Why I Spent $700 on Dinner for Two
My quest to eat at Alinea began before Alinea was even a place to go, and certainly before I'd ever heard of Grant Achatz. As it turned out, the way I discovered the genre of food Alinea serves became the best way for me to describe to people why I wanted so badly to eat there.
In the weeks leading up to my dinner at this Michelin three-star venue, I described it as the country's top molecular gastronomy restaurant. But that just turned out to be ineffective shorthand. "What's molecular gastronomy?" people asked me.
"It's really the epitome of processed food," I said.
I stopped giving academic definitions and started describing my 2004 meal at Minibar in Washington D.C. At the time, it was the most expensive dinner I'd ever eaten: $85 for the tasting menu, but with the wine pairing, tax, and tip, it came to closer to $140. I also described that meal as worth every penny—it was part dinner, part science experiment, part entertainment, and part ever-so-beautiful mind alteration. I walked away best remembering dishes like the "Deconstructed Glass of White Wine," which featured a selection of powders--served on top of a bed of wine gelee--that captured the essence of the layers of flavor held in a single glass, or a perfect orb of canteloupe puree encased in a gel-like shell and topped with a few crystals of salt and a tiny mint leaf, which tasted as if the perfect summer morning had burst open in my mouth.
That meal featured flavors I already knew and loved—watermelon, cotton candy, Philly cheesesteak, feta—combined in such ethereal, interesting, thought-provoking ways that it permanently changed the way I looked at food. It also set me on a path to continue seeking out gastronomic experiences that filled my brain as much as, if not more than, my belly.
How to celebrate a 40th birthday
After Alinea opened in 2005, I started scheming about how I might be able to get a seat at one of their tables. I knew it would take what I had discovered at Minibar to a whole other level. But it's not a meal one does alone—you need a dining partner who will appreciate it alongside you—and I didn't know anyone who'd be willing to drop the cash required to get in the door. I knew plenty of food lovers and food writers, but the right opportunity never materialized.
But as my 40th birthday approached, and as I thought about ways I might celebrate, I realized it would fall on a Saturday night. Chicago is totally within range for a weekend's trip from Oakland, and I decided if there was any time to take the leap at what I fully expected would be the best meal of my life, that milestone birthday was it. I told my husband I could see no better way to celebrate than to go to Alinea, and dropped $702 (including tax and gratuity, but exclusive of any of the beverages we ordered) on two tickets to dinner at 8:45 p.m. on July 13.
A note on the "tickets" concept—these are nonrefundable, though Alinea provides an online system for reselling the tickets to other interested parties. Trust me…with only 64 seats, this is not a restaurant where tables go unsold. It was nice to have paid for that portion of the evening up front (though our beverages, including two $150 wine pairings and $9 worth of espresso, added another $409 to the total)—it meant a big chunk of the evening's expense was out of the way.
The night begins
I'm not kidding when I say I walked in with high expectations. I'd spent hours combing through websites to read others' experiences. I'd read the memoir co-written by Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, Life, On The Line, which documented their incredible commitment to every detail of creating one of the best restaurants in the world. I'd replayed that meal at minibar and my one dinner at The French Laundry (which is not modernist, but is a truly stellar experience) in my head, trying to prepare myself to once again experience food as art.
The payoff came with the first bite. The dish, called "Osetra, classical," was a spoon coated in creme fraiche, with brioche crumbs pressed to the bottom tip of the utensil. Resting in the spoon's bowl was some Osetra caviar and a select few ingredients including a small ball of butter that, when you touched it with your tongue, exploded in pure flavor and melded with the other flavors perfectly. I would rank this as one of the most exquisite things I have ever eaten, and as soon as I put it in my mouth, I started to cry.