My ‘Next’ Dinner, in Photos

Next is a ‘special-occasion’ restaurant in Chicago conceptualized by executive chef (and master of molecular gastronomy) Grant Achatz. It’s not your normal restaurant. You don’t make reservations; you buy tickets months in advance (which cover gratuity, taxes, and — if you want — beverage pairings).  You don’t order off a menu; you are presented with a multi-course culinary experience of Achatz’s choosing. And the restaurant doesn’t have a ‘type,’ per se.  Every four months, the cuisine offered shifts radically. From vegan to Thai to steak, to the food of Paris in 1906.  Hence, one wonders what’s ‘Next.’

I’ve had tickets to Next on three occasions.  Through a series of unfortunate events — one of which involved my boyfriend of two years breaking up with me three hours before our reservation — I had never actually gone before. So I was a tad nervous when my good friend AKD sold me her tickets that she was sadly unable to use. I figured the third time would be the charm, or serve as a final strike … and a sign I should no longer attempt to go to this restaurant.

But attempt I did, with my friend Heddy. The current theme is Modern Chinese, and it was wonderful, from amuse-bouche all the way to dessert. Unlike my trip to Alinea — Achatz’ other restaurant, which has appeared on the top-10 of all North American dining establishments (along with French Laundry, Per Se, Red Lobster, etc.) — I had bites of food that were simply sublime. The focus, I felt, was a little less on the pageantry and more on the taste bud engagement. So quickly, I’d like to share photos of my experience — mostly for AKD so she can live vicariously, but also to capture this once-in-a-lifetime meal for posterity.

Ordinarily I try not to eat much meat, but when dining out, especially at noteworthy restaurants, I tend to let this tradition slide, because I want to eat the meal as the chef intended. And it’s a good thing, because if I’d avoided mammals this night, I would have missed out on a lot.

I am using (in quotations) the descriptions provided for us at the end of the meal on a nice ‘fortune’ slip, but the description narrated by the waitstaff  at the time was infinitely better. Also, we missed photographing a couple of the courses. ALSO, because this is my awkward life, they told me to be discreet with my camera, so some of the pictures are snapped hurriedly (and all without flash, of course).

The "playbill" welcoming us to our evening and describing the 'Modern Chinese' concept.

The “playbill” welcoming us to our evening and describing the ‘Modern Chinese’ concept.

 

This 'centerpiece' of Chinese okra, cilantro, parsley, and ????? was crushed using a French press to create ...

This ‘centerpiece’ of Chinese okra, cilantro, parsley, and ????? was crushed using a French press to create …

... this savory, room-temperature broth

… this savory, room-temperature broth

'Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus ... Pork Dumpling with Jujube and Cuttlefish ... Congee as a Hot Foam with Pork Floss.'   The 'hot foam' was some of the best stuff I've ever eaten. Buttery, rich, amazing. And the dumplings, while they look like standard gyoza, were not dough at all, but actually made from the processed scallop and pork, respectively.

‘Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus; Pork Dumpling with Jujube and Cuttlefish; Congee as a Hot Foam with Pork Floss.’
The ‘hot foam’ was some of the best stuff I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, rich, amazing. And the dumplings, while they look like standard gyoza, were not dough at all, but actually made from the processed scallop and pork, respectively.

MISSED PHOTO: ‘Monkfish with White Asparagus in a Roasted Spine Broth’  This was a beautifully presented soup.  The monkfish was tender, the asparagus was al dente and as wide as hearts of palm.  Refreshing.

Ice made from fresh coconut water was ground tableside ...

Ice made from fresh coconut water was ground tableside …

...to create this, probably my second-favorite dish of the night. 'Crab with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut.'  Amazingly good salad.  We wanted to gnaw at the coconut itself but were lacking the hammer and nail.

…to create this, probably my second-favorite dish of the night. ‘Crab with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut.’ Amazingly good salad. We wanted to gnaw at the coconut itself but were lacking the hammer and nail.

'Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan; Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac; Skate Chops in the Style of Muslim Lamb'  The squab (which is just pigeon, right?) was fried lightly and utterly delicious. Another one of my favorite things of the night. The skate chop was one bite if intense flavor -- a bit heavy-handed on the paprika. And the salad was a nice, light accompaniment.

‘Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan; Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac; Skate Chops in the Style of Muslim Lamb’
The squab (which is just pigeon, right?) was fried lightly and utterly delicious. Another one of my favorite things of the night. The skate chop was one bite if intense flavor — a bit heavy-handed on the paprika. And the salad was a nice, light accompaniment.

