Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alinea - Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjack

Who would think that a fancy thirteen course meal at one of the country’s most heralded restaurants would be so, well, fun? Or that Grant Achatz has such a great sense of humor behind that pretty face? Against a muted minimalist background, our whole experience evoked nothing so much as the pleasures of a summer night at the county fair.

Our long anticipated dinner at Alinea started with my giggling at the total lack of signage outside the building. We didn’t just miss a discreet little sign – there wasn’t one. The punch line for me was spotting the name on the valet sign sitting in the street – I immediately relaxed. When pretension is jacked up to this level of silliness, then deflated, by, of all things, a ubiquitous plastic sandwich board, I’m delighted.

We walked in the doors and were faced with what appeared to be a long hallway, actually an optical illusion worthy of a midway hall of mirrors.

A door to the side whooshed open, Star-Trek style, and we were greeted by the first of a troop of friendly staff, all in on the joke. So far every color had been muted – dark grays, white and black, cream, browns and tan. The abstract painting next to our table could have been rendered in powdered cocoa. The circus colors came on the plates.

As the courses arrive, I begin to see a pattern. From the first savory course of iced artichoke puree between parmesan cookies that brought to mind an ice cream sandwich to the final tempura caramel tidbit on a cinnamon stick that seemed a high class relative (an evolution?) of funnel cakes, fried Snickers bars and other marriages of sugar and hot grease, this was carnival food at its finest.

There was a savory sundae, a guava soda float, even a course of beer and peanuts – make that a GEL of beer, laid like a blanker over short ribs (for Randy, for me, kampachi fish), sprinkled with tiny buds of fried broccoli and fresh red coriander seeds. Aaaaaaand peanuts.

We even enjoyed a course of miniature fireworks. A small glass of celery juice (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, anyone?) holds a hollow ball of horseradish, supported by cocoa butter, that breaks in your mouth with an explosion of intensely flavored apple juice. It was surprising and refreshing. One of my favorite courses.

Fun, wonder, discoveries, excess allowed by a special occasion. Daring adventures in eating – soy sauce marshmallows with chocolate. Licorice cotton candy served on a spike, to be eaten with, Look, Ma! No hands!

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