The Bottom Line
Six hundred Euros buys you a lot of tapas. It buys you flights to Madrid, and a nice hotel to stay in, and more than a few ice-cold glasses of Fino. But in an alternative timeline it can also buy you dinner for two, with a few glasses of wine, at the Spanish residency of a temporarily itinerant American restaurant that is regularly considered among the best in the world.
The rise of Alinea ran broadly in parallel to the rise of the internet as an echo chamber of intelligence surrounding high-end restaurants. Photos would trickle out, rumours of certain dishes and presentations that had to be experienced in person to be believed. But because of where the restaurant was located (no offence, Chicago, but in Carl Sandburg’s poem even the compliments sound like insults, you crazy hog butcher, you), and – more decisively – the impossibility of getting a reservation, dinner there was something I’d resigned myself to never experiencing, like Adria in ’03 or Jeremy Fox at Ubuntu.
You know how the next bit of the story goes. “So when I heard that Alinea was [verbing] in Madrid, I [verbed] at the [noun] and [adverbially] [verbed] the [adjective] [noun]”. And a couple of months later, there we were, my relatively recently be-ringed fiancée and I, celebrating nigh-on ten years with each other over food I never thought I would get to taste.
It all starts with a cube. Actually, it starts with a little package of radioactive green celery salt that you retrieve from a wall of moss and upend into a glass of Ruinart, but the first think you actually eat is a cube. A small, transparent one, with little colourful dots. It is, you are told, a hotdog – and when you actually eat it, it is, implausibly, exactly that. It is a perfect representation of what is to follow: miniature, astonishingly beautiful capsules of precise, bracingly clear flavours.
There are a few tiny flaws, moments when things wobble slightly off the axis. A homage to Miro – a Catalan – feels a little odd in the heartland of Franco’s regime. The cinnamon smoke that forms part of a witty nod to the Spanish love of tinned seafood is unpleasantly acrid. A wagyu beef course that has been quietly immolated under real coals on your table – the beef itself disguised as just another coal – is a little underwhelming. The Se7en-era Fincher meets H.R. Giger aesthetic common to many of Alinea’s presentations begins to grate after your fifth crucified prawn or flayed Thai curry croquette or impaled potato.
These tiny flaws aside, really what Alinea is is perfect. The service is the best I have ever experienced, anywhere: gracious and witty and cool and with the perfect amount of self-assured reverence for the food. Repetition aside, the presentation is frequently astonishing, from jewel-like single bites to the showstopping table-top desert, constructed with practiced nonchalance by the chef. The kitchen’s range – both in terms of techniques and cuisines covered – is extraordinary: dinner featured both the best ceviche and most intense rendering of the flavours of Thai food that I have ever tasted.
After a while, though – and I’m talking weeks later – its sheer perfection began to nag at me. We walked out completely sated – unlike certain professional eaters and opinion-havers, who posted a photo of the burger they'd felt compelled to eat afterwards, gross – so it wasn’t like we didn’t get enough food; rather it felt like in maintaining its steely focus on perfection, the kitchen had, at times, forgot to make the food legitimately delicious. Even the “fun” stuff (a dish called hot potato / cold potato, the table dessert) felt dreamed up through humourless groupthink. The one exception was an extraordinary helium-filled sour apple balloon – with apple leather string! – to which you were encouraged to deliver a trippy sort of Dementor’s Kiss, inhaling the gas, feeling the candy give way beneath your fingertips. It was funny, it tasted trashily of Chewits, it was messy.
Messy doesn’t get much of a look-in at Alinea. This is precision-engineered food as part of a precision-engineered experience. It probably goes down better in the jumble of glass-fronted skyscrapers and clanking L trains of its home city, but in a city like Madrid it felt too austere. The previous night, I had plotted a tottering, Manzanilla-fuelled course through a few sherry bars in the old town. I had a whole anchovy on toast and some Manchego at La Venencia (probably my favourite place to drink in the world); I had a plate of lamb sweetbreads that had been hammered on the grill, some patatas bravas, and about a gallon of beer at Casa Toni. Just somewhere in the perfectly-timed procession of courses at Alinea, it would have been nice to have had something that legitimately stopped you in your tracks, made you catch your companion’s eye, prompted embarrassing noises.
I worry that the precise and the delicious are slowly parting from each other’s company. It’s fuelled by noma, no doubt – the idea that clarity of flavour trumps the boring, old-fashioned, French excesses of butter and cream and other animal fat. Which of course, on an intellectual level, it does: anyone can make Robuchon-style mashed potato taste good; it takes real skill to coax something from a beansprout. That said, from time to time, I don’t give a shit about the intellectual level – I want something to luxuriate in, however sybaritic and passé that impulse may be. The ball-bearing-like flawlessness of dinner at Alinea is an achievement in its own right, the pinnacle for a certain kind of cooking and technique, but there are many more dinners – with peaks and troughs, sudden show-stopping moments of wonder – that I will remember more fondly. Was it worth the money I spent? Only a few months removed from buying an engagement ring, that’s a question I’m used to asking myself: after all, when you subtract the emotion, a jewel isn't much more than a fancy rock.