the moment. Most notable, however, is the bright green blanket that extends much further than this photo reveals. It's a bright, fresh, intense pea puree that's been somehow manipulated into blanket form. I definitely appreciated the direction the dish was going, and there were things I liked about it, but the crab and peas just didn't marry the way I knew they could. It might have been that the peas were so fresh they were practically raw, and their uncooked starchiness dominated. Or perhaps some missing element could have better tied the two primary flavors together. Or maybe it just needed some salt. But in any case, it was one of the rare circumstances where I felt the dish needed something to bring it together, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what that something was.
SKATE - caper, lemon and brown butter powders
Through the entire 24 course menu, I felt there were only two spectacular failures, but this was one of them. It should be noted that between myself, my lovelier half and two friends who took our previous reservation when we couldn't go, I'm the only one who didn't enjoy it. But I really didn't enjoy it. It's a very simply prepared sliver of skate, with some fresh banana and bits of haricots vert. It is accompanied by a very traditional brown butter, lemon and caper sauce, except in dehydrated form. The powders are incredibly striking. It's an absolutely stunning presentation, the skate looming like some prehistoric fossilized spinal column rising above multicolored sand dunes. But I felt that the technique, in this case, was completely at the expense of flavor... or, more accurately, good flavor. The powders were incredibly potent. But I wasn't getting butter, lemon and caper. The feeling I got was that of a very tart and intense but completely indistinct dehydrated amalgam. Was it interesting? Sure. But if it were served to a crowd of blindfolded tasters, I don't see them reaching the conclusion that it's really delicious. Creative and unusual does not necessarily mean good, and I thought this one just wasn't good.
PEAR - celery leaf & branch, curry
The sixth course, however, was dynamite. Here, in my estimation, is the perfect example of what is possible when culinary knowhow, unusual technique and meaningful presentation intersect. It's a shot. The green liquid is a very potent but clean and cool celery juice, surrounding a jawbreaker sized ball that is composed of curry and, I believe, butter. We were instructed to throw the entire thing back all at once. The celery and initially light curry flavors combined rather nicely, but upon biting down on the curry ball, it burst... and a powerful, cool, sweet gush of pear juice came rushing out. Then, as I savored the liquid, the butter slowly dissolved, bringing out more of the curry. Like the pineapple, it's another dish that changes mid-stream. But unlike the gradual progression of the pineapple, this is a dish that zigs and zags before slowly mellowing out. Again, Achatz takes simple ingredients, nice combinations that are fun but not crazy, and by means of a funky approach, creates a dish that is novel, exciting, delicious and fun. One of my favorites of the night.
LAMB - akudjura, niçoise olive, eucalyptus veil
Another signature element of the molecular gastronomy movement is a pointed focus on aroma, and the seventh course was Achatz' first offering in that regard. What you see here is the eucalyptus veil; a pile of hot, toasted and extremely fragrant eucalyptus leaves that both obscure and enhance the dish's true nature. I had intended to take a second photo of the lamb itself, but upon digging it out, my instincts got the better of me and I popped it in my mouth, immediately realizing my mistake. It wasn't much to see, however. It was a tiny cube of perfectly cooked lamb, perhaps a centimeter on a side, with a bit of olive and akudjura. The meat itself wasn't seasoned with eucalyptus at all, but the powerful scent undoubtedly changed the complexion of the dish dramatically. This is a practice that is no longer new, but I was pleased by how well it was executed. My regret was that it wasn't part of a more interesting dish. The lamb itself wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped it might be. It was tasty, to be sure, but while the supporting player was exceptional, I wished it had a more interesting star to support.
BISON - gruyère, pumpernickel, ramps
The bison, however, was a shining star. This dish was creative, unusual, absolutely delicious and in the running for favorite of the evening. Though you don't actually see the bison here, rest assured that it's buried beneath the pile of dark bits on the right. It's smoked, then poached, then grilled, and placed atop a potent, sweet and spicy raisin sauce. Covering the bison are dehydrated shredded gruyère cheese and tiny, crispy flakes of dried pumpernickel bread. This is accompanied by some gently cooked leeks and the "condiment" on the left, a powdered caraway salt. While I thought the dehydration angle worked against the skate, it performed miracles for the bison. Top to bottom, this dish was just fabulous. For starters, the flavors involved combined beautifully. It was a potent combination of sweet, spicy and savory that was both unusual and delicious. But what took it from delicious to fantastic were the dried, crumbly textural elements supplied by the accompaniments. It was a totally novel preparation that was completely satisfying. This was a damn fine dish, and another that couldn't have been achieved by classical means.
