Last evening, four of us enjoyed a cutting-edge culinary experience at Chef Grant Achatz's 7-week-old restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago. Nicko, Colleen, my husband and I met at the restaurant at 6:00. If it weren't for the valet parking guys out front and the discreet address numbers, we'd not have known we'd found it. The valet asked for the name on our reservation before taking the keys from my husband. The two story building is painted flat black and is fronted by two large bay windows that reach almost across the width of the building. As we stepped inside, we were drawn forward by the unusual hallway. Lavender-colored fluorescent lights gave soft illumination; the hallway gradually narrowed and the ceiling lowered until we were almost at the end of the hallway. Just as we did, we saw steel double doors to our left; they whisked open, showing us into the entryway where Nicko and Colleen sat waiting for us. Beyond their seats was the kitchen: a very quiet, carpeted room full of intently-working chefs. We were guided up stairs to the second level and shown into the dining room at the front of the building. (There were two others: one directly below us on the ground floor, and another at the rear of our upstairs dining room.) The decor was spare but not stark by any means. The walls were painted a warm beige color; one was accented by a large earth-tone painting of a tranquil river landscape. The opposite wall, along which we sat, was washed with soft light and accented in several spots by tall, rectangular vases. In them were branches from fig trees, complete with inch-sized real figs still attached, and complimented by stalks of yellow yarrow flowers. We were ushered to a side table; Colleen and I sat on the cushiony banquette, while our spouses sat in arm chairs upholstered with creamy fabric. On the black-painted tables were small, weighted stainless steel disks with copper inserts. We soon found out the function of the metal disks. Our server greeted us cordially and asked us whether we knew what our plans were: to choose on of the multi-course, fixed menus or look at the menu. Since I was eager to see the menu, we did take a look. The three menus were overlaid by a translucent sheet which had a line of various-sized circles running down the page. The server explained that the circles were to designate the relative size of each dish. Their left-to-right orientation indicated the degree of sweetness (more right) or savoriness (more left). We were also told that the intensity of the circles' color indicated the relative intensity of each dish's flavors. After some discussion, we decided to go with a 12-course meal. This may seem outrageously large, but you must keep in mind that some courses were no more than a bite or two. We chuckled that we might want to stop on the way home for a snack! Still, we decided to trust Chef Achatz. We were asked to choose a type of water to be served with our meal (mineral, filtered or sparkling); we chose filtered, and it didn't disappoint with its clean taste. We had started with a complimentary glass of blush sparkling wine. Three of us also ordered a glass of a delicious white wine, the description of which I'll leave to Nicko. He later ordered a glass of a red which he enjoyed very much. Before service, our table was decorated by a cluster of freshly-cut ginger. The root was literally pinned together with graceful steel pins and provided a lovely focal point on the table throughout the meal. As we waited for the revelry to begin, we noticed a table of five men dining across the room. It was interesting to see various dishes arrive at their table, and to speculate on what they were. At one point the servers brought what looked like thin, white pillows (a couple of the men promptly named them nap pillows... too many glasses of wine, perhaps??). Small ones were brought to us as well; it was explained that our clean tableware would be placed on them. At last, the first course arrived. It was Chef Achatz's signature amuse bouche: a deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It came on what I can only describe as a small, fine-wired sauce whisk whose wires had been cut just before the balloon, and bent outward at a 90 degree angle. The next fit precisely into the copper insert in the metal disk. In this "nest" rested a very large Thompson seedless grape on the stem. The grape had been peeled, dipped with unsweetened peanut butter (made in-house, of course), then wrapped in a tissue-thin slice of baguette. The whole had been gently warmed and toasted, and was still warm as we popped it into our mouths, Cleopatra-style. The flavors of a childhood PB&J filled our mouths. Next came a flight of five hearts of palm, each resting on a tiny pedestal and stuffed with different fillings. (Think of pieces a bit larger than those Combos stuffed pretzels.) The pedestals were arranged one after another, going from the diner to the center of the table. The server explained that the flavors gradually intensified. (The pedestals sort of reminded me of the "pillows" used by the ancient Egyptians.) The first piece was stuffed with vanilla pudding, and topped by avocado bits and a micro-thin slice if Thai chili. The second piece was stuffed with a fava bean paste and topped by a tiny twist of candied Meyer lemon rind. The third piece was filled with toasted bulgur wheat, dressed with aioli and topped with a thin sliver of toasted garlic. The next piece was filled with plum paste and topped with finely minced Nicoise olive bits. The final piece was filled with a pumpernickel paste and topped by a slice of black truffle accented with a single grain of puffed rye. Each piece provided a different spectrum of flavors. My favorite was the final one. Each bite gave us a chance to exchange our perspectives. The third course came in a large bowl. (All serving pieces, except for the first, where white porcelain and anything but standard!). This dish was a take on ham and peas, but nothing like the usual! Very sweet, young peas floated in a soy milk broth, accented with four mounds of soy foam. Each mound was topped by a violet-colored flower which tasted like spearmint. To one side was a dollop of yuzu puree (an Asian citrus fruit). A thick chip of charred ham and a crispy strip of toasted yuba (soy "skin") finished the dish. The yuba had a savory flavor we all liked. The soy broth cut the salt of the ham and complimented the sweetness