 

'Shrimp in a Duck Yolk 'Sand''  This one was most outside of my comfort zone. Duck egg hard-boiled and mixed with salt created the 'sand,' into which was nestled a cripsy shrimp-shell head and tail. And raw shrimp meat.  (At least it looked raw, but I still gobbled it up.)

‘Shrimp in a Duck Yolk ‘Sand”
This one was most outside of my comfort zone. Duck egg hard-boiled and mixed with salt created the ‘sand,’ into which was nestled a cripsy shrimp-shell head and tail. And raw shrimp meat. (At least it looked raw, but I still gobbled it up.)

'Beef and Broccoli in Liquid and Solid State'  Inspired by the familiar dish, this was a deliciously rich consomme, followed by dehydrated broccoli spheres and slabs of leathery beef brushed with chive butter. A touch better than carry-out.

‘Beef and Broccoli in Liquid and Solid State’
Inspired by the familiar dish, this was a deliciously rich consomme, followed by dehydrated broccoli spheres and slabs of leathery beef brushed with chive butter. A touch better than carry-out.

'Duck in Layers'  Let me try to remember this pyramid of flavor. There were smoked greens, fried duck egg mixed with red cabbage, walnuts, and chives , red plum jam, two dipping sauces -- hoisin and mustard -- and roasted duck meat, which was cooked perfectly, but was also the most 'ordinary' thing served.

‘Duck in Layers’
Let me try to remember this pyramid of flavor. There were smoked greens, fried duck egg mixed with red cabbage, walnuts, and chives , red plum jam, two dipping sauces — hoisin and mustard — and roasted duck meat, which was cooked perfectly, but was also the most ‘ordinary’ thing served.

MISSED PHOTO: ”Pulling Threads’ with Sweetbreads, Taro Root, and Banana’ First, we were told veal sweetbreads, and plantains (v. banana). This was like the best Sweet-and-Sour whatever you will ever have. The sweetbreads, taro, and plantains were cut into chunks and caramelized. We were instructed to dip the pieces in a citrusy glaze for six seconds, and in so doing, a crispy shell appeared around it. Probably my favorite dish of the night.

MISSED PHOTO: ‘Frozen Rice Soup with Legumes and Whipped Vinegar’ Sweet peas, puffed jasmine rice. Crunchy and slightly sweet and cool. 

'Dragon's Beard Candy with a Pressing of Honey'  At this point, we were pretty full. This was a lot of chewy sweetness.  It was accompanied by 'Black Sesame Butterfinger,' which tastes exactly like it sounds. Like a Butterfinger, but with a sesame flavor (vs. peanut)

‘Dragon’s Beard Candy with a Pressing of Honey’
At this point, we were pretty full. This was a lot of chewy sweetness. It was accompanied by ‘Black Sesame Butterfinger,’ which tastes exactly like it sounds. Like a Butterfinger, but with a sesame flavor (vs. peanut)

'Fortune...' Finally, this huge fortune cookie, which contained our menus for the evening. Clever presentation, and light almond cookie, as you would expect.

‘Fortune…’
Finally, this huge fortune cookie, which contained our menus for the evening. Clever presentation, and light almond cookie, as you would expect.

And that’s ‘it!’  A great meal that was both inventive AND delicious. And now I’m starving.  Off to fix breakfast …

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FFWDing to the Best Part: “Nookie,” Limp Bizkit (1999)

If binge drinking and/or date rape had a soundtrack, it would be 97% Limp Bizkit. Every thing about this band — starting with their name — should have me bristling with hatred. Fred Durst’s backwards Yankees cap, soul patch, and kiss-and-telling behavior. Their lyrics, which are juvenile at best and misogynistic at worst. The way they re-interpreted and destroyed George Michael’s ‘Faith.’ Wes Borland’s stupid, stupid contacts. The use of the phrase ‘Chocolate Starfish’ as part of the title of album #3.

They are manufactured and affected, affecting an image that is terrible … unless you’re a 14-year-old NASCAR fan in the heartland, cooking up meth that’s only 45% pure. Too harsh? Maybe, maybe not.

But you know? I’ve been known to listen to ‘Nookie.’ So much, in fact, that I pretty much have all its lyrics committed to memory.

The bass line is bouncy, the rhythm is catchy, and the chorus — while admittedly as lowest-common-denominator as they come — is infectious in its own way. (The video, however, perfectly illustrates all of the negative points I listed above PLUS a lovely puffy-coat-and-shorts combo.)

