Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
The obligatory foam (brioche flavored, part of the luxe osetra caviar tableau that kicked off the meal) and the first trompe l'oeil (supple salsify jerky camouflaged among a nest of twigs, meant to be hunted more with the hands than the eyes) had already appeared. Soon there would be spectacles to make my friend and I smirk or gasp or laugh like children. But the fourth course of our dinner at Alinea startled by its disarming turn toward Americana simplicity.
One server placed on the table an opened aluminum can, its label reading: "Alinea Family Farms: Achatz Style Corn." Another staffer set down hollowed logs containing what looked like ears of corn, roasted in their husks. With a touch of the fork, the charred white and yellow corn niblets gave way to grits—nutty and wholesome but also extravagantly perfumed with truffles, manchego, ham, and sherry. (The can was meant to be a receptacle for discarded husks.) It came off as a cross between state fair food and the kind of sumptuous treat that Virginia colonists might have concocted for a special occasion. It was one of the night's most memorable dishes.