Chefs At Play

A pair of Chicago’s finest chefs challenge diners to rethink everything they know about food.
Are you still working on that menu?” my server inquires. She isn’t asking if I’m done reading it. She wants to know if I’ve finished eating it.
That’s because the bill of fare is printed in black squid ink on a crunchy cracker. This is how my evening begins at Moto, the Chicago restaurant where chef Homaro Cantu uses science and technology to create new foods and a wholly original dining experience.

The night before, I was in another part of Chicago, having an equally unusual meal at Alinea. It recently garnered the No. 1 spot on Gourmet Magazine’s list of the country’s top 50 restaurants, and in May owner Grant Achatz snagged the James Beard Award for best chef in the Great Lakes region. My first course there was a crispy little smoked steelhead roe croquette, garnished with flecks of fried capers and candied endive. It was perched on a ceramic pedestal and came with instructions to toss it into my mouth and squish before swallowing. With a surprising squirt, a warm, creamy liquid gushed out.

It might seem excessive to drive 300 miles for dinner, but not when you’re visiting places like these. Achatz and Cantu are doing food like nobody else — rethinking every aspect of cooking, transforming rather than merely combining ingredients. At Moto, vermicelli is made from passion fruit and the macaroni is as crunchy as breakfast cereal. Alinea’s chef-chemists turn Guinness into a strangely wonderful jellied sheet, then drape it on short ribs. The approach has been labeled futuristic, hypermodern and deconstructionist. The presentation is pure theater, intended to provoke, engage and amuse.

Ingenious utensils and outlandish contraptions are standard at Alinea. For no apparent reason, a piece of butterscotch-kissed bacon, ribboned with dehydrated apple, is suspended from a metal frame reminiscent of an orthodontic appliance. In comparison, a skewer threaded with morsels of Parmesan, butter, hot potato and black truffle and inserted through a paraffin bowl is genius: Pull the pin, and it all plops into a puddle of cold potato soup. Something delicious happens that could not have been achieved if the elements were combined in advance.

One of the most memorable courses — the sixth in a progression of 14 tastings over four hours — is called, simply, Duck. To prepare for its arrival, two very well-dressed and deathly serious servers appear, each holding a large puffy pillow like ring bearers at a wedding. They place them on the table with a ceremonial flourish. Then another pair of men, also in suits, arrive with a few forkfuls of food on oversized plates.
These are precisely placed atop the pillows, which are in fact more like linen-covered air mattresses — that leak. They slowly deflate, releasing a distinctive lavender aroma. The scent is in our noses while the duck is in our mouths. There are three versions of bird: cured breast, confit and crisped skin. As I eat, the smell and the flavors marry to great effect, but the ritualistic pomp of the staging has my girlfriend and I choking back the giggles.

Little did we know things would get much funnier. One of our desserts consists of a black fuzzy orb (licorice cake) bobbing at the end of a long, curved antenna. The protocol, we are informed, is to snap it up in mid bounce — sans hands. “Open wide and put the whole ball in your mouth at once,” the server says with a perfectly straight face.

Cantu generally prefers his paraphernalia high-tech, in the form of lasers and canisters of nitrogen, and keeps most of it in Moto’s kitchen. But his unrestrained food play prompts plenty of laugh-out-loud moments too, because each course offers a mouthful of surprises.
The yellow sauce for the swordfish is liquefied popcorn. It tastes exactly like the stuff at the movies. My lychee rigatoni looks just like its flour-based namesake, but it’s cold and juicy. Paired with white chocolate and Explorateur triple crème puree, it makes for a most unusual — and fabulous — fruit and cheese plate. Cotton candy is served as a picture on a piece of “paper.” But as the drawing dissolves on my tongue, there’s no doubt that it is cotton candy.

My favorite encounter with Cantu’s shape-shifting edibles is the final course. I see nachos but my tastebuds send a different message to my brain. The corn chips were sweet, the “ground beef” proves to be frozen, extruded chocolate and the green “salsa” is a kiwi sauce. Solidified and grated mango sorbet masquerades as cheddar cheese, and pureed cheesecake stands in for sour cream. It’s a wonderful edible joke and my server watches me “get” it with visible delight.

Menus at both restaurants are fixed and pricey. The only choice is the number of courses and whether to spring for matching wines. Concepts drive these culinary cowboys, and they don’t merely break the rules, they act like there aren’t any. Some of what results seems silly, more gimmick than good. But at its finest, all this manipulation leads to dishes that are positively inspired. Foods reveal their essence. Flavors are intensified. Textures astonish. And eating is an entertaining exploration of an uncharted gastronomic dimension. |!|
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