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Dinner Is Served--On a Trapeze

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1723 N. Halsted


With ALINEA, Grant Achatz wants to demolish the preconceptions of even the most jaded diners, and he's going at it with the same dogged determination that landed him a position at Thomas Keller's French Laundry at the tender age of 22. (He sent Keller a resume and letter every day for weeks, until Keller gave up and hired him.) Achatz, named best new chef of 2002 by Food & Wine during his three years at Trio, is fascinated by counterintuitive combinations of flavor, texture, and smell; and few ingredients escape the kitchen without being poked, prodded, dried, reconstituted, foamed, or otherwise turned on their heads. Food is delivered in the crevices of difficult bowls or hanging, trapezelike, from razor-thin mandolines. By the time I pulled up outside last week, I didn't know what to expect--but I was fully prepared for exploding nuggets of dehydrated baby rhino to be delivered to my table via model rocket shot from the saute station.

Located in a town house spitting distance from Achatz's first employer, Charlie Trotter's, Alinea is marked only by a valet's sandwich board at the curb. The front door opens onto a dim trompe l'oeil hallway that narrows to a preposterously small alcove just past the main entrance. That swishes open on your left automatically, and unnervingly, as you hit some hidden motion sensor's mark. A dining room and glass-walled kitchen share the first floor; up a set of glass stairs covered by metal-mesh mats are two more small, luxuriously spare dining rooms. Tables are set with white napkins atop small round steel-and-copper disks--and nothing else, until a waiter appears and deposits a large chunk of ginger root pierced by three long needles as a centerpiece.

Alinea offers three prix fixe tasting menus, in 8 ($75), 12 ($110), or a daunting 24 ($175) courses. My party of three--one vegetarian, one shellfish averse, and one omnivore--went for the happy medium of 12, with wine pairings, which add about $90 to the bill. All started with the by-now-notorious PB&J amuse: a peeled grape slathered with peanut butter and wrapped in brioche. Served, with stem, atop a wicked-looking wire contraption, it's a shout-out to Keller's playful cuisine--during Achatz's tenure the French Laundry had its own PB&J: peanut butter truffles with small fruit jellies. If I liked peanut butter more, the taste might have lived up to the concept. But the courses that followed drew choruses of oohs and aahs and the occasional grateful moan. Fresh Dungeness crab on a creamy bed of sweet raw parsnip, garnished with coconut, raw cashews, and saffron vinaigrette, was followed by a quintet of hearts of palm, bite-size cylinders on china pedestals, stuffed with progressively savory fillings, including pale green fava bean puree, plum with olive, and truffle with pumpernickel. Chunks of snapper served in a gigantic bowl under a crust of yuba (tofu skin) and a citrusy sweet-sour yuzu sauce made one of my friends remember her 2003 dinner at Trio, during which she says she couldn't stop giggling. Tender medallions of rabbit were served with spring lettuce, a rich, smoky morel sauce, a swoosh of gelled red pepper, and what the waiter referred to as a "mushroom Cheeto"--a crunchy morel puff. Desserts, under the direction of pastry chef Alex Stupak, were equally formidable: I was enchanted by the trio of pineapple sponge, foam, and gel, served in what looks like an upside-down top hat with flakes of angelica, Iranian pistachios, and chartreuse puree.

The wine pairings began with a curveball--a special reserve Madeira that was light, superdry, and surprisingly summery--rather than the standard bubbly starter. Later, a smooth, creamy pinot gris blend gave body and consistency to the array of hearts of palm, and a Coonawarra Shiraz full of leather and eucalyptus stood up to the savory bison (which was dressed with powdered blueberries and beet puree and accompanied by an aromatic bowl of smoky cinnamon sticks on a hot stone). The service was marred by a few newbie gaffes that it'd be cruel to itemize, but our Trotter-trained waiter and confident, articulate sommelier more than made up for the missteps of the others.

The whole experience was tightly controlled. Beyond the custom tableware (better to call them food-delivery systems), there were specific instructions as to how certain dishes should be eaten, so you never forget who's in the kitchen pulling your strings. "Lift it by the stem, dangle it over your head, and open your mouth," we were ordered when the amuse arrived. Then we were told to "slurp" the hearts of palm and to stick our noses into the inverted hat holding the pineapple dessert and inhale. Under less-polished conditions this would be annoyingly pretentious. But the soothing rituals of fine dining can take the edge off the edgiest of cuisines. The dining rooms are neutral and calm; the service strives for an accessible formality. The attention to detail is striking, especially in small gestures like the pair of delicate artisanal butters--one cow's milk, one goat's--and rolls that materialized somewhere around course number five. For all the pickled berries and freeze-dried grapefruit and sponge-cake-on-a-stick, the experimentation in the kitchen is ultimately in service of enhancing, not overpowering, the essences of Achatz's ingredients. The weirdest thing about dining at Alinea is that it's really not that weird after all. --Martha Bayne

Porter's Steakhouse

71 E. Wacker


Steak houses are to Chicago what sushi restaurants are to Los Angeles--intrinsic to the city's concept of itself. Even if the steer no longer makes the trip from south-side abattoir to table at Gibson's, we remain a beef city. PORTER'S STEAKHOUSE, the new chain restaurant in the former Fuse location in Hotel 71, seems not to have taken this culinary heritage into account. The food isn't bad, but it doesn't hold a candle to Gibson's, Joe's, or Morton's. On a recent visit my girlfriend and I started with the coconut-crusted shrimp and the calamari, both fried and both utterly ordinary in every detail. Our entrees weren't much better. Porter's signature dish, the Pepperloin, is a 12-ounce piece of tenderloin marinated in a winey, salty brew for 48 hours, then rolled in peppercorns. I ordered it medium rare and it came that way, but all that marinating had made it mushy. The crab cakes were a little better--lightly fried, moist, and flavorful--but for $30 I expected something more than two hockey pucks of meat on a white plate with no side dish, no garnish, no drizzle. The best part of the meal was the corn relish that came with the appetizers. Made of roasted corn shaved off the cob and sauteed with onions, peppers, and cilantro, it was delicious: simple, fragrant, and sweet, with just a bit of a kick. Service was by the book, though I'm not sure why, in an otherwise empty restaurant, we and another group were seated in the back near the kitchen rather than at the front near the windows. In the end we were out $180 for dinner for two, and we liked the appetizers' garnish. That says something, and not something good. --Chip Dudley

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Vines on Clark, 3554 N. Clark, 773-327-8572. Contemporary Italian by Tim Edstrom (Everest) and Paul Ramos (Spiaggia), across the street from Wrigley Field.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Anthony Marty.

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