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French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. (707) 944-2380 Alinea, 1723 North Halsted, Chicago, Ill. (312) 867-0110 Two chefs — one a master, one an upstart. Two restaurants — one a legend, one a laboratory. Two settings — one rustic, one modern. Earlier this year we had the chance to dine at both restaurants, the French Laundry in Napa Valley and the new Alinea in Chicago. While very different, both meals were incredible. At French Laundry we experienced food as Mother Nature provides it — the plumpest oysters, the earthiest mushrooms, the sweetest cherries. At Alinea we were offered tastes not found anywhere in nature — heart of palm stuffed with vanilla pudding, for instance, and a test-tube parfait of hazelnut purée, granola, and curry. There are many reasons French Laundry is considered the best restaurant in the country and superb food is just one. Situated in quaint Yountville, Calif., the restaurant’s serene environs put us immediately at ease. From the courtyard, where we sat before dinner, we were able to peer into the kitchen and were amazed by how calm the staff seemed. Chef Thomas Keller, perhaps the last person we expected to find working the kitchen on a Thursday night, stood near a window, peacefully trimming asparagus. Upstairs in an intimate dining room, our 12-course meal led off with a bite-size amusement of salmon tartar and red onion crème fraîche packed into a dainty pastry cone. That treat was followed by one of Keller’s signature dishes, “Oysters and Pearls.” The whimsical dish features a rich custard studded with oysters and pearl tapioca and topped with a glistening dollop of caviar. From there, we moved onto more substantial fare — crisp-skinned bass, sweet lobster claws, cherry-glazed duck breast, and an elegant take on meat and potatoes. By the time we had finished our final plate of sweets, Keller’s mastery had become evident. Each dish had appeal, but the real seduction was in the progression of flavors. At the end of the meal, satiated but not stuffed, we felt as though we had been transported effortlessly from one culinary delight to another, arriving at complete satisfaction. Our meal at Alinea was anything but effortless. At the end of that six-hour, 25-course tasting menu we were spent — and not just because it was past 1 a.m. The meal had lasted longer than it would take us to travel round trip from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. But more than that, it had been demanding in a way that dining rarely is — rather like viewing a piece of avant-garde theater. There were puzzles and revelations along the way: flavors and textures unlike anything we had ever experienced. We had no frame of reference for the meal we had enjoyed. In fact, we were not entirely sure we had enjoyed it in the conventional sense. Some of the courses chef Grant Achatz crafted were amusing, such as a grape (with stem attached) coated in peanut butter and encased in a thin wrapper of toast. The instructions were specific: Take the morsel off its stem in one bite. When we did, the sensation was strange, but the flavors were familiar — peanut butter and jelly, of course. In an interview with Food and Wine magazine earlier this year, Achatz said he aspires to make diners experience a range of emotions with his cooking: “It’s provocative food, and we want people to ponder it.” Still, many of Alinea’s creations were delicious as well as daring. One of our favorites was a small bowl of wild bass and water chestnuts set over a larger bowl filled with hyacinth blossoms. As the dish was presented, our server poured hot water over the flowers, releasing a spring-garden aroma. Achatz, just 31, began his culinary career in the late 1990s as Keller’s protégé at French Laundry. Now, Achatz has stepped fully out of his former mentor’s shadow and assumed a very distinct style. For our part, we would more readily return to dine with Keller. To us, eating out is about enjoyment. Our meal at Alinea, though unforgettable, didn’t give us as much pleasure as our visit to French Laundry. There it is the ingredients that express themselves, finessed under Keller’s able direction. At Alinea, Achatz’s artistry takes center stage; food just happens to be his medium.
Vanessa Blum can be reached at [email protected]. Phillip Dubé can be reached at [email protected].

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