Next has been the focus of attention for Team Achatz and much of the press for the past year, and just this morning they flipped the switch on the El Bulli menu hype machine with a tweeted photo (surely they can only get more interesting from here). But they also want you to remember that they have another restaurant you may have heard of, Alinea by name, and at the industry confab Gastronomika 2011 in Spain, Grant Achatz showed that some of Next’s theatricality and desire to tell stories and evoke emotions through dishes is beginning to rub off on the original. According to Eater, Achatz floated several notions of how music and atmosphere could become more involved with the dining experience— musicians effectively scoring the meal, or diners moving from one place to another as they ate. And he cited something they did during the recent visit of Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm, where canapes were hidden under a table covered with leaves, which (once brushed off) remained on the floor around the table as part of the atmosphere, creating a kind of woodsy space within the clean white modernity of Alinea.
It’s not that we expect these ideas, which are somewhat obtrusive into the dining experience, to literally manifest themselves at Alinea, but Achatz has long had a fascination with synaesthesia, the 19th century concept of wedding multiple senses in a single aesthetic experience. One of the dining rooms at Alinea has a system of LED light tubes capable of painting the room in different colors of light; with their resemblance to a pipe organ against the wall, they immediately made us think of the composer Alexander Scriabin and his colour organ which produced sound and colored lights in synchrony. (Well, okay, after we first thought of The Abominable Dr. Phibes.) Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of Decadent literature A Rebours contains a passage which extends Scriabin’s notion of uniting sound and color to taste and, in the process, demonstrates how rarefied such sensual pleasures become:
This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap…
Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics…
He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,–the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin…
These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.
Not a concept likely to catch on with the general public, to be sure, though we’d love to see a Next theme inspired by A Rebours (ending with the all-black course the protagonist serves to commemorate the death of his potency). But we’re not the only one sent into flights of literary fancy by Achatz’s thoughts here; the blogger Ulterior Epicure also was inspired by thoughts of how one could turn the Alinea experience into more of a theatrical endeavor. Currently, he says, dining is about breaking down the fourth wall, with kitchen tables and chef-diner interactivity:
At Eleven Madison Park, for example, cooks are coming out of the kitchen to present dishes to the diners, and, in some cases, diners are being invited into the kitchen to have a cocktail course among the cooks. The line between table and stove is blurring.
At the extreme end, the dining experience is being pushed into theatre in the round, with chefs, like Achatz, coming out of the kitchen to plate dishes directly on the table, creating an edible, three-dimensional walk-around with no front or back. It’s genius to some, it’s merely performance art to others. Either way, it takes dining beyond traditional conventions.
How far can this go, he asks— or “Is there a limit to how much the proscenium can be moved, or removed?”
Rumination 16: Proscenium… [Ulterior Epicure]