Third in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.
Achatz is a wunderkind-chef now in his late thirties, and Alinea presents his debut restaurant, opened in Chicago in 2005 and now regarded one of the world’s best.
Alinea seats 64 diners for its nightly tasting menu of “upward of 28 courses” -- some of which are a single bite and most of which are more likely to be plated using tweezers than tongs. It’s “molecular gastronomy,” which I’d associated with manufacturers’ artificially processed food-like substances, but which actually is just playing with the physical and chemical properties of food. Achatz focuses on a food’s flavor, then creates interest (and usually surprise) by manipulating its appearance, texture and temperature -- for example, reducing lettuces to an intensely flavored liquid that is frozen and served as a sort of sorbet and topped with a salad dressing that has been similarly transformed.
Like diners who enter his restaurant through a monochromatic hallway, so too readers open the black-and-white cover of this oversized, overweight coffee-table book and find themselves transported, Wizard-of-Oz style, into hundreds of stunning color photographs (see some in the restaurant’s gallery). The book opens with 50 pages of terrific get-acquainted essays about Achatz and Alinea, followed by 350 pages of recipes and detailed procedures for preparing the approximately 100 dishes from four seasonal tasting menus. It’s armchair reading, or kitchen-table reading -- but only to rest the book on the table, not because you’re going to prepare many (any) of the recipes. I would have liked Achatz to deconstruct a menu thematically, but perhaps theme, more than technique, is his trade secret.
I came to this book simultaneously impressed by Achatz’s originality and derisive of most culinary over-the-topness. I come away in awed respect and with a desire to find the $200+ per-person for an evening at Alinea the restaurant. Meanwhile, Alinea the book exceeds 5 stars.
P.S. What’s the most ironic disease for a chef who puts flavor first? Take a look at this New Yorker profile.