The Michelin star review came out a few weeks ago, and Chicago was given its share of glowing reviews and awards. As expected, Alinea came out with three stars for its stellar presentation, service, decor, inventiveness, Charlie Trotter’s, the Chicago institution, received two, and a sizeable handful of restaurants received 1 star.

Seriously? This is Art.

Michelin stars were originally designated by the Michelin Tire Company as a roadside guide to assist in helping the vacationing French population find food and lodging that was worthy of pulling off the motorway and adding to the overall enjoyment of a trip. It has since evolved into a high-stakes Zagat’s guide, more about showcasing the inventiveness and consistent creativity of the restaurant and the chef to create a full-scale dining experience for its guests.

As I read through the list of restaurants that had been awarded stars and dispensations, I saw the same familiar names. Rick Bayless’ Frontera and Topolobampo, both great and consistent restaurants, were there. So were Graham Elliot, Blackbird, Tru, Moto, L20, and many others that I recognized. With the exception of Moto, most of these establishments tend to stay away from Molecular Gastronomy, but, at least in those that I’ve had the pleasure of dining, they tend to make the dinner more about the experience as a whole, rather than simply sinking in to the flavors of a dish.

In Japan, there is the concept of Omakase (お任せ), that equates to leaving it to the discretion of the chef to create your dining experience. Here, we have the tasting menu, where portions of everything are served, giving you little bites and inklings of what the kitchen is capable of, and on what concepts your palate is willing to pontificate.

Most of the high end restaurants, where you’ll be expected to spend well in excess of $100/person when all the wine is served, have a tasting menu. I’ve been through a few in my life, most notably at the French Laundry in the winter of 2001, and it really plays to the strength of the kitchen that so many elements come together in harmony while giving you the flavor that evokes a very specific, visceral reaction.

This explains why Ratatouille is an excellent movie, but so much more.

Food has the power to transform and transport, and on the menu and in reviews, no restaurant has been more successful this year, or more talked about, than Grant Achatz’ and David Beran’s Next. The concept behind the menu is seemingly simple: variations on a theme, with their concept and entire menu changing quarterly. Thusfar, they have been inarguably successful with menus, in order, from a concept of Paris in the year 1906, Thailand, and according to reviews, the most personal menu of Childhood.

Through the brilliant idea of a concept album per menu, the dishes and feelings are stripped down and rebuilt on a frame of nostalgia. Courses appear at your place in a gift wrapped present, a lunchbox (offerings of fruit roll-up, pudding, and a note from dad), on a beater (as Foie-sting, a foie gras mousse accompanying donuts), and my personal favorite, a painted plate with a fisherman’s scene, reminiscent of many a refrigerator drawing.

I haven't even eaten here, and I get nostalgic.

And like everything else on the menu, it’s all eatable. Edible.

***

Through Grant Achatz’ twitter account, I found a companion chef who is doing something that I wish more people could take advantage of. Brandon Baltzley, with a Chicago restaurant pedigree broader than his 26 years, has opened up CRUX. I stumbled on it while leafing through his blog, also a great read, and while still curious about what’s happening behind its doors, I’m fascinated by the concept.

CRUX is a micro-restaurant. Two nights a week, their culinary collective gets together in the concept of shared fate with ten diners, and puts on a ten course menu that they have created, also using variations on a theme. As I’ve followed him on twitter, and continued reading  his blog on the evolution of the menu and its components, I become more interested in how these dishes come to be, and how a concept like this, where chefs are allowed to cook what they want, how they want, in an atmosphere that is less outwardly manic and instead insanely creative existing between the mind and the plate at their own pace.

It is a concept like this that makes me realize why I take pleasure from cooking from the mind. Yes, in a restaurant setting, under the watchful eye of an executive chef or silent partner, you can turn out incredible plates of food. Unburdened by the constraints of stifled creativity, as you cook for someone on your own terms, you come to understand more about who you are in your own kitchen.

Read Brandon’s blog. Tell me that a Dungeons and Dragons themed dish isn’t one of the most creative ideas you’ve heard in terms of concept, presentation, flavor, and execution. It’s remarkable, the ideas that spring forth when brainstorming what your dinner could be.

A little more on shared fate: As a diner, you are putting your trust in who is preparing your meal. With the concept of CRUX, a restaurant on such a small scale, (10 diners at a community table in a dining room the size of, well, somebody’s dining room), there is little buffer zone between the diners and the chefs. The feedback is immediate, and the chefs trust that their diners will be honest and open with it, as in this capacity, it serves to better the reality of their true cooking. It is to the advantage of both diners and chefs to be honest and equal with one another so that they can leave the table with an experience unmatched, one that is exclusively and authentically that of those in the restaurant at that moment in time.

I haven’t been to Next. I haven’t been to CRUX. I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity to go, but I’d like to find out more. As these concepts become clearer in the minds of their creators, I want to be aware of their evolutions. One of the largest oversights of the year, in many Michelin followers opinions, was that Next was not awarded a star. Some joked that maybe it was because the reviewers couldn’t get a reservation. Others said that it was because the reviewers didn’t know what to make of the menu. They said the same thing of el Bulli, unquestionably the most influential restaurant of the last 20 years, when it opened. Now it is the standard to which top restaurants are compared.

Baltzley has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before, according to his bio. It may not be necessary for CRUX to be awarded a star. In the way that you get to share something so personal and intimate as your own cooking with a select few, the satisfaction of a meal well-served may be enough. It may just be that stripping the veneer off the modern restaurant kitchen to get back to the heart of cooking may bring about a change in the way we view our food.

I look forward to it.

Microrestaurant Video 1 from Pouya on Vimeo.

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