I spent several dinner services backstage, observing the kitchen activity behind the sort of dinner I ate. The only fire I saw there–no flaming grills, scant stove activity–was literal: small blazes in a short cylindrical stainless-steel container lined with aluminum foil and stuffed with fallen oak leaves so beautiful it was a shame to burn them. When an order for rabbit (a dish I didn’t try) came in, one cook set the leaves afire with a blowtorch, making the kitchen smell like a suburban lawn in the fall. A second cook smothered the fire with the bottom of another steel container covered with foil. A third cook quickly put upside-down old-fashioned glasses over the leaf container, to fill them with smoke. These would serve as cloches for waiting plates of rabbit loin covered with brioche crumbs browned with butter and thyme and set over roasted-garlic butter, accompanied by cider gel thickened with a kind of modified starch used in industrial food processing. Once the glasses were turned right side up, at the table, the waiter would fill them with rabbit consommé. These kitchen and tabletop theatrics gave diners not just the taste of fall but its smoky smell, too.
Semiridiculous as these tricks sound, they exploit the evocative power of scent, memories of which lodge in a primitive storage area in the brain. Scent works: that lamb is the dish I still think about months after I had it. But the meal did not lack for other high points, in which artful visual and olfactory shocks were essential.
Achatz has the eye of a designer. The wire holders are the product of a collaboration with Martin Kastner, a native of the Czech Republic, who crafts metalware and ceramics. One of the pair’s most arresting inventions is the “trapeze,” which actually looks more like a high wire. It holds swinging slices from a side of bacon that has been frozen so it can be cut paper thin. The slices are dehydrated slowly, so they can be pressed flat and unusually wide; spirals of piped butterscotch and linguine-thin ribbons of dehydrated apple puree wind round their lower halves. The stop-everything presentation, the unusual texture of the bacon (not quite crisp, not quite soft), the way the sweet complements the salty–all are characteristic of Achatz’s cooking.
When you get a plate, it too is designed to subtly disorient. Dinner-sized, elliptical plates at my meal had an incised white-on-white houndstooth design and an almond-shaped smooth center; Achatz patterns them with food like Matisse creating a cutout or Alexander Girard a textile. Lightly seared hamachi topped with crushed peanuts sits in what looks like a Japanese garden of braised green peanuts, which are delightfully crunchy and slippery, like edamame beans with flavor. Beads of salty buttermilk pudding dot the plate, a bit bigger than the peanuts and a similar cream color, defying gravity to hold their shape. Some sprout delicate sprigs of fresh tarragon; others are topped with three tiny deep-purple blackberries. Polka dots of perfectly behaved berry syrup anchor the design. The plate is more than pretty. Just as the bacon is better than weird–it tastes good–the hamachi is silken, and the pudding, which sounds awful when the waiter describes it, is somehow at one with the fish; the beads have the texture of thick butterscotch pudding and yield to the tongue. (To see how the dish is made, click here .)