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