Bacon on a trapeze

I realize I’m coming to the party about three years too late. Postmodern cuisine–you know, that wacky food created with foam, lasers and the powdered essence of an extinct Chilean tree frog–has seen its star begin to fall into the centrifuge of weird gastronomic trends.

Kind of like aspic. Or the whole resurgence of lettuce wedges.

But come on. Even on the downhill slide, having someone bring a hissing pan of liquid nitrogen to your table is a damn lot of fun. Especially when they ask you to eat what’s in it.

Part of my recent trip to Chicago was to immerse myself in the post-modern gastronomy movement. Two of its most celebrated proponents, Alinea and Moto, have gained international notoriety for serving, er…bacon on a trapeze, among other things in epic 12 and 24-course eat-a-thons.

Here you don’t just eat dinner, you experience it. These are dishes that require extensive explanations recited with spelling-bee accuracy. (At Alinea, you won’t get a menu, anyway. Instead you get ‘surprises’. At whiz-kid younger brother Moto, you get an edible menu. Seriously.)

These meals require the use of words like ‘vessicle’ and ‘sous vide’ and ‘explosion’. There are warnings (I kid you not, there is danger involved); dozens of sets of place settings; butt-numbing endurance; and ultimately simply letting go to the wonder and fantasy that is unfurling before you.

Everywhere, what you see is not what you see. That little piece of penne pasta is actually a lychee! Hah! That little piece of beef is shaved chocolate! That piece of cake is actually a vacuum-expanded beet! Imagine that!

Every bite is an exclamation point, performed with an infectious enthusiasm. And damn if I didn’t catch a little of it, clapping in glee at the little tubes of pureed morels unbottled with satisfying ‘flwump’. I gasped at a single fork of tweezer-placed microgreens! Ohmygod! Can you believe the hands-free dessert of cake and spun sugar that’s bobbing in front of my mouth like an eyeball? Or the the meyer lemon foam, cotton candy paper and ‘shooter’ of horseradish truffle and celery juice (a rather nasty surprise). Our tour of the Moto kitchen even required special eye protection and a laser demonstration. Pinch me, Alice, I’m dreamin’!

Both dinners were, in a word, outrageous. Both dinners were unforgettable and worth every penny (upwards of $250 each). But ultimately, I’m left a little hungry.

Yes, I mean literally hungry (microgreens and foam, you may be surprised to find out, aren’t that filling). But also, hungry for something a little less philosophical on the plate–something that doesn’t require me to ponder whether that soba noodle on the plate is really a soba noodle-or an extruded puree of fried rice with big ambitions.

Don’t get me wrong, I also sometimes find our overly precious, introspectively organic California cuisine a little on the philosophical side, too. Seriously, I want a carrot, not a dissertation.
You have to wonder, however, how long all this gastro-naval-gazing is actually going to last–here at home, in Chicago, New York or elsewhere. Food has become so preoccupied with itself that eating can be an exhausting lesson, rather than a meal. Not to mention the kind of guilt inherent in spending the aforementioned $350–even for food art–when others are starving.

But there I go getting all philosophical. Man, I need a taco. Hold the microgreens.

Alinea, 1723 North Halsted, Chicago, Illinois, 312-867-0110
Moto, 945 w. fulton market, chicago, Illinois, 312.491.0058