Dinner at Next

We ate at four Chicago restaurants in five days. I let friends take care of the reservations for three of them, but I knew if we wanted to eat at Next that I would have to wrangle the table myself. Chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas had settled on a ticket-based system that would guarantee a full restaurant, but obtaining a ticket via the first come, first served, no favors granted system (“You must accommodate people like me.” [Kokonas] wrote him back, highlighted that line, and just said, “No, I mustn’t.”) would be like trying to score front row seats for a U2 gig.

Fortunately, I possessed that particular skill, so on a July afternoon I waited for the official “tickets go on sale in a hour” announcement on Facebook, fired up two computers and four browsers, and typed and clicked like mad until, at the end of almost three frantic hours, I had a table for four at the not-unreasaonable hour of 6:15 PM on a Wednesday. Much to my surprise, Next is a mere block away from Publican, and just a few steps down the block from Moto. If I lived in Chicago, I night never leave that neighborhood.

You can read Sam Sifton’s review for The New York Times, and the review in the Chicago Reader for more details, but what follows are my impressions. The menu for A Tour of Thailand has changed a bit since the reviews; I’ll point out the deviations in the sequence.

We were seated in the middle of the long, dark, energetic room at a table that was soon covered with Thai language newspapers, pink paper napkins, and plastic spoons. I had chosen the cocktails beverage pairing (one of three pairings that also included wines and non-alcoholic juices), which started off with a deceptively powerful juice-based mix of Batavia Arrack (distilled grain spirits), Szigeti Sekt (similar to a grüner veltliner),and guava, mango, and papua juices – served in a plastic cup. The plastic and paper ware set us up for the first course:

Street food: roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, steamed bun

The steamed buns were filled with green curry pastes, the bananas (to which the spoons were applied) were garnished with chilis. A fun start to the meal, which changed over to a cloth runner (the color determined by the day of the week) and silverware for the more formal courses to follow.

Tom yum: hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, ginger
Cocktail: gin, chrysanthemum, lemongrass, lychee

The broth was more ramen-like than the traditional version, with a nice spicy kick to it.

Relishes: chili, shallot, garlic; salted duck egg, green mango, white radish; pickles

The three relishes were served with simple steamed rice in banana leaf lined baskets. This gave us an opportunity to taste the relishes without any other competing flavors. Two additional sauces were provided: spicy green chile, and fish and shrimp paste, which our server characterized as “Ricky Martin” and “James Brown,” respectively. The condiments and rice would remain on the table for all of the savory courses, which gave us the opportunity to adjust the dishes as we saw fit. We were content to use them as a supplement to the rice, which seemed to work out well.

Catfish: caramel sauce, celery, coriander root
Itsas Mendi Hondarrabi Zuri, Bizkaiko Txakolina, Spain 2010

Served in a fish-shaepd dish over a charcoal brazier, the catfish had been cooked sous vide to maintain a moist, tender texture. The caramel sauce was neither thick nor cloying, balanced out by the crunch of the celery and the herbal notes from the shaved coriander root. The accompanying wine was a dry Basque white, identified by one of our dining companions. (It’s great to dine with a wine critic.)

Beef cheek: curry, peanut, nutmeg, kaffir lime
Half Acre, Horizon Ale, Chicago

Two perfectly braised, meltingly tender, beef cheeks in a curry sauce. The meat was so rich I almost didn’t finish it – almost. The dish was paired with an astringent ale, which cut through the richness of the curry.

Watermelon, lemongrass

I don’t have a photo of this palate cleanser, a few sips of watermelon juice infused with lemongrass.The drink was a pale, clear green, which leads me to believe that the watermelon essence had been distilled with a rotary evaporator (a standard kitchen tool at Alinea). It tasted more of the rind than the fruit, but was very refreshing.

Coconut: corn, egg, licorice
Di Majo Norante, “Apianae,” Moscato, Del Molise 2007

Whole cracked coconuts were placed before us and we were instructed to lift the tops off and set them next to the bottom half. Our waiter spooned coconut water ice into the empty lid while describing the contents of the full half: corn pudding, candied lime, licorice tapioca pearls, and sweet cooked egg noodles. All of the expected food manipulations missing from the previous courses were collected in this one dessert – freeze-drying, powders, gums, and liquid nitrogen freezing (the exhaustive list is in this article) – to make a memorable assault on the senses.

Dragon fruit: rose
Banks, blended island rum

This was a simple halved dragon fruit, presented with a rose sprayed with rosewater. We were instructed to smell the rose before tasting the (usually bland) fruit, which would heighten the flavor – another classic Alinea presentation of smell and taste. The accompanying aperitif – high-proof rum with a distinct vanilla note – was like rocket fuel. I think the sequencing of this dish was a misstep, it should have come before the coconut.

Rooibos tea: palm sugar, milk

Having completed our “tour,” we were returned to the street with bags of cold sweet tea with straws.

When making reservations at Next, you have the option of booking the “kitchen table” for six, which isn’t in the kitchen, but just outside it, separated by a glass wall:

A seat at that table gets you two extra courses, which we also saw served to the table next to us (“friends of the family,” we were told): a charcoal grill with skewers of strawberries and pineapple, and a green papya salad served in a crab shell. The salad and a pad thai course had been part of the original menu sequence, since replaced with the “little bites.”

The cocktails at Next were created at Aviary, Achatz and Koknas’ cocktail bar next door. Although the place was packed with a line extending outside (on a Wednesday night!), our server offered us an opportunity to have a few drinks inside. We poked our heads through the door, had a look around, and realized that more drinks were not a good idea if we were driving home. I learned later that there is an even more exclusive bar, the Office, in the basement below Aviary – something to try for on our next visit.

I don’t have a lot of experience with “authentic” Thai food, having to settle instead for the Americanized versions available at most of my local places. While I realize that Next’s Tour of Thailand wasn”t necessarily any more authentic, it was a well-prepared, detailed, impression of Thai food, which is the next (heh) best thing.

We’ll be in Chicago next year, and the menu will have changed by then, but you can be sure I’ll be chained to my computers again when those tickets are available. If you have the opportunity to dine there, Next shouldn’t be missed.

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