It begins with a fast.
Going to Alinea is like training to be an astronaut. When you have nonrefundable tickets at massive expense for a single night, you simply. Cannot. Mess. Up.
Two weeks beforehand I began my preparations. Extra sleep and constant antibacterial hand-baths to stave off disease. Three days beforehand I avoided eating anything suspect to avoid bloat, salmonella, or any other gastrointestinal distress. My expired yogurt (typically eaten) was stowed back into the fridge for later food poisoning. Lunch was a spoonful of porridge, dusted with gruel. An hour beforehand, we drove the way you might if you just found out you won the lotto, which is to say very slowly and very carefully.
The only thing missing was an exorcism and holistic purification. Already, I was starting to feel this dinner wasn’t worth the trouble.
We were ushered to a hushed communal dining room, with a continent’s worth of table separating our family and outflanked by champagne-sipping WASPs, which felt something like an allegory. Then the servers began to pour liquid nitrogen into suspended flower baskets that erupted into aromatically volcanic school science projects. And then began a parade of too-dainty, fussy florals, like Pixar’s cheffiest rats were hosting a 17-course dinner party inspired by The Edible Arrangements Cookbook. Passionfruit paper and Japanese cheesecake and meringues—cerebral, impressive, and utterly diffident. Apparently dessert was the new breakfast-for-dinner.
We were whisked off to the kitchen, an impressively choreographed lockstep of professionalism, where a rhubarb cocktail juiced to kill was shaken by a hand-cranked steampunk antiquity. Thankfully, when we returned prodigally to the Gallery, we had a private table, and from there on out, Alinea began to make good on nearly every single promise.
The thing about Alinea is that it’s not just dinner, it’s also a show. There exists a clear through line of showmanship and culinary legerdemain, but listing all of the theatrics would run counter to the spirit of the Nick Kokonas-Grant Achatz team and ruin your night. I’ve never had a food piece need to avoid spoilers.
Suffice it to say, we ate things that did not look like food. Instead of being gimmicky or unappetizingly, cognitively dissonant, it was expanding, like watching new foods spun out of the void. I’d been walking in two dimensions all this time and suddenly—hello—a third axis.
A blackened campfire-looking tangle of nori twigs was chockfull of rouille and saffron aioli. They had an addictive, snack-like quality that could endanger the entire potato chip industry. This was followed by sheaves of dehydrated langoustines rising like sailboats out of flavor-packed bouillabaisse and tiny, delicate eggs of olive shells around artichoke butter that squished like savory gummies.
Things were set on fire. Hot parmesan warred with frozen pea in a dichotomy of two soups. Blueberry glass was cracked and broken. Things were poked, prodded, and eaten. Napkins were vanished and replaced by clones.
Somewhere around hour two I decided the preparatory fast was a good idea.
Without the necessary laxative-filled intermission, the long procession of food became a masochistic game of chicken as we slowly ballooned up like skin zeppelins. You could feel the faint glimmers of it while scarfing pork belly in the darkness off a handheld silicone plate that resembled nothing so much as a breast implant. It crested with a spectacular misfire in an impeccably marbled piece of wagyu drowned in a cassis sauce like a licorice hand down the throat. We were bagged and tagged with a play on an Oreo (black truffle + gruyere + pumpernickel toast), a singularity of such decadence that it could’ve incurred its own personal French Revolution.
With all of these flaws, “Is Alinea worth it?” you ask.
If you’re curious, the single greatest thing I ate there—and it wasn’t particularly close—was a coconut shell swimming with black bass, jeweled orbs of cucumber, shattering coconut meringue, and sesame dumplings that detonated like umami cloud-bombs and melted away just as instantly. It was like Achatz had balled up all of Thailand and crammed it into a hairy brown bowl.
The way I judged my meal was simple.
People make fun of my inability to “look like a human being” in photographs, which often resemble The Big Book of British Smiles. I actually have practiced in a mirror, to no avail. But as I looked back at our pictures, I saw something in myself I had never seen before: moments of pure, unadulterated joy.