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Evergreen vapor and mozzarella balloons

Times Staff Writer

The waiter was grinning when he set the plates on our table.

“Pacific sea urchin,” he said, “with frozen banana, puffed rice and parsnip milk.”

I looked at my friend Bill. “We’re either at the wrong meal or in the wrong country,” I said. “This should be breakfast at a sushi bar in Tokyo.”

No. We were in the right place at the right time -- and this was just the third course in what would be a 26-course, 15-wine, four-hour dinner. Our dinner had begun with a thin sheet of green zebra tomato wrapped around a piece of watermelon, suspended in a juniper gel. It went on -- and on and on -- to include caviar with kola nut ice and milk foam; a liquefied “salad” made from greens that had been juiced, frozen and turned into a granite, a sort of a vegetable snow cone on a plate ... and eight desserts, including one made with foie gras and another composed of mustard seed cake encased in thin sheets of Venezuelan chocolate.

Welcome to Trio, the most avant-garde restaurant in America.

I’d been wanting to eat at Trio, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, ever since I heard the first excited rumblings about chef Grant Achatz two years ago. My interest was piqued anew in May, when he won the James Beard Foundation award as “rising star chef of the year.” A couple of months later, I saw his artistry on an episode in the Food Network show “Into the Fire” and knew I had to hie myself to Evanston as soon as possible.

En route to New York last month, I did just that.

It was a truly amazing experience. What Achatz is doing in his 13-table restaurant is nothing less than redefining fine dining in this country.

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We had a cheese course and our first three desserts halfway through the meal, for example, and then -- in effect -- started all over with seven more savory courses before we arrived (again) at the cheese course (this time an English Cheddar, aged in hop leaves, served with a Guinness beer gelee, dehydrated onion rings, a black pumpernickel tuile and pickled pearl onions). Then: five more desserts.

Risky and delicious

Every course at Trio seems as much intellectual exercise as culinary experience -- as much theater as restaurant. Take our 19th course. The waiter brought to our table a large, glass vase filled with long, green, leafy angelica branches. The bottom 6 inches or so of each branch had been hollowed out -- and filled with apple puree.

As instructed by our waiter, Bill and I each pulled a single branch out of the vase, lifted it above our heads, leaned back and sucked out the puree.

I later told Achatz that this presentation seemed more gimmickry than gastronomy -- a complaint I also had a couple of other times in the course of our truly extraordinary dinner.

He told me I was wrong.

“Sure, all you’re consuming is apple puree,” he said, “but if you did the research I’ve done, you’d know that angelica branches used to be hollowed out and used as straws to impart flavor to various drinks. Because they have a strong celery-like flavor, they’ve also been used as stirrers for bloody Marys.

“So how can you say it’s not gastronomic? I’m just playing off that, using history and an unusual element to give people a chance to do something different in a four-star restaurant.”

Achatz has always wanted to “do something different.”

Born and reared in Michigan by parents who owned a casual restaurant -- “the kind of place that people went to for breakfast after church on Sunday morning” -- he grew up in the kitchen, certain he’d be a very different kind of chef himself one day.

After attending the Culinary Institute of America and working briefly in two Midwest restaurants, he spent four years under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry before coming to Trio in July 2001. The restaurant had been in business eight years then but he transformed it.

The only restaurant I can really compare Trio to is Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, two hours north of Barcelona. So I wasn’t surprised when Achatz told me he’d spent a week in Adria’s kitchen two years ago, and the experience had an enormous impact on him. He said he came away both “flabbergasted by Adria’s creative sense” and emboldened to take risks, “to be as innovative as I could be.”

Innovative indeed.

He started our dinner with the tomato-watermelon dish, for example, to “ease you into the meal with a little sweetness and the contrasting texture of soft, supple gelatin and crisp watermelon to begin the rolling hills menu profile we like to establish in these lengthy meals.”

To make another dish, his “balloon of mozzarella” -- a futuristic take on the traditional salad of mozzarella, tomato and basil -- Achatz employs one of the foamers that Adria popularized. But he doesn’t use it to make foam. Instead, he uses it to force air into a sphere of freshly stretched mozzarella about the size of a tennis ball, making it almost mousse-like in consistency and leaving space for an injection of tomato water. He surrounds it with fresh basil leaves, serves it atop a basil vinaigrette and -- voila -- a magnificent insalata caprese, Trio-style.

