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What Are You Going to Eat for Dinner?

There is probably little that is inherently show-stopping about a good old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s a simple meal, though to be sure, you’ve got some options: White bread? Wheat? Will you cut off the crusts? And you’ve got your peanut butter options: Smooth? Chunky? (mmm…) Organic? And of course, the jelly: Strawberry? Blackberry? Fruit juice sweetened? It can become a culinary mini-adventure combining those three simple ingredients. Inevitably, they taste pretty good together. But it’s also the meal I turn to when I’m the most desperate and the most in a hurry. When I’m running out of the door to catch a flight and panicking because those little packets of pretzels on the airplane are never enough to keep my grumbling stomach at bay, I throw together a peanut butter sandwich and stuff it in a plastic baggie for future snacking. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it fills you up. The PB & J is the socks & underwear of the food wardrobe.  It’s rarely anything snazzy (unless it’s a special occasion), but it gets the job done.

So when I sat down in Grant Achatz’s avant-garde Alinea restaurant (decked out in my floor-length dress and special-occasion heels), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first item on the menu was, quite simply, a PB & J.

1. PB+J grape, peanut, bread
2. SOUR CREAM smoked salmon, sorrel, star anise
3. DUNGENESS CRAB raw parsnip, young coconut, cashews
4. HEART OF PALM in five sections
5. ASPARAGUS caramelized dairy, egg, bonito
6. TURBOT shellfish, waterchestnuts, hyacinth vapor
7. EGGPLANT cobia, crystaline florettes, radish pods
8. FRIED BREAD chocolate, adjukura, oregano
9. FROG LEGS spring lettuces, paprika, morels
10. BEEF flavors of A-1
11. HAZELNUT PUREE capsule of savory granola, curry
12. PROSCIUTTO passionfruit, zuta levana
13. FINGER LIMES olive oil, dissolving eucalyptus
14. MELON gelled rose water, horseradish
15. ENGLISH PEAS frozen lemon, yogurt, shiso
16. FOIE GRAS rhubarb, sweet onion, walnut
17. BURNT ORANGE avocado, picholine olives
18. BROCCOLI STEM grapefruit, wild steelhead roe
19. SNAPPER yuba, heavily toasted sesame, cucumber
20. LAMB NECK sunflower seeds, kola nu, porcinis
21. ARTICHOKE fonds d'artichauts cussy #3970
22. BISON beets, blueberries, smoking cinnamon
23. BACON butterscotch, apple, thyme
24. PINEAPPLE angelica branch, iranian pistachios
25. SASSAFRAS CREAM encapsulated in mandarin ice
26. STRAWBERRIES argan, lemon verbenna
27. LIQUID CHOCOLATE milk, black licorice, banana
28. SPONGE CAKE tonka bean, vanilla fragrance  

I knew very little about the restaurant when I showed up. Only that it consistently ranks near the top of “World’s Best Restaurants” lists and pioneers exciting dishes in the style of molecular gastronomy. I knew it was famous, unusual, inventive, and on the cutting edge of food conception, preparation, presentation, and consumption. I probably imagined that the dining experience would resemble the 2011 satirical portrait of organic eating that the TV show “Portlandia” is now famous for. Wanting to order the chicken but hesitant to break eco-friendly code, a well-intentioned Portland couple requests the chicken’s credentials. Is it local? Organic? With a hilariously dead-pan delivery, the server responds to their concerns:

“The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that has been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts.”

Not quite satisfied, the customers press for more information, prompting the unflappable server to produce a more complete dossier of the chicken’s life:

“The chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight…his name is Collin, here are his papers.” (Check out the sketch here).

Amidst the rising trend of organic, locally-farmed food and the ever-more specific provenance of the ingredients we eat, I think I anticipated a painfully detailed and serious menu that tracked the history of each item right down to its wild-caught roots. Certainly “Portlandia’s” chicken had a more elaborate birth record than my parents could ever produce for me.  

