Cities on the Edge

A head-to-head matchup between Chicago’s two stunning high-tech restaurants and their creative New York counterparts results in a tough decision—and four technical knockouts

Led by Grant Achatz and Homaro Cantu, Chicago reigns as the U.S. capital of what TheNew York Times calls “sci-fi cooking.” As much the spawn of a lab as of a kitchen, their food doesn’t lie quietly on the plate, waiting for the fork. It foams, fumes, and bubbles audibly; it’s sucked from tubes and hung on rockers, dehydrated and powdered, frozen and custard-injected. The only way to approach it is with careful instructions from a cadre of tech-savvy waiters.

When Achatz’s ballyhooed Alinea opened in May, I wanted to compare it with Cantu’s Moto, of course, but also with two celebrated New York restaurants. Per Se, the acclaimed new Manhattan dining showcase, is the latest stunner from Thomas Keller, Achatz’s mentor for four years at The French Laundry in Napa Valley. (Achatz’s other main source of inspiration has been Ferran Adría, the mad-scientist pioneer of this cooking at El Bulli in Spain.) And at WD-50, Wylie Dufresne generates an image as out there as Cantu’s and Achatz’s. At each restaurant I tried the largest tasting menu and accompanying winetasting for comparison. (All offer wine tomes, but it’s folly to try to choose bottles to match this food.) The meals took my breath away-and so did the prices, ranging from Almost Reasonable to Outright Sticker Shock, even by Gotham standards.

Alinea on North Halsted fea tures Grant Achatz’s self-described “progressive American cooking.” The theme begins the moment a valet opens the door of the black building and you walk through a dark hallway; suddenly an unseen automatic panel slides open-a startling welcome that sets the tone. Inside, the white kitchen sparkles in one direction; the first-floor dining room beckons in the other. Two more dining salons are upstairs; all three are sleek and soothing in charcoal and cream tones. Dark mahogany tables create a dramatic backdrop for Alinea’s white china and the bizarre serving contraptions that appear throughout the meal. I settled into one of the soft tan armchairs, so well designed that even after five and a half hours of marathon dining, I did not feel fatigued.

Service proves almost flawless, and the large staff is well acquainted with Achatz’s dishes. They can and do explain every nuance of the menu, which resembles a DNA strand (“The different-sized circles on them represent the course size. And the further to the right the menu item is printed, the sweeter it is; the further to the left, the more savory"). The 26-course menu costs a whopping $175 per person; my wife and I asked to split the $120 winetasting progression designed for this menu. (Alinea also offers $75 and $110 menus.) The often brilliant pairings were chosen by Achatz and sommelier Joseph Catterson, who also is the ever-visible general manager. Generous pours abound-which add up, given that 18 different wines came with our meal.

Achatz gets serious with whimsy. Five little white pedestals looking like quirky chess pieces form a line in front of you, each holding a segment of heart of palm filled with a different purée: vanilla pudding, fava beans, toasted bulgur with garlic mayonnaise, plum with coffee sauce, and black truffles with pumpernickel crumbs. The waiter advises you to lift each platform and roll the morsel into your mouth. It’s ridiculous. It’s delicious. I had the same reaction to boneless fried frog legs with baby morels in a smoked paprika sauce topped by another morel puffed to the texture of a Chee-to. It was all supported by nasturtium buds and lettuce sprouts shaped like tiny lily pads-to emulate the frog’s home, naturally.

Chef Achatz loves aromatic vapors that aren’t directly part of the food but obviously designed to enhance it. Sea bass and shellfish poached in vermouth and shellfish broth arrives inside a warm panna cotta in a little bowl nested in a larger bowl of hyacinth blossoms. Waiters pour boiling water on the blossoms to release a hyacinth vapor. The ladies at my table said the aromas coming up were like a sauna facial, but I was busy inhaling the aromas of the wine pairing: a 2002 Rossj-Bass Langhe char-donnay from the famed Barolo and Barbaresco vintner Angelo Gaja.

And so the dinner went. (And went and went.) The meal’s intelligent design makes the lengthy trek possible: small dishes move from savory to midmeal dessert-sweet-and then begins a second cycle of savoriness toward the final desserts. Yes, it’s like having two tasting dinners in a row, and somehow it works.

The brilliant transitional dish that carried things from sweet back to savory the waiter called a “foie gras dessert": a two-inch cylinder of foie gras filled with rhubarb and garnished with sweet onion compote and walnut nougatine. The most theatrical presentation: a slice of bacon-crisp, butterscotch-glazed, and partially dehydrated-draped from a wire on a metal stand that rocked back and forth. From the bacon, dried shredded apple hung like a fringe. While snaring the bacon with my fingers, as the waiter suggested, I asked him, “Why this?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “The chef thinks bacon served flat on a plate is dead. Now it’s alive because it’s moving.” I must be dead, I thought, because I’m glued to my seat.

Dessert brings the final plaything-a descendant of an Achatz creation at Trio-bits of fresh and dried strawberries, argan oil (from an argan tree’s olive-like fruit), and lemon verbena layered and suspended inside a glass tube that you are instructed to suck out all at once. It makes sucking up the bill considerably more palatable.