And while I feel naming the “Best Part” of this song is sort of like naming my favorite Two and a Half Men episode, I’ve got one. Right around 0:59, when you think they are going to “like a chump…” segue into the first chorus, there is another smattering of rock-rap, the syncopation of which I appreciate.

Should I be feelin’ bad? No
Should I be feelin good? No
Its kinda sad I’m the laughin’ stock of the neighborhood
You would think that I’d be movin’ on
But I’m a sucker like I said
F*cked up in the head, not!!

Actually, forget what I said, all of it. The non-ironic employment of “not” — in 1999, no less — ruined this whole thing.

FFWDing to the Best Part: “When You Were Young,” The Killers (2006)

When The Killers released  Hot Fuss in 2004, I thought at the time it meant bigger things for the landscape of popular music.  Not a full-on Nevermind-ish cosmic shift, but a change nonetheless.  With The Killers — and then The Bravery, the Kaiser Chiefs, etc. — I thought we were moving toward a new era of New Wave. Artistic and sometimes vague lyrics, a reliance on synthesizers, pretty boys in dapper outfits … as a (basically) lifelong Duranie, I was pumped.  And Hot Fuss was the first album in several years on which I liked every track.

And then came Sam’s Town. While not a certifiable “sophomore slump,” it sure was — for me anyways — lacking in the fresh excitement of its predecessor. It’s been a slow trickle downhill from there for Brandon Flowers and the boys from Vegas ever since.  But the opening track (what we would have called “Side One, Track One” back in the day) on Sam’s  is a good one.  A good one that has been tainted for me somewhat by the following story:

Right around the time of this song’s height of popularity (spring 2007), the world was active on the community blogging platform LiveJournal. This was right before Facebook had caught on with the masses.  So people would “blog” on LiveJournal, and the friends “following” them would comment.  It was a hotbed of meme activity, and one week, everyone was listing seven songs in heavy rotation in their iPods/Rios/MusicMatch libraries.

My friend Blair, her new boyfriend Chuck, and I all happened to put “When We Were Young” on said list.  Commenting in lyric form on Blair’s posting (below a post from Chuck), I merely quipped, “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus.” At which point Chuck’s ex (who wasn’t in a terribly good place at the time), fired off “Blair, why did you tell [Lucy] that Chuck looks like Jesus?”

Lost in translation. And maybe that’s why she’s an ex.  KNOW YOUR CULTURAL REFERENCES.

Anyway, I think about that every GD’d time I hear this track.

Best part?  (Note, this isn’t accurate if just straight listening to the track, as the video contains a 90-second prologue of sorts.) At 3:47 (which would be ~2:17 on the regular single), the musical theme swells out of a subdued bridge and pulsates into the final choruses. It’s the type of moment in a song where you want to just push the pedal to the ground. Assuming I ever drove above the speed limit.

It’s this type of musical surge out of an island of serenity that’s often the “best part” for me, isn’t it? Soon these posts will just write themselves.

 

FFWDing to the Best Part: “Broadway,” The Goo Goo Dolls (2000)

A 1996 episode of Friends introduced the “Freebie List” to the lexicon.  In essence, it is a list of five celebrities who, should the situation present itself, earn an “all-clear” from one’s current significant other. It’s a truth universally acknowledged … if this predetermined famous person will have you, you’re allowed to have him or her, with no negative repercussions to any current relationship.

Taking the top slot on my own “Freebie List” from 1999 until about, well, the time the photo below was snapped, was Johnny Rzeznik. The seemingly tortured, impressively coiffed, front man for Buffalo punk outfit (turned adult-contemporary-radio mainstay) The Goo Goo Dolls.

As luck would have it, I actually got to meet Mr. Rzeznik when he played a corporate gig I attended in 2009.  I made a stupid request (“Will you be playing We Are the Normal?”); he dismissed me with a stupid lie (“Well, I dunno!  I haven’t seen the set list yet!”); I entered a weeks-long shame spiral.  At least I got a good profile picture out of it:

Me with Johnny Rzeznik

After this impressive meet-and-greet, I assumed what will certainly be my best concert vantage point ever — immediately in front of the stage.

Goo Goo Dolls performing at corporate gig

From here, I watched them do their (modern-day) classics.  Slide (remains a jam).  Here is Gone (remains filler). Iris (whatever).  And I looked forward to watching Broadway up close and personal for the …

Best part?  2:00 – 2:04. In a thinly veiled rant against his abusive and alcoholic (and, btw, dead) father, Johnny asserts, “Your anger don’t impress me.”  The progression of notes is lovely, and differs enough from the first verse that it stands out, as is the suggested intent.