of the peas well. The mint- well, minted peas is something many of us are familiar with. The next course featured lobster. Since my husband eats no seafood, he was presented with a bowl of porcini mushroom broth, which tasted profoundly of the delectable mushroom. He enjoyed it very much. The rest of us enjoyed the lobster course. The bowl had citrus broth in which four nice pieces of lobster bathed. Two intensely orange squares of carrot "ravioli" contained powdered, intense coconut which blended with the moisture in our mouths and delivered a powerful, creamy flavor. A lobster cracker topped the dish. This reminded me of the Asian snack food which is made with shrimp paste and looks a bit like Cheetos. This cracker had been extruded; it looped and curled, creating a beautiful swirl atop the dish. It was intensely lobster-flavored. The three of us could have done with a very large second serving of this dish! Dish number five was a Mediterranean mosaic. A semifreddo of seasoned eggplant puree was topped by toasted chick peas, grilled baby octopus tendrils, mung bean sprouts, and thin slices of raw Green Lake green beans. A savory soy foam and cilantro completed this dish. We marveled that the tiny sprigs of octopus were perfectly cooked, not chewy or rubbery but perfectly toothsome. Again, my husband's choice not to eat seafood was honored; he was presented with the "steak and A-1" dish. A small piece of rare beef rib eye was accompanied by three dollops of garlic mashed potatoes and a trail of unusual fruit and vegetable bits which comprised the deconstructed A-1 sauce: stewed raisin, oven dried tomato, etc. He enjoyed this one very much. At this point the server brought a plate with two quenelles of butter, some bread plates and knives. The paler of the two quenelles, she explained was goat butter from Quebec; the golden yellow one was Wisconsin butter. (My husband and I grinned at this disclosure.) We were offered from among four breads: moist, rich pumpernickel-onion, sweet fennel-raisin (KyleW, I thought of your raisin-semolina twists!), a little sourdough chapeau, and a perfectly round multigrain roll. The server came several times to offer us the chance to taste all four if we liked. Course number six featured squab and foie gras. Three ruby slices of roasted squab sat atop a small slice of foie gras, which melted into the onion confit below it (liver and onions?). The garnish was a strip of fennel gelee, a shred of charred fennel, a tiny square of fresh watermelon and a little cube of candied watermelon rind. A very savory, intensely flavored dish. The seventh dish was bison. A medallion of juicy, well-marbled bison was garnished with a sliver of dried fennel. The sliver was embellished by a touch of bright-flavored fennel pollen. Beside this was a dollop of fennel puree teamed with red beet puree. (There was a sauce on this, but I was too distracted to write it down.) One small, roasted golden beet sat like a tawny jewel on the white plate. Next to it was a ruby puddle garnished with a tiny fennel frond. This was a skin of beet juice which had been gelled with agar-agar. Beneath it lay a creamy pile of tiny, diced bits of corned bison in anise vinaigrette. A reddish patch of powdered beet and blueberry completed the plate. Number eight.... well, this was the most unusual and left all of us confused, to be honest. We were told it was a transition to the dessert portion of the menu. A single forkful was presented. A small rectangle of what we were told was tobacco crème was topped by 1/2 of a blackberry. A small blade of thyme and a microscopic pile of smoked salt and milled pepper accented the berry. Our server told us that the flavors would blend and taste like a fine red wine. The flavor escaped me, and I don't think the others captured it either. Let's just say it was interesting! Walnuts and blue cheese make a fine cheese course, which was course nine. This version was demonstrative of Grant Achatz's technical skill. A gelee-bubble of grape juice (unsweetened, to my taste buds) was dusted with fine grains of Maytag blue cheese and magically filled with walnut cream. Beneath the globe (a little smaller than a ping-pong ball) were vinaigrette and a few very thin slices of celery. The bubble was topped with tiny sprigs of wild celery. You have to like blue cheese to enjoy this dish, as Colleen found out. Dish ten delighted us and made me think of comfort food. A half-inch thick disk of corn custard, which was filled with wildflower honey, topped with a bit of vanilla granita, grated toasted cornbread and ground tonka bean (an African bean with flavors of coffee and .... well, it was bitter but pleasant). Kernels of freeze-dried corn gave a different sweetness and crunch to the dessert. Chocolate lovers like Colleen were not let down by Chef Achatz. Two chocolate desserts arrived on our eleventh plate. A square of chocolate, filled by a not-too-sweet ganache sat on one side, and a quenelle of dark chocolate sorbet with powdered banana beside it was on the other. Beneath the sorbet was minced, candied dandelion root. Both desserts were garnished with crushed wafer cookie and flourishes of chocolate and caramel sauces. As our watches showed 9:30, the final dish arrived: a square of sponge cake impaled on a vanilla bean sat in custard foam which was dusted with bright red, sour cherry powder. Delicious, and easily-recognizable as dessert. Pots of chamomile-mint tea (for Colleen and me) and coffee (for Nicko) arrived as we were finishing our dessert. Since our server had neglected to bring them when promised, we were not asked to pay for them. It was the sole glitch in the evening's service. In fact, we were relieved to find that the servers were friendly and worked hard to make sure patrons didn't feel intimidated by the unusual cuisine. In spite of the sizes of the dishes, we were surprised to find we were pleasantly full. The tab came to about the same as our visit to Tru a couple of years ago. Unless you're very well-heeled, this makes Alinea a special occasion restaurant. I wouldn't expect to be seated there without a reservation for some years to come! On our way out we were passed in the lobby by a man whom I am quite sure was New York chef Rocco DiSpirito. He went down the hall to the kitchen and was immediately surrounded by smiling chefs, who lined up to shake his hand. As we walked to our cars at 10:00, we agreed this had been a remarkable experience for all of us.