At some point during the meal my psychiatrist friend observed that the walls of the unisex restrooms looked like black rubber (actually ribbed vinyl); he figured that if people go nuts eating this food, the staff can just lead them to the rubber room. But the triumph of it all is that Achatz has reined in the weirdness he exhibited at Trio and, more important, his food tastes better than ever-food for the senses and the brain. Mountains of hype aside, Alinea has instantly become one of Chicago’s best restaurants.

Moto’s Homaro Cantu is the American bad boy of What the Hell Is This? cuisine, a man as enthralled with thinking up new gadgets and techniques as with creating great flavors. His 18-course tasting menu ($160) began with something called “maki in the 4th dimension.” That’s a cube of tuna in spiced rice seasoned with powdered nori, wrapped in a square of edible paper printed with a photo of the maki inside. “You’ll be eating what you see on the picture,” said our waiter. It was luscious-just fax me dinner. Keeping up the sense of surprise, it came with a lovely white Movia Ribolla Brda 2002 from Slovenia, part of the attuned wine progression ($80), which the sommelier, Matthew Gundlach, obligingly divides for two.

If Achatz wants you to breathe in your food, Cantu wants you to hear and feel it. Warm butter-poached Alaskan king crab leg with caviar and freeze-dried shallot chips comes with carbonated frozen grapes, which the waiter tells us to lean over and listen to, then eat with the crab for “the bubble and fizz to really tickle your tongue.” It’s a fantastic sensation. And continuing the warm/cold pairings, a different waiter brought a cup of foaming liquid nitrogen to pour into warm corn soup bobbing with popcorn: the result, unexpectedly good. Nor does Cantu ignore the aroma component of flavors. His beef with braised pizza and garlic is actually excellent sliced beef and pizza-flavored Swiss chard; his patented corkscrew-handled fork holds whole peeled cloves of garlic-whose pungent smell wafts up as you lift it to eat the dish.

But some things in the laboratory need tinkering. A strawberry globe, filled with brown-butter custard and frozen in liquid nitrogen, snapped like an eggshell when I followed the waiter’s directions to break it with a fork, almost shooting the insides onto the floor. “An interactive dish,” the waiter said. “The technology is being worked on as we speak,” he said later, when I fumbled with another bizarro dish.

The oddness continued with clever doughnut soup that tasted like a fresh Krispy Kreme. But the complimentary parting treat was “Styrofoam bits with caramel” made of inflated corn starch, which felt just like eating Styrofoam packaging popcorn-devoid of flavor except for the saltiness. Four hours into the meal, a friend began worrying that his coffee was going to come freeze-dried. Chef Cantu keeps improving: his flavors are bolder, but his food still springs more from the cerebellum than the heart.

Per Se, in Manhattan’s extrava gant Time-Warner Building, is Thomas Keller’s acclaimed NYC début, named the Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation in May 2005. Those in the know will recognize that the blue front doors mimic those at Keller’s French Laundry. (Yes. This rube from Chicago pulled on them, but they don’t open; the real entrance-the adjacent glass panels-have an automatic sensor.) The Adam Tihany–designed room combines California wood trim with New York industrial muscle in its steel details, softened by creamy leather wallcoverings. Widely spaced and elegantly appointed tables (only 16 of them in the main dining room) all provide a great view of Central Park.

It costs $175 per person to eat at Per Se-without wine, tax, or tip. Doesn’t matter whether you choose one of the two à la carte menus or go with Keller’s nine-course chef’s tasting-referred to by the omni present waiters as the centerpiece of the three. The wine pairing for the tasting menu was another $175, and the waiter insisted that it could not be split. The wines were fine, even outstanding, but no more appropriate for the food than those at Alinea, Moto, or WD-50. Be prepared to shell it out on Columbus Circle.

That said, I still loved my meal at Per Se. It began with an amuse of little sesame tuile cones filled with red onion crème fraîche and a scoop of marinated salmon tartare, each suspended in a sterling silver rack: another nod to French Laundry. Subsequent courses showed up on white Raynaud Limoges china-conservative compared with the gadgets used at Alinea and Moto.

A highlight of the tasting menu was a cauliflower pearl tapioca sabayon embedded with butter-poached Caraquet oysters and lavishly topped with sevruga caviar-insanely good. Equally impressive was Keller’s gorgeous play on mac and cheese: a small, sweet curled tail of Nova Scotia lobster on mascarpone-enriched orzo pasta with a Parmesan tuile. When I asked the waiter about the orange powder circling the dish, he said it was made from lobster coral-and that he couldn’t even count the number of powders in the kitchen. “We have a dehydrator,” he explains.

Some of the best dishes recall Charlie Trotter’s style. A plump quail leg stuffed with pulled quail mousse and wrapped in caul fat comes in toasted Madras curry sauce, cubes of cooked sunchokes, and a smear of mint purée on the plate. The superb grilled beef cap in a light, modern spin on bordelaise sauce comes with bone marrow bread pudding and baby chanterelles. Unfortunately, looking at the mushroom powder on the side, I couldn’t stop thinking about dandruff.