SWEET POTATO - bourbon, cinnamon fragrance
Number nine was another semi-conventional combination of flavors that was elevated by an unusual treatment. It was a sweet potato and Jim Beam puree, rich, sweet and buttery. This tasty mush was contained within a light and crispy tempura shell, and skewered by a toasted cinnamon stick. Though the cinnamon stick was intended to be another "fragrance only" element, I found that it leached into the puree somewhat. But who cares... it was delicious! Plus, tilting your head back and lowering the inverted lollipop into your mouth provides something of a decadent Roman feast feel. I've had these flavors together before, but they've never been this much fun. And what's more, it was an excellent follow-up to the bison. Nice dish.
VERJUS - lemon thyme, beet
Though it wasn't one of my favorites, I really appreciated number ten. It was another dish that transformed midway through, delicious on the front end, and delicious on the back end. Had I been on the ball, I'd have before and after shots of this one, as the transformation affected the presentation as well as the flavor. The dish is a verjus granita topped with a lemon-thyme foam, which hides some sort of beet dumpling. So when tasting the dish at first, the granita melts slightly and the foam collapses, leaving a white and yellow slush that's quite tasty in its own right. Then, as you're poking and tasting, at some point you pierce the beet dumpling, and beet juice comes pouring out, adding another layer of complexity to the dish and suddenly changing the mixture to a beautiful shade of red. Either transformation would have been nice on its own, but in concert the two were especially nice.
MENTHOL - anise hyssop, lemon
Sadly, after a good run of great dishes, the middle of the menu presented something of a lull, which was kicked off by the menthol cream. It was another striking presentation; a small bite stuck to the end of a very long wire and placed in front of us like a podium microphone. I fear that those who suffer from a lack of depth perception will have a little trouble with this one, as we were instructed to simply lean forward, hands-off, and bite our bounty right off the end of the serving piece. The dish itself was a bit of lightly menthol-flavored cream with a meyer lemon "leather", which was essentially the zest which had been sweetened and treated somehow. I might've found it more interesting had the menthol been a little more potent, but it barely registered. As it stood, I thought the dish was enjoyable, but unexceptional.
MUSKMELON - eggplant, orange blossom
The muskmelon looked exciting on paper. It's a frozen curl of the melon, served with a spiced eggplant sauce and a light orange blossom cream. Unfortunately, either by design or by accident, it was strangely flavorless. It seemed like a combination that could be really nice if all of the flavors involved were more intense, but it just came off flat and uninteresting. Also, unlike the pineapple dish where the freezing held back a potent flavor, here it held back a very mild flavor, which didn't seem to serve any purpose. This dish wasn't on our friends' menu a couple of months back, so perhaps Achatz is still playing with it. To be clear, it wasn't bad. Just uninteresting.
YOGURT - juniper, mango
Thankfully, the lull was broken up midway through by a dish that, even if it wasn't exceptional, was definitely enjoyable. Number 13 was a marshmallow-sized yogurt puff. On the outside, it had an airy, crispy meringue-like texture. This shell, however, contained a liquid yogurt center that was tart and sweet. It was a really nice textural contrast, but it was also a very nice combination of flavors, as the puff was sprinkled with a dried mango powder and a bit of ground juniper. I wasn't wowed, but it was a nicely executed treat, and a good break in between the heavier savory dishes.
YUBA - tiger shrimp, miso, orange
This was my first experience with yuba prepared in such a manner, so I can't speak to the creativity involved, but creative or no, this felt like a dish that had potential but didn't quite get there. The yuba was rolled and fried to create a skewer for the tiger shrimp, which were then wrapped with orange zest, set atop a miso mayonnaise and sprinkled with a dash of togarashi. These are all ingredients that I enjoy and it's a gimme of a combination, so I'm not certain why it didn't work, but it was just flat. The miso mayonnaise seemed almost a little dirty in flavor. Miso is complex, to be sure, but it just seemed off somehow. The yuba skewer was simultaneously crispy and a little rubbery. It wasn't bad, but as interesting as it was, I can't believe that it was the best choice. Interestingly, the menu listed toro instead of shrimp. I suspect good toro simply wasn't available that night, but that obviously would have changed the complexion of the dish significantly, and potentially for the better.