 

And yet!  Johnny screwed up this night’s performance.  Instead of launching into the second verse at the appropriate time, he started to repeat the first verse.  I tried to save him, from inches away, but he was doing his best to try and ignore me.

Whatever, dude.  Nice plastic surgery of late.  See you on LITE-FM.

I :heart: NY (In Which I Miss My Chance to Take a Greyhound on the Hudson Riverline)

What’s this?  A blog?  The things I’ll resort to when stuck solo at Newark Airport for two-plus hours (finally posting this almost a week later as I was waiting on buddy Sendil to upload his pictures for my own personal use). I started writing a Facebook status about my favorite moments about my recent New York trip, but it became bloated for a status update. I thought a short blog would be more appropriate.

1. Dining al fresco at Pure Food and Wine. The food — raw and vegan — wasn’t anything amazing on the palette, but the cozy table for three in a surprisingly serene garden was perfection. The crisp rosé didn’t hurt.

2. Meeting various Howard Stern staffers. The catalyst for this trip was that my dear friend Sendil won the opportunity to tour the Howard Stern studios and sit in on the after show — the ‘Wrap Up Show.’ In addition to catching a rare, split-second glimpse of a gruff King of All Media, we met all the back-office crew, including some of my faves — Benjy Bronk, Jason Kaplan, Sal Governale, and JD Harmeyer, who stammered as much to me about Cincinnati geography as he does to Howard about his love life. Everyone was far nicer than they needed to be, and I will remember the morning always. Hey now!

With Steve Brandano

Self-described cougar hater Steve Brandano hates being this close to a 38-year-old.

3. Sing Sing karaoke. You pass around a wireless mic and everyone just sings along in supportive fashion while sitting along the bar. You buy tickets for each song you want to sing, which keeps things fair. It was a great crowd, we had a fantastic and enthusiastic bartender, and the songs sung included Hanson, The Killers, Smashing Pumpkins, and The Proclaimers. (Thanks to Molly for the recommendation!  One day, I hope to venture here together.)

3. Playing Sunday afternoon ping pong at a subterranean dive bar in the West Village. Ping pong, shuffleboard, foosball, and pool tables were lively, while a guy in the background played jazz piano. Craft beer flowed from the taps, and wine was served out of low balls. What’s best, I felt like the only tourist there.

4. Central Park carousel. There was no one who wasn’t a tourist here, obviously, but the day was beautiful, the music was oddly quirky (Mary Chapin Carpenter, calliope style), and at $3, it’s the best tourist-trappy deal in Manhattan.

Central Park Carousel

Round and round (what comes around, goes around, I’ll tell you why-y-y-y)

5. Lucking into Book of Mormon tickets. Having bought tickets to the Chicago performance two years ago, only to miss the performance due to a shellfish reaction, I never thought I’d end up seeing this show. But asking at the box office six hours before the Saturday evening performance yielded a box seat.  Even Gary Dell’Abate said this was a miracle.

6.  Realizing that I love Chicago. One of my life’s biggest regrets is not moving to New York City right out of college.  Back then, I was used to roommates and ramen and limited living space. By the time I came to another life’s crossroads, I’d gotten used to my 800 square-foot apartment for $450 a month, and didn’t think I could appropriately downsize. New York is bustling and happening and great and unlike any other American city, but Chicago’s pretty fantastic, too. And more my pace. So as I sit here, tired and sad to have this trip in the rear view, I’m also happy to be headed back home.

Thanks, Sendil, for a very memorable trip!

Thanks, Sendil, for a very memorable trip!

Five Reasons Why I Can’t Wait for Fall

Oh, hi. A very busy summer (that was free from major travel and still flew by in a haze) is about to make way for the crisp temps and colorful leaves of fall, and before you know it, we’ll be complaining about snow and longing for the time where you couldn’t spend three seconds outside without pouring sweat glistening. To remind myself of why all seasons are great (and I’d therefore never want to live in Southern California), here’s a list of what I’m anxiously awaiting to enjoy once the temperature drops.

Running in the chilly temps. So I’m not an avid runner, but I especially hate running when it’s hot. And that includes in an “air-conditioned” gym.  Perfect for me is somewhere between 38 and 48 degrees.  Running pants, long-sleeved tee over a tank, cotton gloves and a stocking cap, and I am super comfortable.  Aside from the fact that I’m attempting to run.

Cold-Weather RunningFull-bodied reds. In the summertime, I love the light Pinot Gris-es (how does one pluralize that?), the Vinho Verde, yes, even some pink bubbles from time to time. South-American reds are just too heavy to sit around and sip, especially if you’re outdoors. Bring on the chilly temperatures, bring out the deep, earthy reds. But I still have a little time to finish out my chilled whites.