Among the desserts, a cylinder of frozen Charentais melon on an orange blossom sponge with a crumble of pumpernickel and freeze-dried rose petals tastes heavenly-but I had to chase it around the plate to penetrate it. I hate chasing food around the plate. The pairing of an Australian Chambers-Rosewood Muscat, Rutherglen NV, however, is spot on.

It’s safe to say Thomas Keller cares more about clarity and precise articulation of his flavors than about waves of visual pyrotechnics. But it is easy to see how Grant Achatz, before landing in Chicago, picked up an exquisite flavor sensibility from the guy.

Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 is New York’s closest equivalent to Alinea and Moto in over-the-top gastronomy. The chef, though a protégé of Jean-Georges Vongerichten (of Vong), seems influenced more by Ferran Adría. The creations on Du-fresne’s tasting menu reveal him to be a bona fide star of Chefs Gone Wild. His restaurant, situated in a barely rehabbed Lower East Side neighborhood, fills with casually dressed young diners dropping upwards of $100 apiece for dinner and wine. Well-informed waiters wear jeans and aprons; where Per Se says jackets required, WD-50 might well have a sign saying “jackets discouraged.” The chef often stands at the wide kitchen entryway to look over the casual small room, but I can’t imagine he sees much in this dim space. The main design elements, framed by open beams and terra cotta walls, include a fireplace and a mural-size onyx wall panel.

The nine-course, $95 tasting menu with matching wines at $45 per person seemed a relative bargain, particularly with foie gras that looked like something out of Achatz’s kitchen. A cylinder of silky liver filled with reduced beet juice nestles with crisp dehydrated olives-and something called “green pea soil” (actually, dehydrated sweet peas with butter and almond flour). The flavor was outstanding, once I got over the soil part. A deconstructed tongue sandwich made with pickled beef tongue, mayonnaise fried into cubes, and a smear of tomato molasses on the plate was fun. It tasted like Adría by way of Katz’s Delicatessen.

One of the best dishes showcased a tightly wrapped cannellono of chopped shrimp and Thai basil rolled in pounded shrimp and set on a smear of chorizo emulsion. With this came a Morillon “Rosenberg” Frühwirth 2003, a delightful Austrian chardonnay. An egg, slow-poached in Parmesan broth for an hour at 147 degrees, was topped with sev (a crispy dried noodle made from chickpea flour) and tomato powder-another offbeat charmer.

Some dishes were letdowns. A sushi-size piece of hamachi, poached sous vide in Chinese black vinegar, was unpleasantly fishy. It was not helped by its bed of smoked banana seasoned with juniper sugar. The worst course, though, was a crisp slice of gamy-tasting lamb belly with tough carrot confit, saved only by a delightful hibiscus sorbet.

On the other hand, the “grapefruit in grapefruit"-an egg-shaped sorbet enveloped in grapefruit foam on another “soil” of almond flour-exhibited true flavors. I also loved the refreshing all-American “ice cold milk-cereal,” a big oval of milk sorbet coated in corn flakes on top of a sliced banana. Pure genius. The desserts were a relief after a meal that proved every bit as frustrating as it was stunning.

In summation: With Alinea, Grant Achatz officially makes the leap from wunderkind to master. Doing cutting edge just to be cutting edge is no longer the goal; his debt to the comparatively restrained and seasoned Thomas Keller is more apparent as he asserts himself as a great chef. And clearly, Achatz, and even Cantu, can blow Wylie Dufresne out of the water in total mastery. But all four of these chefs keep pushing forward and don’t compromise: I approach each with a sense of wonder.

 


 

The Stats
Dinner prices and the number of courses are based on the writer’s meals at each restaurant.
Restaurant
Dinner
price
No. of
courses
Price
per course
Wine
price
No. of
wines
Price
per glass
Est. time
elapsed
Alinea
$175
per person
26
$6.73
$120
for two people
18
$6.60
5 1/2 hours
Moto
$160
per person
18
$8.89
$80
for two people
14
$5.70
4 1/2 hours
Per Se
$175
per person
9
$19.44
$175
per
person
7
$25
3 1/2 hours
WD-50
$95
per
person
12
$7.92
$45
per
person
7
$6.43
3 hours

ALINEA- 1723 North Halsted Street. Eight-course menu $75; 12-course menu $110; 20-plus-course menu $175. Dinner Wednesday to Sunday. Reservations: 312-867-0110.

MOTO- 945 West Fulton Market. Five-course menu $65; ten-course menu $100; 18- to 20-course menu $160. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Reservations: 312-491-0058.

PER SE- 10 Columbus Circle, New York City. Five-course, seven-course vegetarian, and nine-course chef’s tasting menus $175. Lunch Friday to Sunday, dinner nightly. Reservations: 212-823-9335.

WD-50- 50 Clinton Street, New York City. Nine-course menu $95. Dinner nightly. Reservations: 212-477-2900.

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