The obligatory foam (brioche flavored, part of the luxe osetra caviar tableau that kicked off the meal) and the first trompe l'oeil (supple salsify jerky camouflaged among a nest of twigs, meant to be hunted more with the hands than the eyes) had already appeared. Soon there would be spectacles to make my friend and I smirk or gasp or laugh like children. But the fourth course of our dinner at Alinea startled by its disarming turn toward Americana simplicity.
One server placed on the table an opened aluminum can, its label reading: "Alinea Family Farms: Achatz Style Corn." Another staffer set down hollowed logs containing what looked like ears of corn, roasted in their husks. With a touch of the fork, the charred white and yellow corn niblets gave way to grits—nutty and wholesome but also extravagantly perfumed with truffles, manchego, ham, and sherry. (The can was meant to be a receptacle for discarded husks.) It came off as a cross between state fair food and the kind of sumptuous treat that Virginia colonists might have concocted for a special occasion. It was one of the night's most memorable dishes.
Since chef-wunderkind Grant Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas opened the restaurant in 2005, surprise has been a key instrument at modernist Alinea. Given the molecular mythology around the place, and how early gimmicks (like butterscotch-coated bacon dangling from a wire gizmo) stuck in people's head, what might amaze most about a meal at Alinea circa 2014 is its accessibility. That's not to say it's boring or predictable: Far from it. But Achatz and executive chef Mike Bagale are in a phase where much of their food comments on pop culture in ways that are wry yet recognizable. Now more than ever, we're in on the jokes. So buy a ticket and step right up through the funhouse doors (literally; you'll see) for a menu that lightly gambols along the tightrope between fantasy and earthly pleasure. The list of dishes arrives only at the evening's conclusion. It helps sustain the whimsy in its many guises.
Specific shapes inspired some of the most interactive eating during my recent visit. Skate wing in brown butter emulsion with herbs and breadcrumbs became cocktail party fare, served on a plate in the undulating form of a hors d'oeuvres napkin. One of Achatz's goofiest and most brilliant showpieces showed up near the end: a balloon made of green apple taffy (the sophisticate's Jolly Rancher), which you kiss to burst and inhale the helium inside.
Many of the substantial savory dishes played with East-West crossovers. While we spooned up an exotic mid-meal palate cleanser of sliced lily bulb zingy with finger lime beads, a server dropped off a craggy stone piled with lit binchotan, the charcoal essential to Japanese-style grilling. The flames concealed logs of parsnip and pork belly wrapped in kombu seaweed. Servers plucked them from the fire and unwrapped tableside—a flambé flourish for the new millennium. In previous iterations, wagyu beef starred rather than pork, and for the price (well over $300 per person) I would have preferred the sumptuous beef.
Hunks of lobster in pools of saffron curry perched amid fillips that evoked Indian cuisine through a British filter—coconut pudding, compressed cucumber, gel cubes fragrant with Earl Grey tea. Sweetbread nuggets took on the flavors of food-court orange chicken, eaten out of a Chinese carryout box. Cinnamon bark "chopsticks" alongside emphasized the five-spice seasonings in the dish. A duck course included dumplings filled with foie gras delivered in a duck-shaped lacquered box and Asian aromatherapy in the form of "dragon's breath," dry ice wafting scents of ginger, garlic, shallot, and chile oil.
In addition to the roasted corn and grits, there were several other straight-up nods to popular American tastes. An Alinea classic called "hot potato cold potato" involved orbs and cubes impaled on a skewer, but collectively the taste was as comforting as mashed spuds on Thanksgiving Day. If Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had become a pastry chef, the dessert of edible blueberry gum strands—surrounded by ornaments like freeze-dried yogurt paste, sorrel, and dots of sauce akin to lemon curd—would be her specialty.
An actual pastry chef emerged to create the dessert finale, the restaurant's famous splatter art of sauces and brittles and crumbles. Too bad the painter in question had such a surly attitude. He orchestrated a pretty collage but scowled the whole time and grunted when my friend asked him a question, like he'd drawn the short straw in the kitchen to perform the task and wasn't yet over it. His demeanor starkly contrasted the jaunty service staff, a group of guys in tailored suits with hipster beards who were intent on our enjoyment.
When I mentioned to one of them how so much of the food came across as unexpectedly sensual, he said, "Chef has been moving toward an experience that feels less inorganic and more organic for guests." In an email, I asked Achatz to address that comment. "It has always and will continue to constantly evolve; changes are unpredictable and not calculated," he responded. A predictably enigmatic response from one of the food world's foremost prodigies. But who wants the surprises ruined anyway?
Photography: Bill Addison