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Wednesday November 16, 2005 // By Sandy

A night at Alinea

Sarah and I have a tradition. Every month we find a new restaurant and treat ourselves to a nice dinner. It started out, in the early days, as a way to celebrate our monthaversary, since our first date was on the first of the month. Forty months later, the need to celebrate our first date has grown less neccesary, but we still enjoy the opportunity to have a nice date. It also forces us to cook at home more often, so we can justify the big night out.

And then there are our birthdays. We both grew up with a healthy sense of entitlement about our birthday, for better or for worse. (Are there kids who don’t?) In the early days that meant parties with lots of gifts. Lately, it’s still meant parties, but the gifts abated in exchange for the opportunity to gather all our friends together. For Sarah and I, it’s also been an excuse to do our monthaversary dinners one better, and visit some of the city’s most fancy and innovative restaurants.

Last year we hit Arun’s. Sarah kept it a surprise to me up until we drove up to the restaurant. She even blindfolded me en route to the restaurant, so I couldn’t use visual cues to determine where we were going. (It didn’t work; the number and direction of our 90-degree turns tipped me off.) This year, it became clear early on, we had no choice: we had to visit Alinea.

Alinea been the darling of the foodie community since they opened up six months ago. Their bizarre and mind-bogglingly inventive menu has been featured all over the web in pictures and stories. Even more amazing was that follow-up stories—by people who swallowed the hype and tried it out for themselves—were all strongly positive. About six weeks ago, I called for a reservation, and on this past Sunday at 6:00, the night of my birthday, we walked through Alinea’s front doors.

To say our minds were blown would be understating it. The routine went like this: The plates would be placed before us. We’d lean in, cock our head from side to side, and try to reconcile the scene before us with our empirical understanding of “food.” Eventually, we’d turn, wide-eyed, to the waiter, who’d be standing by patiently, wondering how he got stuck with the newbies. He’d go through each element of the dish, often using words like “infused,” “foam,” and “atomized.” We’d slice, skewer, dip, pluck or otherwise consume a bite of the dish, look at each other slack-jawed in amazement, and fall back into our chairs wondering how, compared to this, we could ever eat another meal again. A motto developed for the evening: “What the fuck is going on in my mouth?”

I couldn’t help but take a picture of every course. Here are three:

Shad roe, pineapple, cucumber, coriander
Shad roe, pineapple, cucumber, coriander

Sliced opah, beans, freshly squeezed honey
Sliced opah, beans, freshly squeezed honey

White truffle explosion
White truffle explosion

(More photos are in this growing photoset on flickr. I’ll be putting more in there every day this week.)

The dinner took just over three and a half hours, just as we were warned. We worried about our ability to sustain a conversation for that long, so we came armed with crossword puzzles and even a travel Scrabble game, I’m now embarrassed to admit. Fact was, those three and a half hours went by fluidly, and we didn’t think once about breaking out the supplies. (It helped that the nearby table ordered the 25-course dinner, giving us ample reasons to stare and gossip about the strange dishes we were missing.)

When we walked out, we were perfectly sated. The thought of having to consume something as banal as cereal the next morning, to say nothing of all the rest of the meals for the duration of our lives, caused us sadness. We chose instead to recount each dish, one by one, and try to hold onto the memory of its flavor. I’m sure we both had very sweet dreams that night.

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