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Why the world doesn't care what Cleveland's cooking.

Anyone wondering why Cleveland restaurants rarely make snooty magazines' Top 10 lists need look no further than Chicago for an answer. In fact, we were ensconced at a table at Alinea, in the Windy City's artsy Lincoln Park neighborhood -- going gaga over a tempura-battered prawn, anchored by a vanilla bean and tucked inside a whisk-like serving piece dubbed "the squid" -- when it hit us: When it comes to cutting-edge cuisine, Cleveland's restaurants are barely packin' butter knives.

In comparison, top-rated Alinea arguably achieves art, changing the very way guests experience the process of dining. For this, credit youthful chef-owner Grant Achatz, whose sharply honed culinary riffs are equaled only by his imagination and daring.

Admittedly, it's his non-standard presentation that has earned the most ink -- especially his custom-designed utensils, with names like "the squid," "the bow," and "the antenna." Pragmatic Buckeyes that we are, the notion of rolling a bite of food off a pedestal and into our mouths, as opposed to attacking it with knife and fork, initially struck us as pretentious. But by the second course (a long yellow-tomato ribbon, incidentally, with garnishes that included a microscopic pickle, saffron threads, and a plump mozzarella "balloon," filled with tomato foam), Achatz had us eating out of his hand, wowed by the whimsy and Zen-like opportunity to actually concentrate on dining.

Of course, all this still would be just so much hype if the food didn't measure up. As it happens, though, Achatz' 12- and 24-course tasting menus -- intensely choreographed parades of astonishingly unique flavors -- are the real show-stoppers. Who knew the combination of peach, smoked paprika, curry, and carrot could bring a diner to her knees? Or that umami (the mysterious Japanese "fifth flavor") was the inevitable by-product of watermelon, cocoa, fennel, and Kobe beef?

Still, like most high art, the variety doesn't come cheap. Though we stuck with the smaller tasting menu, augmented by a minimal wine pairing, our tab for two still topped $400. At those rates, it's obvious that Alinea won't be coming soon to a strip mall in our 'hood.

Which isn't to say that's a bad thing. But when it comes to understanding why Cleveland's food scene generally flies beneath the nation's radar, it says quite a bit.

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