Dishes That Double as Special Effects At a new restaurant in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Chef Grant Achatz's cuisine reflects a fresh culinary trend. Jennifer Ludden paid a visit, and came away thinking of Alinea's fare as "special effects food."
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Dishes That Double as Special Effects

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Dishes That Double as Special Effects

Dishes That Double as Special Effects

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Technology has always driven the way we cook; not always for the better--think the microwave. But a new generation of chefs is using equipment you'd never imagine to forge what they consider a new cuisine. Call it special-effects food. You can get a sampling at a new restaurant in Chicago's trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood; it's called Alinea. And we thought we'd take you there, since it's hard to spot if you're just strolling down North Halsted Street.

Is there a sign out front? Did I miss it?

Mr. GRANT ACHATZ (Chef, Alinea): No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: But that's the point. That's--you know, that's the whole thing. It's like, you know, when you go by, you see this kind of dark facade with this kind of covelike entry, and it's just--it's supposed to just...

LUDDEN: If you don't know what's there, just walk on by.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right, right. You have to be looking for us.

LUDDEN: That's Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz. He sat down with us just before the doors opened one recent evening, while staff did some last-minute vacuuming and laid out menus on an elegant sideboard. Like everything here, the menus are minimalist: no prices, no description, just a series of words. One entree reads `Bison, beets, blueberries, burning cinnamon.'

Burning cinnamon?

Mr. ACHATZ: We plate the food composition on a plate, and then off to the side, we have a very small dish that we ignite cinnamon sticks until they're burning embers. We blow them out until they start to smolder, we put them in this little dish, we put a lid on it and then it goes on the plate. So the plate comes out, gets sat down in front of the guest, the server pulls off the lid of this little dish and the wafts of sweet, smoky cinnamon kind of surround the guests and they take that in while they're eating the dish.

LUDDEN: How would you describe, in general, the food you serve here? Can someone peg it?

Mr. ACHATZ: It's very hard to put a one- or two-word phrase on it. I think what we're in now is we're in kind of this stage where a lot of younger chefs are expressing themselves and using a lot of these new techniques and technologies that have come about in the last five years. And so they're really creating a new style of cooking, a new style of eating. And so it really hasn't been defined yet; it doesn't really have a label yet.

LUDDEN: Achatz is trim, laid-back and freckled. He's only 31, and he hardly looks that, but he's already got an impressive resume: sous-chef at the fabled French Laundry in California; James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2003; and praise for his work at Trio, the Chicago restaurant where he was chef before opening his first solo venture here at Alinea. Achatz wants to create entirely new tastes, and to do it, he's looking beyond even the most modern kitchen appliances.

Mr. ACHATZ: For instance, we have, like, very specially designed freezers that get negative 50 degrees below 0. So instead of just being kind of handcuffed to what's available in the restaurant industry, we may go to a medical supply house that does superrefrigerants. You know...

LUDDEN: Is that even colder than a subzero fridge?

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, it's--negative 50 degrees Celsius is darned cold.

LUDDEN: And what does that allow you to do?

Mr. ACHATZ: It allows you to freeze things obviously instantly. It allows you to freeze layers of things, so you create different textures. So the surface that's in contact with that negative 50 degrees becomes extremely brittle, and it freezes so quickly that it allows certain other areas of that foodstuff to remain soft or, you know...

LUDDEN: Can you give me an example? What's a dish that would come out of that freezer?

Mr. ACHATZ: There's one that we do involving sour cream where we literally just put a dollop of sour cream on this cold plate--and that's what we call this device that gets so cold. And obviously, the part that makes contact with the cold plate freezes instantly. We put a dollop on, we put a sprig of oxalis, or wild sorrel, in there and it freezes so fast that it allows the sorrel to freeze right into the sour cream, but still be unfrozen 'cause it's not making contact with this cold plate. And so now you have created sour cream that has a brittle texture on the bottom, and then it graduates up through softness, and you can actually touch the top of the dollop of sour cream and it's whatever temperature that you put it on. So you have degrees of texture through the sour cream. You put it in your mouth, you crunch down, you feel the crispiness of extremely frozen sour cream and you feel the creaminess of sour cream like you know it that you put on your baked potato.

