Alinea's Miami Stint Is More Than a Modernist Experiment

Two waiters dressed for a Milan runway cover a table with thin sheets of plastic. Around it, they station tiny bowls filled with liquefied sweets. After a few moments, Grant Achatz, mustached and dressed all in white with an expression as serious as a heart attack, appears. He dips a spoon into one of the bowls and flicks a pencil-thin line of molasses and bitter, herbaceous Fernet-Branca across the table. Then he swoops banana syrup atop the mixture. An assistant piles four bricks of steaming freeze-dried chocolate mousse in the table's center while Achatz scatters dulce de leche candy around them.

As the finale nears, Achatz and a short-haired lieutenant, similarly grim and dressed in white, toss a cloud of edible glitter into the air, covering everything like fresh snow. In short order, they slam glinting spoons onto the smoking chocolate, shattering it like a clay vase at a hammer's impact.

Over the years, photos and videos of this spectacle have poured out of Alinea, the Chicago temple of modernist cooking. This dessert, called simply "chocolate," sits near the apex of a handful of iconic dishes, all made to overwhelm, confuse, and captivate. Eating it is like popping chocolate ice into your mouth, only to find it soon dissolving like cotton candy. The cold gives way to the richness of a bittersweet mousse perfumed with banana and fragrant liqueur.

This opus and many others are available only until the middle of this month at Mid-Beach's Faena Hotel. The dozens-strong staff of Alinea will then wrap up a two-month sojourn in Miami and Madrid, made necessary by a renovation at the Chicago flagship for the restaurant's tenth anniversary. Tickets are sold out, though someone might cancel or a few limited, last-minute seatings could be released.

When Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas announced they were taking Alinea on the road, it seemed unlikely they would land in Miami. Though the city's food scene is steadily improving, it faces hefty competition from global culinary hubs. But the Faena Group, an Argentine development company helmed by the top-hatted and white-clad Alan Faena, called yearning to host the series of 17-course dinners.

"They expected me to say, 'There's no way we're going to do this in Miami when we could choose Paris or London or New York,' " Kokonas says.

It's hard to say what sealed the deal. Perhaps it was Faena's shiny new hotel. Or maybe it was how the leader embodied artistic eccentricity. Maybe it was Miami's perch on the global elite's itinerary or Damien Hirst's hulking, gilded mammoth skeleton presiding over the hotel's courtyard.

"We had to look for people who were into creating an experience, not just dinner," Achatz says.

So in mid-February, he and his column of cooks and servers arrived in Miami Beach to turn one of Faena's small lounges into a temporary space for one of the world's most closely watched restaurants. They created a space where dim reddish light bounces off towering white curtains with palm tree silhouettes, giving the room an intimate and mysterious feel.

The menu includes some of Alinea's greatest hits, as well as dishes inspired by Central and South America in an homage to both Miami and its Argentine hosts. If you follow Achatz and chefs like him, you'll need little incentive to drop the $660 (which includes tip and wine pairing) for one of these meals. Yet don't expect the kind of gut-busting satisfaction you find in a bowl of hand-stuffed agnolotti or a thick, dry-aged porterhouse. Alinea classics like dessert-as-performance art are meant to be fleeting sensory experiments as well as sustenance.

Things start humbly enough. Diners are welcomed by a "Greetings From Chicago" postcard featuring an image of the city's iconic hot dog. The same snack soon appears, but as a cube of crystal-clear gelatin that tastes just like the thing Chicagoans consume en masse. It's dotted with green, yellow, and orange droplets, providing the frank's tart mustard, snappy neon relish, and sweet and acidic tomatoes.

Then the Florida/Latin onslaught begins. An ornate, manhole-size glass plate arrives with a round of pristine osetra caviar at its center. Beneath it rest disks of papaya and plantain that jab with a stunning sweet-salty contrast. Next, the Cuban corn stew guiso de maíz appears in a dish shaped like an upside-down bowler hat. On the brim sit concentrated morsels flavored with chorizo, tomato, freeze-dried corn, and pumpkin seed. The main grab is a soup that looks like a soft-cooked egg. One pull through a metal straw and you're overwhelmed by a starchy burst of sweetness.

A "bouillabaisse" takes on local flavor with a wedge of red snapper that slips apart at the slightest touch. The plate is arranged in the style of a 1972 work by Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miró. A piece of paper printed with a beige template is splotched with free-form shapes of red, yellow, and blue. A glass plate, which the kitchen has painted with flavors in matching shapes, is laid on top. There's saffron-lavender aioli, a dash of orange vinaigrette, and a deep green that's a fragrant blend of dill, parsley, and fennel. You're tempted to treat it with respect, like the work of art on which it is based. But after tasting each concentrated element, there's bewilderment. Only when polite manners are tossed and each bite of snapper is smeared across all the sauces does it all make sense.

In Achatz's hands, the Brazilian seafood stew moqueca leans more toward Peru than its Portuguese-speaking home. An ornate bowl of it arrives nested in another holding dry ice. A server sets it down and pours in a citrus tea that begins billowing piquant smoke. It's a pleasant backdrop for Key West shrimp and cobia marinated in verdant leche de tigre and adorned with fluffy ginger snow and a brittle plank of yuca.

With this flurry of dishes come the classics that earned Alinea its dedicated followers. Some even phoned the restaurant shortly after the pop-ups were announced hoping to buy out full nights for a last chance to experience the restaurant's most famous dishes. Among these is the black truffle explosion. As you chomp down on the humble-looking ravioli crowned with a romaine flake and a Parmesan shaving, the inside of your mouth fills with butter and intense truffle broth. The burst of overpowering umami is enough to make your eyes roll back into your head.

Another signature, hot potato cold potato, lights up the table with sinister smiles. A needle is jabbed through the edge of a palm-size wax bowl filled with an ultra-rich potato-and-truffle soup. The needle holds a truffle shaving atop a cold potato sphere, a chive snippet, a butter cube, and a chunk of Parmesan. Once the ingredients are removed from the needle and placed into the soup, the two temperature elements fall together. Your mouth can't decide whether it's eating an ultra-luxe baked potato or cold potato salad.

At some point, a server places a stone bowl on your table, lights it in silence, and disappears. Your little corner of the restaurant takes on the pleasant smell of burning charcoal. It's a welcome, familiar feeling after a beet-and-goat-cheese salad cloaked in strawberry "spray paint" and chalky ash meringue. The server soon returns to unearth a nearly perfect cube of charred Japanese Wagyu that, when sliced, reveals a shimmering pink interior. The parrillada is complete once the velvety beef is laid alongside a fragrant lime-green chimichurri and warm yet crunchy romaine hearts. Whiffs of the grill still fill your nostrils as you're handed an iridescent balloon made of green-apple taffy. You spend the next few moments wishing for another slice of Wagyu as you try to peel the sticky candy off your face.

Such experimental cuisine is polarizing. People love it or hate it. But that misses the point. It's an experience. The great hope is that the restaurant's brief appearance here will signal to cooks and the dining public that there's more to Miami than travel guides let on. Perhaps Alinea — along with Joël Robuchon's forthcoming Design District restaurant — will persuade more of them to come to Miami. After all, the rent is still cheaper here than in most of the world's sprawling urban centers.

Alinea Miami
At Faena Hotel Miami Beach, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; alineainresidence.com/miami. Wednesday through Sunday 6 p.m. until late.

  • Dinner $275 to $385
  • Wine pairings $150 to $495

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