ASPARAGUS - egg yolk drops
The asparagus was the second dish of the evening that I thought was a total failure. It was a steamed asparagus tip, paired with a meyer lemon vinaigrette foam and Achatz' egg yolk drops. Though it was technically an asparagus dish, the egg yolk drops were clearly the focus. As described, they were created by adding egg yolk to hot butter, drop by drop, resulting in an interesting texture and... unfortunately... a total lack of flavor. I have mixed emotions on the texture. The drops were very, very rubbery. It was a fun texture that may or may not have been appropriate, but the problem was that rather than tasting like eggs, they tasted like rubber pellets that had been sitting next to eggs. Or perhaps, rubber pellets that were made from a rubber tree underneath which somebody once sat and ate an egg salad sandwich. What's more, the vinaigrette completely overpowered the other elements of the dish. It was disappointing, because it seemed like a neat dish from the outset, but this was the other occasion where I felt the crazy techniques got in the way of the dish's potential rather than coaxing it out.
LOBSTER - puffed, and seasoned with pollen
The lobster was a fun dish, it got us back on track, and set up the murderers' row that comprised the final third of the meal. Unfortunately, our server oversold it. "Bet you've never seen lobster served like this before!" was his lead-in. Well, no, I haven't seen lobster served like this before, but I've seen shrimp served like this hundreds of times. Basically, our sixteenth dish was a luxurious shrimp chip. Of course, I don't mean to sell it short. I really like the idea of elevating the lowly shrimp chip by using a more coveted crustacean, especially since the shellfish switch wasn't symbolic. The lobster flavor was quite potent, and nicely accentuated by a bit of butter and fennel pollen. In some ways, it's a Western take on an Asian standard. It's not a dish that I could fall in love with, but as with the DB Burger, I thought it was a fun way to class up a lowbrow foodstuff.
HALIBUT - vanilla, artichoke, pillow of orange air
The final third of the menu started off with a bang. The halibut was the second dish to have a dedicated aromatic component. Though it isn't pictured here, the dish is served atop a large linen pillow that is inflated with "orange air". The pillow is then punctured with a syringe to create tiny holes, through which the orange-scented air slowly escapes as the dish is eaten. Like the eucalyptus in the lamb dish, this was no subtle scent. It was a potent, sweet orange zest smell that, again, had a big influence on the dish. Unlike the lamb, however, even without the aromatic component, this was a delicious dish. The halibut itself was almost creamed, extremely moist and bathed in a light vanilla foam. Also strewn about were tender pieces of artichoke, dollops of orange sauce, poached carrot boules, orange segments, some type of pepper and a thin, dehydrated slice of what I believe was prosciutto. What I enjoyed about the dish was the fact that all of the components were completely distinct. I don't think any of them were prepared together. As a result, while the flavors combined extremely well, they subtly maintained their individuality at the same time. It was a delicate balancing act that I thought Achatz pulled off with aplomb. Great dish.
KOBE BEEF - honeydew, cucumber, lime rocks
As good as the halibut was, however, it was one-upped by the Kobe beef. These days, I'll frequently see combinations that I haven't sampled before, but which seem obviously intuitive to me. Every once in a while, I'll find a little flavor twist that's both novel and creative. But it's a rare event when I'm totally blindsided by a dish's composition, as I was by Achatz' Kobe. It's an extremely unusual dish that works on all kinds of levels. The beef is in tiny grilled pieces, laid atop thin bits of honeydew melon and topped with a long, thin slice of cucumber. This sandwich is topped with a little fresh cilantro, crispy, toasted (or fried?) pink peppercorns, and Achatz' "lime rocks", which I can only describe as thin slices of sugar cubes with a potent citrus flavor. The dish is then finished with a little soy sauce reduction. I adored it. The flavors were fresh and clean, they worked together beautifully, and I don't know that I've ever had a beef dish that was so light and refreshing. The others felt that the beef was a little lost, but I disagree. It may have seemed so as a featured ingredient, but I thought it was beautifully used as a supporting component, and I had to appreciate the willingness to use what is generally a spotlight ingredient in such a capacity. Given that the beef was listed as the primary ingredient, I suppose it could be called false advertising, but if I had to pick a featured ingredient that's the one I would have chosen, and in the end, deliciousness trumps all. In addition to the unusual and brilliant combination of flavors, the crispy peppercorns and grainy, crunchy lime rocks provided a really nice textural counterpoint to melon and cucumber. Like the bison and pear, I thought it was a brilliantly conceived and executed dish through and through, and it was another of my favorites for the evening.
