Anyone wondering why Cleveland restaurants rarely make snooty magazines' Top 10 lists need look no further than Chicago for an answer. In fact, we were ensconced at a table at Alinea, in the Windy City's artsy Lincoln Park neighborhood -- going gaga over a tempura-battered prawn, anchored by a vanilla bean and tucked inside a whisk-like serving piece dubbed "the squid" -- when it hit us: When it comes to cutting-edge cuisine, Cleveland's restaurants are barely packin' butter knives.
In comparison, top-rated Alinea arguably achieves art, changing the very way guests experience the process of dining. For this, credit youthful chef-owner Grant Achatz, whose sharply honed culinary riffs are equaled only by his imagination and daring.
Admittedly, it's his non-standard presentation that has earned the most ink -- especially his custom-designed utensils, with names like "the squid," "the bow," and "the antenna." Pragmatic Buckeyes that we are, the notion of rolling a bite of food off a pedestal and into our mouths, as opposed to attacking it with knife and fork, initially struck us as pretentious. But by the second course (a long yellow-tomato ribbon, incidentally, with garnishes that included a microscopic pickle, saffron threads, and a plump mozzarella "balloon," filled with tomato foam), Achatz had us eating out of his hand, wowed by the whimsy and Zen-like opportunity to actually concentrate on dining.
Of course, all this still would be just so much hype if the food didn't measure up. As it happens, though, Achatz' 12- and 24-course tasting menus -- intensely choreographed parades of astonishingly unique flavors -- are the real show-stoppers. Who knew the combination of peach, smoked paprika, curry, and carrot could bring a diner to her knees? Or that umami (the mysterious Japanese "fifth flavor") was the inevitable by-product of watermelon, cocoa, fennel, and Kobe beef?
Still, like most high art, the variety doesn't come cheap. Though we stuck with the smaller tasting menu, augmented by a minimal wine pairing, our tab for two still topped $400. At those rates, it's obvious that Alinea won't be coming soon to a strip mall in our 'hood.
Which isn't to say that's a bad thing. But when it comes to understanding why Cleveland's food scene generally flies beneath the nation's radar, it says quite a bit.