Achatz also offers a nontraditional take on lobster -- serving it as what he calls “a crunchy lobster Cheeto -- a tapioca cracker made with lobster meat,” alongside fresh coral scrambled like eggs and mixed with bits of grapefruit and oxalis, a wild lettuce. The “tiny juice packets of grapefruit give an explosion of acidity,” he says, while the wild lettuce adds a note of sharpness. Both are designed to “cut the richness of the lobster and the coral,” and they do that most successfully -- a radical, high-end version of squirting fresh lemon on fish.

For one dessert, Achatz pushes a cold terrine of foie gras through a fine mesh screen and sets the resultant shreds atop a crab apple panna cotta with a cider glaze. Foie gras is so rich that it usually overpowers anything else on the plate, but in this dish, it’s just a subtle hint of something very different, the ideal accent for the fruit flavors.

Another dessert blends chanterelle mushroom ice cream and mint sorbet, layered atop each other. Yet another is a glass of mountain huckleberry juice aerated with carbon dioxide, served alongside a terrine of sage, corn, chocolate and pine nuts. Both -- all -- were superb.

Not all his dishes work, though. I thought the caviar, from California sturgeon, was overwhelmed by the kola nut ice and milk foam, just as I thought the banana overpowered the sea urchin.

Some of Adria’s creations might seem gimmicky at first -- and several of Keller’s are clearly whimsical -- but with both men, it’s clear that the intellectual experimentation is integral to the gustatory pleasure. With Achatz, some dishes that dazzle the mind and the eye aren’t always quite as dazzling to the palate.

But Adria is 41. Keller is 49. Achatz is just 29, and he’s still feeling his way, still experimenting, finding his own style. He’s not just pushing the envelope; he’s shredding it -- and then re-forming it, in different shapes, with different materials and in a far more radical fashion than the other widely heralded American food revolutionary, Roxanne Klein, who serves raw vegetarian food at her eponymous restaurant in Larkspur.

“It’s hard to do what we do and actually make it physically taste good,” Achatz says.

Still, most of his creations taste very good, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought goes into every one.

Desserts not saved for last

Achatz loves dessert. It’s one reason he structures the meal as he does.

“Most of the time when people have these long dinners, they’re full by the time they get to dessert,” he says, “so they only eat one or two. I want them to have some deserts halfway through, before they get full, and then more desserts at the end.”

I had plenty of room left for the final desserts, including my favorite -- which came in a glass tube. The tube was filled with fresh raspberry puree, clove, aspic, cream and rose-scented tapioca, all blended together. You hold the tube upright above your mouth and let the richly flavored and textured mixture slide over your tongue, a river of seemingly disparate tastes somehow held together by the beads of tapioca.

To emphasize the floral aroma, Achatz places a long-stem red rose on your plate.

The senses of taste and smell are, of course, deeply intertwined. Some food scientists say that 80% of what we perceive as taste is really smell. Achatz plays on that connection often -- and successfully. His rabbit comes atop a bed of cedar, fir and pine branches, over which the waiter pours boiling water. The resultant “evergreen vapor,” as the menu calls it, lends the dish a genuine forest aroma.

With Achatz’s “cap of beef” -- from the fatty, tender, muscled layer atop the prime rib -- the waiters grate Arkansas sassafras root over a hot rock to provide a spicy-sweet, almost perfume-like accompaniment.

Some of Achatz’s courses are -- like Keller’s and Adria’s -- just a single bite: a capsule of mango puree, yuzu and chili powder; an after-dinner “mint” made of horehound gelee and lime puree; a thin, quarter-sized wafer made of frozen muscadine grape and lemon verbina, served atop a large block of ice. Another wafer, a 1-inch-square “pizza,” uses fennel pollen -- “the key ingredient in flavoring pepperoni.”

Achatz is always tinkering with the menu, always adding new ingredients and new dishes, and the menu changes completely, albeit incrementally, about every six or eight weeks. He and his wait staff meet regularly to discuss the concept behind each of his dishes.

“If they don’t know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, they can’t explain it to the people who come here to eat, and then we’re dead,” Achatz concedes.

Explanation or not, some people just don’t want a science lab on their dinner plate or four hours at the table. Achatz says one woman walked out recently after three courses, grumbling that all she wanted was a steak.

“Not everybody has to like what I do,” he says. “I have to like it.”

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com

*

Trio

Location: 1625 Hinman Ave., Evanston, Ill., (847) 733-8746.

Price: Three prix-fixe menus: Four courses, $85; eight courses, $110; 24-course tasting menu, $175. Pairing wines with the 24-course, “tour de force” menu adds $95 to the bill.

Details: Open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner, Friday for lunch.


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