You couldn’t believe it when you heard it. The story of Grant Achatz’s health seemed too cruel, too ironic, the stuff of Greek tragedy, not real life: the brilliant young chef, just reaching the height of his powers, stricken by cancer … of the tongue. Shakespeare would’ve scrapped it, going out for a long walk to clear his head. But it was true, and a year later, Chef Achatz is doing well. I’m glad for him as a person, certainly, but I’m also relieved for us. Achatz and his restaurant, Alinea, are important.
There are restaurants where, after I’ve eaten, I badly want to work in the kitchen. I want to see what goes on in there, to learn the food with my head and my hands. After eating at Alinea, though, what I want to do there is to work as a waiter. Grant Achatz is a genius. I don’t use that word lightly, and I don’t see the point in my trying to learn to be a genius. I want to be a waiter at Alinea simply so that I can see the looks on people’s faces as they eat his food.
All restaurants manipulate your senses—through the space, the staff, the cuisine—but Alinea is so self-consciously different from any other restaurant in its manipulations that it’s easy to be cynical about it at first. You might find it pretentious. There is no sign on the building. The entrance, which I won’t ruin by describing, is intentionally disorienting.
My friend Chuck and I had an early seating, so this effect was heightened by there not being a houseful of diners to remind us that we were in a restaurant. The hostess led us upstairs to a spare, neutral-toned room. Pale straw sunlight filtered through a massive offset window. The tables were thick, black, heavy. Ours was massive, a table of gravity, with nothing on it but two white napkins. A waiter silently placed on it two Key limes encased in plastic and left. Across from me was a gruesome painting of grays and reds whose horribleness was muted by the museum-like atmosphere. Why was it there? To remind you that this space is constructed so you feel the way Alinea wants you to feel?
There is no menu, no decision to be made about the food, no knowledge of what you will be having. There was a brief conversation about wine, and then the first course came, a pale, cold puck layered with red.
It was good. Really good. Thin sheets of red-pepper gel delivered that fruit’s bright flavor in its entirety. Artichoke ice cream was sweet and rich, flecked with fragrant micro-basil. Then, moments after swallowing, black pepper came through, warming my cold mouth. All of this in just two bites. The cynic in me left the room.
Other diners had sat down by this time. They were appropriately reverent; they knew what was going on. Every bite of this food brought a hush. But a few courses later, after lobster and Sun Chokes in a steaming mist of orange and hyacinth, a couple took a seat next to us, an older man with a bright face and a loud woman riding a cloud of perfume. I felt a sort of panic, as if a barbarian were at the gate. What if I have to smell her perfume through my next course? What if, God forbid, she talks through my next course?
“I wish this restaurant had a no-talking policy, like how places don’t allow cellphones,” I said to Chuck. I imagined little signs on each table: “Thank You for Not Speaking.”
“You think you’re in a temple right now, don’t you?” Chuck asked. We both nodded.
But here’s the weird thing: Four or five courses after that, I was wondering aloud, “How do people contain themselves in this restaurant?” This food was not only so excellent, so surprising, but also so distinctly moving that at some point I started literally bouncing up and down on my seat. After a bite of short rib under Guinness gelatin, I was so charged I wanted to break my table in half. Once, in between courses and for no apparent reason, I started giggling—that strange laughter that feels like you might start crying without knowing why. I’m serious. I was emotional.