You know you’re in for something different when you go through the door of Alinea. It leads to a short hallway that looks long because of trompe l’oeil panels that get shorter and narrower, constricting the corridor so that by the time you reach its end, you can’t get a good look at the weirdly pulsating wire sculpture you find there without hunching. Just before the hunch point, gunmetal-gray double doors snap open at your side and you enter the gray-and-white dining room–a place of quiet tension and careful repose. The nicely enthusiastic hostess or host (this may be the cutting edge, but it’s still the Midwest) seats you at a dark-wood table. The dark wood is part of the strategy; it’s meant to signal the food’s primacy over any other sensory element. In the multimillion-dollar design process that led to the opening of Alinea, in the spring of 2005, the surroundings were kept spare, so that diners could be at one with their senses.
Fragrance is nearly all in both food and wine, of course, and playing with it, and with textures and temperatures, is an Achatz hallmark. The chef looked for ways to bring the sensuality of smells directly into the dining room. He didn’t want to settle for some normal serving dish like, say, the tightly covered cast-iron casseroles that waiters at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York City restaurant Jean Georges open under diners’ noses. Instead, he bought a bonglike contraption that lets him force scented air into a plastic bag. He gently heats lavender or orange peel or sassafras, captures the aromatized air in the bag, pricks tiny holes in it, and tucks the bag into a specially made linen pillowcase. The waiter sets the pillow under the diner’s plate; it slowly deflates as the plate rests on it, scenting the entire place setting.
Odd holders for silverware and crockery, bearing odd ingredients, arrive at odd moments. One night there could be slices of a gnarly “hand” of fresh ginger impaled on spiny stainless-steel needles that look vaguely like a bed of nails; at an unpredictable point a waiter will use a specially designed grater for the ginger, sprinkling the juicy pulp over a soup. Or a chunk of dripping honeycomb will arrive, to be squeezed eventually over a savory course, again using a custom-designed implement. Or you’ll be served a square of jelled sweet potato and another of jelled bourbon, both stuck onto a cinnamon-stick skewer that was lightly torched before it left the kitchen, so that it arrives powerfully fragrant.
On the night I dined, as soon as I was seated, a waiter set down a bristling frond of fresh rosemary stuck into a polished stainless-steel holder that looked something like a smart pen stand. It was the only thing by way of a floral arrangement, and it stood sentinel for better than half the 12 courses I tried (this was a beginner’s meal: the Alinea menu is divided into a tasting of 12 courses and one of 24). Then a very hot rock arrived–a long terra-cotta brick set on a perilously fragile-looking wire holder. In one end was a deep hole the width of a pencil. The waiter stuck the small branch of rosemary into the hole, and the fragrance engulfed not just me but all the tables around me. In fact, there was barely any rosemary in the three small squares of tender lamb set on the hot brick, each topped with a different condiment: mastic-infused cream (mastic, a Greek resin with a light, bittersweet licorice flavor, is used to thicken ice creams and sweets); mustard-apricot relish with plump, lush dried apricots; and a late-summer marmalade of eggplant and tomato. The meat was tender and succulent, the condiments cannily chosen to set it off without dominating. But it was the rosemary scent mixing with sizzling lamb fat–an almost primeval emotional trigger, the kind Achatz says he wants to pull–that made this the climax of the meal.