FOIE GRAS - hibiscus, licorice, blueberry soda
For my own sanity, I'll leave the political discussions aside for the moment, and simply say that this dish made me as sad as it made me happy. It was a great foie gras dish that employed mostly conventional accompaniments in an unconventional manner. The foie was pressed and cured, then somehow turned into a shape that resembled a pile of vermicelli. It was topped with a hibiscus gelée and licorice powder, then perched atop a cup filled with blueberry soda. Blueberry and anise are pairings that I've seen with foie gras before, but certainly not in this manner. Again, the funkiness worked. The foie was really wonderful. It was rich and creamy and, to Achatz' credit, not the least bit overshadowed by the toppings. The strange extrusion gave it an unusually light texture that I thought was a rather novel approach, and absolutely perfect for foie. My only gripe -- and it's a mild one -- was with the soda. We were instructed to eat the forkful of foie first, and then use the blueberry soda as a sipping chaser. The problem was that I wanted that rich, buttery foie flavor to linger... and it would have, were it not completely washed away by the soda. But to be clear, this is a ticky tack personal preference. I thought it was a really fun and delicious take on foie gras for which, once again, the unusual techniques served the ingredients rather than vice versa.
SQUAB - strwaberry, sorrel, long peppercorn
The squab. Oh, the squab. It may have been the most conventional dish of the night, but holy cow, was it good. I can't imagine a better way to finish up the savory portion of the meal. It was rich, powerful, incredibly intense and utterly satisfying. The dish was prefaced, as it were, by another little skewered bit. It was three small green pods, the name of which I didn't catch, covered with a bit of crispy sugar. The pods were extremely tart, and were balanced nicely by the bit of sugar. I may be overreaching in thinking that it was a nice setup for the richness of the rest of the dish, but it was good, so who cares. The squab itself was presented three ways, as a bit of perfectly cooked breast, an incredibly soft tenderloin, and a small pile of confit topped with an impossibly crisp piece of skin. The collection of fowl was paired with a bit of peppercorn cream, fresh sorrel, and a squab reduction that was accentuated with strawberry. The tenderloin was nice. The breast was fantastic. The confit was phenomenal. It had a level of intensity that almost made me wonder why anybody bothers with duck. If there were ever any question that there's a classically capable chef behind the mad scientist, this dish immediately put it to bed. My ladylove's favorite, and quite possibly mine as well.
CREAM CHEESE - guava, black sesame, tamarind
As we move into the desserts, I feel the need to preface them by saying, yet again, that I'm rarely impressed by desserts. At Alinea, we had four desserts, and all four impressed me. I thought the cream cheese was a great way to start, bridging the gap between the savory and the sweet. Right off the bat, what a wonderful presentation. Dessert presentations are seemingly always about flash and color, with neon fruit purees and colorful sugared treats. So what does Achatz do? He creates a dessert that's plenty sweet, but completely black and white. Well, until you cut into it, anyway. It's a light, sweet cream cheese that has almost a firm custard consistency, with cream cheese and sesame sauces, topped with flakes of dried tamarind and tiny sugar cubes and filled with guava puree. Sweet, nutty, creamy and tart, it was a beautifully balanced dessert that was just unusual enough to be really interesting. And I loved that Achatz let it be cream cheese, rather than turning it into the more conventional cheesecake.
CHOCOLATE - elderflowers, umeboshi, green tea
The chocolate was another example of what I particularly loved about the desserts. They weren't cloying piles of sugary sweetness. Much like the halibut, they were composed of cleverly selected components that simultaneously cooperated and contrasted. Here, Achatz has some fun with chocolate pudding. It's solidified enough to be twisted into a fun presentation, but upon hitting your tongue, it's pudding. The pudding is plated with elderflower sauce, green tea sauce, sweetened chocolate and green tea powders, and, most importantly, an umeboshi sorbet. Chocolate and salt is a great combination that's been fairly well-explored at this point. But I thought the pickled plum was a great way to integrate both salty and fruity components at the same time. Chocolate is usually delicious. This dish made chocolate interesting, which is a much, much loftier goal.