LUDDEN: Can we see your kitchen?

Mr. ACHATZ: Sure.

LUDDEN: Can you show us?

Mr. ACHATZ: Of course.

(Soundbite of kitchen activity)

LUDDEN: We walk into the elegant, custom-designed kitchen, a wide open space for all to see.

So what are the specials tonight?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, why don't we try one out?

LUDDEN: In one corner sits that custom-made cold plate, where staff are preparing those frozen sour cream dollops.

Mr. ACHATZ: This gets set on the table, and the server instructs the guests.

LUDDEN: Yeah, that's good, because I was just going to say, `How would you eat this?'

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. You actually pick it up from the oxalis and just place it on your palate, let it melt slightly...

LUDDEN: OK.

Mr. ACHATZ: ...so that you can feel the different textures of the frozen sour cream.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh. And it...

Mr. ACHATZ: And then finally, you end with chewing on this lemony herb, which is the oxalis.

LUDDEN: And it's not going to fall apart when I do that?

Mr. ACHATZ: Nope.

LUDDEN: OK.

Mr. ACHATZ: It shouldn't.

LUDDEN: Let me try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Oh, there it is. All right.

Mr. ACHATZ: And it's very traditional. I mean, it's sour cream, smoked salmon and sorrel, which is...

LUDDEN: It's great.

Mr. ACHATZ: ...a very traditional French flavor combination.

LUDDEN: So it's a big burst of cold at the beginning...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

LUDDEN: ...and then kind of the warm...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

LUDDEN: ...sour cream comes after, and then...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

LUDDEN: ...tangy...

Mr. ACHATZ: And then you start to feel some of the, you know, smoked salmon kind of nuances, and then you end with the herbaceous green. So...

LUDDEN: Mmm. Fresh, very fresh.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

LUDDEN: Also on offer tonight: puffed lobster. Achatz describes it as a lobster-flavored Cheeto; it's surprisingly subtle.

A lot of Alinea is about creating small surprises. The menu, decor and computer-programmed lighting are ever-changing. Achatz even worries utensils get boring. He's crafted little ceramic pedestals that serve as elevated spoons. Above all, if you come to Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz wants you to savor the experience as well as the food. Upstairs, in a hushed dining room, he explains the menu offers an eight-course or 12-course dinner, and then...

The Tour?

Mr. ACHATZ: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: You have something called the Tour that's how many courses?

Mr. ACHATZ: Mm-hmm. Well, tonight it's 25, but it can range anywhere--it can go up to 30 at times.

LUDDEN: And how long should it take someone to get through that?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, we've had people finish it, believe it or not, in two and a half hours. We've also had people take seven and a half hours.

LUDDEN: That's a long evening.

Mr. ACHATZ: It can be. But the thing is is you'd be surprised at how, when people sit down for a five-hour meal and they get up--or a five-and-a-half-hour meal, they get up and they have no time reference. Like, it feels like an hour and a half, and that happens--I hear that all the time. They'll come back in the kitchen and they'll realize that the kitchen has literally kind of come to a close. You know, it's now 2 in the morning.

LUDDEN: You're sitting there tapping your toes saying...

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, no, we're not tapping our toes, but we're cleaning or something, and they can just tell that the urgency of the rush is over and they don't realize it. And they turn around, look up at the clock, you know, and it's 1:30 or 2 in the morning and they're, like, flabbergasted.

LUDDEN: No matter how long you take, Achatz promises he won't kick you out.

And finally tonight, a goodbye from me. I've been filling in here for the past year, and it's been a privilege and great fun talking with all of you each weekend. Heartfelt thanks to those who wrote or e-mailed kind words about the stories we've done, and also to those who took the time to send critiques and comments.

I'm going back to the adventures of full-time reporting and the small pleasures, like Sunday brunch with friends. You'll have the pleasure of Debbie Elliott's company here starting Labor Day weekend.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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