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.)
Many things yield unexpectedly in the mouth. That’s part of Achatz’s experimentation with different thickeners, and with making things solid or liquid depending on what you’re not used to. A wide red ribbon marches across a long rectangular dessert plate, for instance, looking like melted plastic. The strangely plastic ribbon is the usually runny raspberry puree, blanketing a series of small dots, all of which have a surprise: tapioca pearls in goat’s milk; fresh raspberries stuffed with a chewy little bead of taffy made of fresh red peppers; pistachio brittle and crushed pistachios; and lavender made into a tea that holds its shape like a syrup. Lavender is also dehydrated into tiny chips and crumbled over the length of the ribbon. The whole thing is decorative (its horizontal patterning is reminiscent of a Louis Sullivan or Prairie School design), unexpected, and very good.
How far has this school come from anything recognizably rooted in classic haute cuisine? Will these restless young chefs obliterate everything Slow Food holds dear?
The experiments of the Chicago school can be traced directly to Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), a founder of haute cuisine, who used principles of architectural engineering to create pièces montées–fantastic structures, often in the shape of buildings–from modeling ingredients like gum tragacanth. Three generations before Auguste Escoffier codified post-Revolutionary French cuisine, Carême startled diners with beautifully colored and modeled desserts that mysteriously held their form and concealed surprises–surprise being a longtime feature of cuisine for the jaded rich and royal. From its origins in court kitchens of the Renaissance, haute cuisine always used artifice to impress diners with the originality and extravagance of the lord who employed the cook. After the French Revolution, when former cooks to the aristocracy began opening restaurants, they competed to make just as vivid an impression with their own skills, which often had as much to do with novel presentations, equipment, and techniques as with finding the very best ingredients from farmers, fishermen, cheese makers, and other producers. Skill, discipline, and basic understanding of cooking science became necessary for any chef, and to this day apprentice chefs train in the rigorous techniques of classic French cuisine.