COFFEE - mint, buckwheat, passionfruit
In many ways, the coffee dessert was very similar to the chocolate dessert, just with a different collection of components. The centerpiece was a frozen coffee cylinder that, upon being snapped, set loose a shot of Bailey's. It was surrounded by dollops of passionfruit sauce, mint in both fresh and gelée form, and it was accompanied by a small bit of buckwheat ice cream, which was the real star of the dish. It's a very trendy thing right now to throw every savory ingredient under the sun into sweet ice creams. People are starting to realize that if you add enough sugar and cream to just about anything, it's going to make a pretty good dessert. But in most cases, the choice of savory ingredient is almost arbitrary, and in most cases, totally gratuitous. The buckwheat certainly was not. I now love buckwheat ice cream, and I'll be making some shortly. This is a savory ingredient that is particularly well-suited to ice cream conversion, and was also well-suited to the dish it called home.
PEANUT - five other flavors
And last but not least, you knew he'd have some fun with the mignardises. These bites were tiny... we're talking smaller than pea-sized tiny. But they were potent enough that they didn't need to be bigger, and they were a great way to finish the meal. The five needles you see here all came out of the base with a light tug, so each bit of peanut could be consumed individually. None of them were anything special on their own, but the beauty was in the collection. It was one part flashback, two parts deliciousness and three parts fun. The first was a bit of celery with peanut butter, evoking the grade school classic, ants on a log. The second was another nostalgia piece, a bit of concord grape pate de fruits with bits of peanut... PB&J. The third was a quarter of a honey roasted peanut, and the fourth was a peanut and fudge concoction. The encore, "The Elvis", a bit of dehydrated banana with a touch of peanut butter. Though highly stylized, there is nothing pretentious about the dish. Achatz ends the meal with a clear statement that while it may look like the product of a space age lab, in the end it's just food and we're just having fun.
So what's the verdict?
I have to say that this meal has forced me to amend my position on nerdy chefs of science. Where I once regarded them with optimistic suspicion, I'm now fully excited about their potential. Is this the new wave, here to sweep out the old? Clearly not. But conventional cuisine needs people like Achatz who are pushing the boundaries and looking for new ways of doing things. Globalization and an explosion in the popularity of fine foods has created an incredible era of seemingly infinite flavors. But while chefs are constantly seeking new ingredients and flavors, why is it that they stay largely grounded in centuries-old technique? Much of this is uncharted territory, and the exploration thereof will assuredly produce more fads than long-term successes. However, as with any other art form, the successes of those on the fringe will be slowly integrated into the mainstream. There clearly is a place for the molecular gastronomists, and the only remaining question is how significant that place will turn out to be. But what about Achatz and Alinea, specifically?
Though it's probably already been made clear, I think Achatz is a great chef who's doing some really wonderful stuff. I completely understand why he turns off the traditionalists, but I'd urge them to set contextual prejudice aside and judge him on his own merits. Yes, there are far, far too many chefs out there who are doing weird and trendy food for the sake of being weird and trendy. Achatz is not one of those chefs. Based on this menu, I'd say that he missteps every now and again, but his successes are so well-conceived and executed, and his intentions in these dishes are so clear that it leaves no doubt that the technique serves the food, and not the other way around. This stands in stark contrast to my meal at Moto a couple of years back. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that my meal at Alinea kicked the everloving snot out of my meal at Moto. There, I felt that the process got in the way of the food far too often. Achatz had these moments, but I felt they were the exception rather than the rule. And unlike Moto, his brilliant successes made his failures entirely forgivable. What's more, when eating a dish like the squab, it's clear that this isn't an undertalented chef trying to distract you with his right hand while preparing mediocre dishes with his left. Anybody who can turn out a dish like that could clearly excel in a classical setting if he chose. But this isn't to imply that his less orthodox offerings aren't equally delicious. The good ones most definitely are, and they have the added benefit of being exciting and interesting as well. Yes, a meal at Alinea is an intellectual experience, but I have to stress that for every braintwister, there was also a great deal of fun and a bucketful of flat-out deliciousness. I don't think Alinea will be unseating places like Jean-Georges and the French Laundry as my favorite fine dining restaurants anytime soon, but it's the kind of place that I'd absolutely love to make a habit of hitting once a year to see what wild and inventive things Achatz has been working on. The bottom line is that in the end, after nearly four hours and 24 courses, had a fresh set of 24 been available I would have loved to stay right where I was and immediately do it all over again... and I think that's really one of the highest compliments I can give.