Authors: nytimes Diners Journal
As soon as I’d checked in at the door of Eleven Madison Park on Wednesday night, the host directed me to the trough.
It was one of those galvanized tubs used to hold water for livestock, and in fact it was filled with water, although the only livestock in the restaurant were the 78 people who’d managed to score a table for the first of five nights when the restaurant would undergo a personality transplant, taking on the menu and the spirit of the Chicago restaurant Alinea.
If you know Alinea only through its extensive press coverage, you have probably heard that its chef, Grant Achatz, is one of the world’s most inventive practitioners of modern cooking and plating techniques. But you may not have read about just how much fun a meal there can be. So when a gang of Alinea cooks loaded a 40-foot U-Haul truck and drove all night to New York this week, they must have brought the fun with them.
They also brought hay bales, cornstalks, pumpkins and other totems of autumn in the heartland, including that trough. When I did as told and walked over to see it, I found a tank of swirling water (I suspect an immersion circulator was responsible) and, milling about on the surface, glass cups filled with apple cider. True, I didn’t have to submerge my head and pick up a glass with my teeth — I just grabbed one with my hand — but nonetheless I began my dinner at Alinea-on-Madison-Avenue by bobbing for apples.
Then it was on to the dining room, where below the 35-foot ceilings the tables were covered with autumn oak leaves, sterilized to get rid of uninvited six-legged guests. After the first course, a purée of butternut squash with orbs of finger lime, a bit of muscovado sugar, a flake of coconut and a sliver of Fresno pepper, all of which you suck from a glass tube, my guest and I were asked to sweep the leaves off the table.
We hesitated. Eleven Madison Park is one of the most expensive and elegant restaurants in New York, decorated with three stars from Michelin and four from The New York Times. Were we really supposed to litter the floor with dead leaves?
Yes, we were, and yes, we did. And so did everybody else. By the end of the night, I had to shuffle my way through a crackling tide of downed foliage just to visit the men’s room.
One of the night’s many surprises was how well this kind of thing played in Eleven Madison Park’s monumental dining room. Alinea is a monochromatic modernist town house, with a series of small dining rooms on two floors. Another table might be one course ahead of you, but the layout helps to prevent spoilers. (Speaking of which, fair warning to anyone with tickets to the Alinea pop-up this week: I’m going to give away a few more tricks before I’m done.)
The wide-open floor at Eleven Madison Park means that unless you have the night’s first reservation, you are going to see, and smell, and hear a lot of what’s coming. You’ll notice hunks of driftwood trailing a shaggy mass of seaweed, Alinea’s serving platter for a brilliantly composed shellfish medley. You inhale the cheap-marijuana smell of a smoldering branch of oak leaves used to impale wild Scottish woodcock tempura. (Cold by the time I tasted it, this was the night’s only dud, reminding me of turkey in leftover mashed potatoes.) But the lost element of surprise was more than made up for by the almost giddy mood that overtook the restaurant last night. Somebody would laugh, and you’d look over to see why, and they’d look up at you and grin. This happened again and again.
It was a party. (My own invitation to the party was secured through a colleague at the The Times, whose name was on the tickets. Once I arrived, though, there was no secret about my identity. I’ve interviewed Mr. Achatz in person, and have eaten at Eleven Madison Park very recently. Although my tickets came from a small pool set aside for guests of the house, The Times will be paying the full $495 a person plus a 20 percent service charge and tax for my meal and my colleague’s.)
Mr. Achatz has gone deep into the vaults for this menu. A few items predate Alinea, going all the way back to his time at Trio, in Evanston, Ill., where he first came to national attention. The dish that got him the job at Trio was called Black Truffle Explosion, a single raviolo filled with hot, truffled broth that bursts in your mouth like Freshen Up gum. Like Mick Jagger swearing that he wouldn’t be playing “Satisfaction” when he was 40, Mr. Achatz once retired the Black Truffle Explosion. And like Mr. Jagger, he learned that satisfaction won’t be denied.
I was very happy to detonate that explosion again, and to revisit some other Alinea classics, like Hot Potato/Cold Potato, a paraffin cup of chilled vichysoisse with a steaming chunk of potato suspended on a pin just above the soup. (This, at least, is the idea; on Wednesday night, it was more like Lukewarm Potato/Room Temperature Potato.) The fried quill of tofu skin wrapped with a strand of prawn was there, too, angling out of a black inkwell filled with miso.
I’d read about, but had never seen, the chocolate dessert served right on the table. A waiter unrolled a length of washable silicone, and then Mr. Achatz arrived with Daniel Humm, the chef of Eleven Madison Park. The two painted the silicone with barrel-aged sherry vinegar, orange reduction and roasted quince purée until it looked like a lost Abstract Expressionist canvas. Sitting on the table was a big chocolate egg. Mr. Achatz picked it up, cracked a little sideways smile and said, “Chocolate piñata.” Then he dropped it on the table. It shattered, spilling out a beautiful mess of spiced cotton candy, caramel-coated mini-waffles, candied ginger and who knows what else.
The instant when the egg broke had all the tension you feel when a waiter drops a glass, but none of the accompanying worries that the waiter might lose his job. It only took a second, but the shock of the impact and then the relief and delight that followed packed more emotion than a lot of movies.
After an eye-opening stint at El Bulli, Mr. Achatz decided that he wanted his food to do more than sit on a plate, and wanted his customers to do more than sit at a table. A major component of the pleasure of eating his cooking comes from the way he makes you work for your meal. (On Wednesday he served lamb cooked five ways alongside a sheet of glass holding 64 unidentified garnishes; you choose two or three garnishes for each bite, and you don’t know what you’ve chosen until you start to chew, if then. The dish makes you take on some of the chef’s duties, and if you are able to name the secret ingredients, you’re doing a job usually performed by a waiter.) He’s been building on that insight ever since, and it is what has made Alinea one of the most influential restaurants in the country.
But influence is a tricky thing. Any other chef who painted dessert on the table would be accused, rightly, of stealing ideas. Restaurants that try to crib pieces of Alinea’s style may find that it looks as authentic as a Prada bag bought on Canal Street. Mr. Achatz’s vision has been consistent for years, and he now owns it so thoroughly that he can make gimmicky Halloween props like hay bales and cornstalks seem avant-garde. Don’t try this at home, kids.
This Freaky Friday restaurant swap will move to Chicago on Oct. 10, when Mr. Humm will take over Alinea for the first of five nights.