Red wine pouring

Crock-Pot cookin’. I’m not sure why this appliance gets grounded from May until September in my home, but it does. During winter months, however, it’s in heavy rotation as I whip up soups, chilis, sauces, broths, and once in a great while an entire chicken. And yes, if the recipe doesn’t call for slow cooking, I improvise anyway.

It’s all about flavor-melding.

Now that I work from home again, I plan on subsisting on soups for most of my lunches until early May.

The art of watching football. I’m a baseball girl by breeding, and I have failed to learn all of the rules behind (American) football. The flags-on-the-play annoy me, as does the fact that NFL players who play for at least four years have an average life expectancy of 55 (okay, maybe “annoys” is a bit weak there). Still, the act of watching a Saints game at home while the aforementioned Crock-Pot percolates or heading out to a fun sports bar in my Drew Brees jersey for a bloody Mary and some camaraderie is distinctly fall and always fun.

Watching the Saints game

Boots. My snow boots are plain but solid, reliable, and have been around since late 2008. Kind of like  Rachel Maddow (what?) Wearing them means it’s snowing outside, which I don’t love, but I do love my leather black or brown boots, suitable for wearing with jeans or along with dresses and tights. First, however, I need to find where I’ve stored them…

Riding Boots

Of course, there is still Labor Day weekend, the unpredictable weather of September and early October complete with the occasional 95-degree day, and perhaps one more needed pedicure.

And before you know it, we’ll all be stressed out about our holiday shopping.

If you live in an area that gets below 50 degrees, what’s your favorite thing about the fall?

The Secrets of an Extended Stay

Well, well, well, I got a new full-time job. It’s exciting and new, but strangely familiar, as I took a different — hopefully better — gig with my old company (1997 – 2008) and will report to one of my former bosses. Even more flattering? The Cincinnati-based company recruited me from Chicago, which means they really value my skills but also means I will be frequenting the Queen City more often than I used to.

Which is fine.

I like it here, I have friends here from years past, and the beers are cheap.

I’m here right now for a month and am staying in an Extended Stay hotel. It’s clean, it’s close to the office, and the shower’s water pressure is surprisingly satisfying. And yet, I must admit, it’s a tad depressing. There are fellow business people here, but also people who appear to be shacked up indefinitely. I saw one room from the parking lot where a mother and small daughter had evidently hauled in in a wire shelving unit to hold piles and piles and piles of clothes.

Sigh.

Here are other things I’ve learned in my 24 hours here:

1. Bring or buy your own coat hangers. My room had four. For a place that charges by the week.

2. You might want to bring your own towels. This isn’t the Ritz. Ditto body wash, hair dryer, shampoo and conditioner. This isn’t the Hampton Inn.

3. A ‘fully equipped kitchen’ means one skillet, one pot, two plates, a small fridge, a sink no bigger than the one on airplanes, bowls large enough to hold one Frosted Mini-Wheat, no oven, and a colander.

3a. If buying wine for said small fridge, get screw-top, because there isn’t a corkscrew. And snag a wineglass or two if you’re particular about such things. I? Am not.

4. Go ahead and bring/buy some: dishwashing detergent, Clorox wipes, paper towels, hand soap (for the kitchen if not the bathroom as well).

Now, I’m not sure how many people use the ‘fully equipped kitchen,’ but it was important to me.  It’s not healthy to eat every meal out, nor is it economical for my company. And I figured my new/old job in my new/old city (temporarily) would be a good chance to kick off on achieving my new/old body. When I left Cincinnati in 2001, I weighed about 15 pounds less than I do now. If I keep up this impressive 15-lbs-per-decade pace, I will not be living my Golden Girls life to the fullest.

So I swung by Trader Joe’s last night after checking in and picked up some provisions. Fizzy water, tea bags, wine (see above), raw oatmeal. And for dinners I aimed for simplicity. Tonight was veggies stir-fried with a touch of curry sauce served over Quinoa.

And this feast came after a lovely walk in the park. Oh yeah. Also on the ‘pro’ side of this Extended Stay hotel? It’s a five-minute drive to a beautiful park with a 2.6-mile jogging loop that provides dusk-time glimpses such as this:

And a visit with this little guy:

So it’s not all bad. I’m excited by the prospective challenges of my new job, I look forward to some time spent with long-distance friends, and while I miss Chicago, maybe I’ll be looking a little bit trimmer when I return. Just in time for lake season. (Note: I go to the lake like once a year).