But the rice is as red and dry as Southwestern clay. The pulled pork — well, now, that's wonderful, succulent tangles of dark, moist pig. But the plantains are bland, pale yellow manhole covers. And the tortillas lack much distinction. Of course, you will never eat this at Alinea. You will never be invited to taco night here, where the 23-course dinner is your cheapest option, at $195 a head (before tax and tip).
On this Thursday, tacos are the late-afternoon staff meal before the Lincoln Park restaurant's celebrated dinner service begins: A cook pops into the dining room and tells chef Grant Achatz that taco night is on. Achatz stands and walks briskly to the kitchen, where a dozen staff members in pressed whites wait patiently, plates clutched to their chests. He walks to the front of the line and mumbles that the food looks good and loads up his plate.
He seems to relish, if only for a moment, the ordinary — then it's back to planning his new establishment, which is so audacious that only a taco night at Alinea sounds crazier.
His next restaurant is called Next, and it sprang from the antsier impulses of a chef who gets bored easily. Achatz first thought of it as a relatively modest bistro with extraordinary ambitions: Every three months Next would feature a new menu inspired by a different place and era — for instance, Prohibition Chicago for three months, then "Mad Men" New York for three months, then postwar Sicily for three months. But, in keeping with Achatz's innate restlessness, in the year since he announced Next, the project has morphed and expanded and gotten crazier. Next is still planning to serve authentic period-themed bistro menus ("Four-star dining at three-star prices," Achatz promises), but now that vision is somewhat closer to the opulence and invention of Alinea.
"We decided that no matter what it looks like in the end," Achatz said recently, "it's not going to be Epcot."
Once he and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, found the location and signed a 15-year lease, the details came fast: It would be on Fulton Market, on a corner storefront large enough to accommodate another of their brash ideas, a cocktail lounge next door called Aviary that wouldn't have a bar or even traditional bartenders, only table service.
And yet, with three Michelin stars to Achatz's name and many critics convinced that Alinea is now the best restaurant in the United States, Achatz and Kokonas are in an enviable position: They can do what they want. Or at least they have the encouragement to try. They've turned down the Chicago Gourmet festival. They've turned down offers to cook for Chinese President Hu Jintao. ("Serve the president of China in an hour? We don't do anything in an hour," Kokonas says.) They bankrolled the $2.2 million Next and Aviary partly themselves and partly through investors, whom they lined up without much effort. The Viking oven company even provided $100,000 ranges at next to nothing (plus an agreement that Viking can mention in its marketing that Achatz uses its stoves).
"Confidence brings things," says Thomas Keller, the famed chef at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., and Achatz's mentor. "The more recognition, the more it breeds confidence, which allows you to try things you wouldn't have had the courage to try earlier."
Take, for instance, Next's reservation system. There are no reservations. If you want to eat there, you will have to buy tickets through Next's website. So far, 15,000 have signed up to be notified when tickets go on sale. At first Achatz wasn't sold on tickets — just as Kokonas wasn't initially sold on the idea that Alinea, across from the Steppenwolf Theatre, should serve three-hour meals, ensuring that guests would never make a show. But Kokonas was adamant about selling tickets — nonrefundable tickets. He even hired a designer to build ticketing software. He wants to avoid the narrow profit margins Alinea runs into, he says: "One table of four cancels, we lose a chunk of revenue that night. Two tables cancel, we lose money."
The local restaurant scene mostly admires their guts. "Being in business is risk," says Rich Melman, founder of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which owns restaurants as varied as the Michelin three-star L2O and the fast-casual Wow Bao. "I've thought of a lot of ideas, but (selling tickets) has not been one of them. I like it. It's unique. And Grant is so heralded, that takes away some of the risk." Says Chris Pandel, chef at The Bristol in Bucktown, "Financially speaking, it's clever. It may be cavalier to be that inflexible, but if anyone can make it work, it's Grant."
Says Jeff Pikus, a former Alinea chef de cuisine who runs the kitchen at Maude's Liquor Bar: "Of course, you wouldn't open a restaurant like Next. But why you wouldn't is what makes Grant and Nick who they are. It's a matter of resources and will and talent. So, yes, I think they can get away with it."
Upstairs at Alinea, Dave Beran, the stoic 29-year-old chef whom Achatz has tapped to run the kitchen at Next, places before him a silver-plated egg holder. Inside is an eggshell with its top removed; the shell has been filled with salt cod, chopped truffle, custard.
"Is it delicious?" Achatz asks.
"It is, but — "
"If it's delicious, who cares?"