Quite the contrary! Alinea’s menu was minimalist, humorous, and full of intrigue.  Achatz’s signature bubble design (it’s the organizing graphic principle of both his website and menu) suggests playfulness, and the size of the bubble telegraphs the size and substantiality of a course. This can be a helpful guide when you’re navigating a 23-course “tour.” PB & J is bite-sized – it gets a small bubble. Beef with flavors of A1 is, as you would imagine, a more substantial course, and so boasts a larger-sized bubble on the menu. 23 discreet courses at a single dinner have the potential to overwhelm, to become a muddled mess. But Achatz presents the courses like a musical line, the size and density of the bubble-symbols corresponding loosely to the texture of the dish. The meal crescendos and decrescendos, guiding you towards meaty climaxes and then easing you back from the precipice with a bite-sized bit of something fresh. His menu is a new kind of culinary notation, reliant not just on the words that describe the food, but on an innovative system of symbols that conduct the eating experience. And you are presented with the menu at the meal’s conclusion as a memento of the experience, a culinary-score that memorializes the evening’s performance. 

And what a performance it is. I suppose you could call Achatz’s PB & J a deconstructed sandwich. Instead of jelly, you get a grape, dipped in peanut purée and cloaked in brioche. But what really fascinated me was that this single grape was still attached to the stem. Plucking that lone grape off an otherwise empty branch, I was thinking as much about the missing grapes as I was about the one I popped into my mouth. Where had they gone? Would the chef use them in other dishes? We usually save the grapes and discard the stem. Alinea’s kitchen was doing it the other way around. I couldn’t help but think of the “Addams Family” episode wherein Morticia Addams nonchalantly clips the roses into the garbage and plops their thorny stems into a vase. Achatz infuses the mundane and automatic act of stripping the stem to eat the grapes with new life. His dish urges you to think about that moment of separation, the divorce of the turgid, juicy fruit from its cellulose stalk. And you can’t help but wonder what happened to its friends.

PB&J
PB & J: grape, peanut, bread - all attached to the stem (top view) 

So unusual is this PB & J, that it requires its own kind of serviceware. Designed by Martin Kastner, this particular piece is a stainless-steel contraption called the “Squid,” and it holds the peanut-coated grape perfectly.  You can get a better look at it in this side-view photograph (and see Kastner’s other designs at Crucial Detail): 

PB&J side view
PB & J (side view)

You may not get the whole cluster of grapes, but this airy piece of servingware supports the grape and creates the illusion of that fruity bulk. It elevates the grape, offering it up to you as though you are Cleopatra herself, being fed fruit by this Mark Antony of dishes. I must confess, never in my life had the PB & J been such a fascinating and cerebral experience.

Cerebral, but also delicious. One of my favorite dishes features a single piece of candied bacon swinging like a pendulum from a device that Kasten calls the “Bow.” The interplay of food and servingware is ingenious. This strip of meat which I ordinarily think of as heavy, greasy, and opaque, seems light, airy, and translucent as it swings from Kasten’s design.

bacon
Bacon with butterscotch, apple, and thyme

Or, consider the Rhubarb with goat milk, onion, and lavender air. (Yes, air.) How does one eat air, you might ask? Why, by serving the plate atop a pillow – filled with lavender scented air! 

rhubarb and goat milk
Rhubard with goat milk, onion, and lavendar air 

The weight of the plate slowly presses out puffs of floral air, adding olfactory notes to the rest of the edibles.   

Alinea raises food artistry and design to new heights. It had me thinking about form and function, style and taste in ways I never had. It’s an intellectual endeavor, but it’s also filled with whimsy and humor. It’s hard, for instance, not to chuckle just a little bit over a dish that’s titled simply, “Ginger and Five other Flavors.” (Deliciously vague.) Or “Squab: Inspired by Miró” (what does food that’s been inspired by Miró look like? Taste like?). Or, my personal favorite on Alinea’s current menu (which you can find on this website): “Lamb:…….?????........!!!!!!!!” Now that’s a dish I want to taste.

What new boundaries will Achatz push with his food? He’s inspired by Miró, to be sure. Who are his other muses? I can’t wait to find out more when he discusses his culinary and aesthetic vision with Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Related Program 

 

Grant Achatz and the Culinary Cutting Edge

500: Sun, Nov. 4 10:00 - 11:00 AM

Tags: Grant Achatz, Alinea, Chicago Humanities Festival, Rachel Blumenthal, Madeleine Grynsztejn, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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