Discreetly located in a town house, Grant Achatz's famed restaurant is marked only by a valet's sandwich board at the curb. Inside, a dining room and glass-walled kitchen share the first floor; up a set of glass stairs covered by metal mesh mats are two more small, luxuriously spare dining rooms, where a daunting 18- to 22-course meal of experimental cuisine is the only option. One original that might still pop up on the frequently changing menu is the Hot Potato, a tiny bowl of chilled potato soup with a pin bearing a chunk of hot potato, Parmesan, butter, and a slice of black truffle—to eat it you slide the pin out so the potato and truffle drop into the soup, then slurp it as you would an oyster. Just so, the Alinea experience is tightly controlled, from the purchase of tickets that take the place of conventional reservations to the specific instructions as to how certain dishes should be eaten. Under less polished conditions this would be annoyingly pretentious, but the soothing rituals of fine dining can take the edge off the edgiest of cuisines.
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