Thursday, June 16, 2011
Next "Paris 1906" and The Aviary, Chicago IL
To call the hype surrounding Chef Grant Achatz’s “NEXT” substantial would be the understatement of the year…or perhaps of last year since first the restaurant was named the “most anticipated restaurant in America” for 2010 and didn’t even start selling tickets (yes, tickets) until March of 2011. Beginning with the rumors, then the website, then there was the mailing list, and finally the trainwreck involving online ticket sales and scalpers charging $1000+/seat on craigslist I will fully admit that I’d been watching the developments from the start and like anyone else interested in the world of fine dining I was not only intrigued, but lucky enough to sign up early and avoid the hysteria purchasing a two-top for 6/16/11 with minimal difficulty on the first day of sales.
To those who have read nothing about NEXT there is a pretty good chance they wouldn’t be reading some random guy from Ohio’s blog about gastronomy and as such I’ll spare the details – especially considering how much has already been written about the experience in nearly every foodblog east of the Mississippi. Located in the Fulton Market and largely unadorned save for a valet parking sign and a small sign in the window reading “Next Paris 1906” my friend Dave and I arrived on time and dressed in jackets and ties made our way into the small entryway where we were greeted by a pair of young ladies who collected or tickets and ushered us quickly to our table and with beverage choices pre-decided an equally quick greeting from our captain and a description of the menu’s theme would see still water poured and things get underway “toute de suite.”
With the room long and narrow and the gleaming kitchen emitting a piercing white light both Dave and I noted that despite the theme the restaurant itself as well as the dress of the servers was rather plain – largely dissociated from the era and clearly capable of being reinvented regularly to fit the seasonal theme. With small spotlights overhead and era appropriate linens and service ware on the tables the feeling of NEXT was intimate without feeling contrived and as light era-appropriate French music played overhead the restaurant was energetic without being loud – a nice balance that harkened an era without feeling contrived.
With the stage set and seeing a number of tables around us at various points in their meal already it was with a bit of surprise that our first course consisted of the Hors d’Oeuvres tray and not the gougeres or individual service of foie gras I saw many others receiving and even more a surprise when our tray contained only four items plus the foie as opposed to the six the four-top next to us had just received (including what I believe was rabbit boudin and salmon mousse.) A bit perplexed but expecting perhaps a second service we dug right in to the ornate arrangement beginning first with “les ouefs Benedictine” - a cod cream custard with truffles, followed by leek wrapped mushroom duxelles, sesame crackers with pork rillette and pickled onions, a liquid centered quail topped with pickled anchovies/lemon zest/tarragon, plus brioche stuffed with foie gras torchon and topped with apricots and pickled mustard seeds with ground black pepper. With each bite delicious and balanced I will note that the foie gras was particularly lovely and amongst the best tochons I’ve had while both egg dishes were entirely unique and full of nuance.
With a second service never arriving we chalked it up to bad luck or a poorly timed seating and within minutes were treated to our first proper course of the menu, “Potage a la Tortue Claire.” With turtle soup a true classic dating back to the early 1900s and rarely featured on menus (Particularly in the United States) these days our bowl arrived with only mirepox present at first but was then shortly followed by a young gentlemen who poured the “snapping turtle consommé” tableside. With the broth clean and clear with breaths of alcohol slightly overwhelming the deeper meaty flavors it was good, but rather simple for me and while not as interesting as my previous experience with turtle soup at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, certainly more subtle and befitting a tasting menu.
For our second course of the meal we would receive the night’s sole bread course – a small (literally only 1.5x the size of a golf ball) roll with crunchy crust and delicate crumb plus a creamy salted butter speckled with fleur de sel. We were informed this roll would be ideal for soaking up the juices of our next course, but given its size this seemed rather unlikely and I instead used it and the subsequently requested (requested, not offered) rolls as a delivery mechanism for the butter.
For our second proper course, “Filet de Sole Daumont” would arrive perhaps 5 minutes after we’d finished the soup and realizing the speed with which we were being moved we opted to slow our pace a bit and talk at length between bites. Served with classic stylings on a bed of silky Sauce Nantua thick with cream, béchamel, and crayfish butter the plate itself would feature for distinct entities, each unique and each quite tasty and mostly well prepared. Beginning first with the center – a poached paupiette of sole that was light and flavorful but a bit dry the other flavors on the plate were more successful and included crayfish head and thorax stuffed with crayfish mousseline, a fried button mushroom stuffed with and crayfish tail meat, and a creamy fried morsel of sole roe. Complex and decadent this was precisely the sort of dish I expected when visiting Next and Dave felt it was the standout of the night by a considerable margin.
For the third course, Dave’s least favorite and rather blasé both in taste and presentation from my standpoint as well, Supremes de Poussin was another classic looking dish but this time gussied up with modern technique. Served as two separate components, each involving chicken, the center of the plate was dominated by a diamond shaped slice of compressed chicken breast cooked sous vide and poached in butter topped with a creamy sauce of cream and what I believe was either chicken liver or foie gras – it was flavorful and texturally exquisite but certainly no better than any number of other (more substantial) chicken preparations I’ve tasted stateside and certainly not on par with those in Paris. Moving on to the other half of the dish – a portion Dave took one bite of before setting down his silverware and suggesting “if you like it, it’s yours” – we were served poached cucumber rounds stuffed with a chicken mousse and wrapped with pork belly. Soft and silky with a bit of brine and a touch of sweet I’ll note that while I ate mine I didn’t like it enough to warrant taking Dave’s and despite the fact that the food remained when our waiter returned the plate was simply collected and returned to the kitchen robotically without comment.
With the earlier seated two top to our left having enjoyed a supplemental dish described as “lamb three ways” it was with a bit of disheartenment that our next course would be preceded with the delivery of service items indicating it was time for the shared main course entitled “Canetone Rouennais a la Presse” with “Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise.” At this point approximately 50 minutes into the meal and wondering why, precisely, every table around us seemed to be receiving “extras” while we were being rushed through our evening the duck and potatoes would arrive to at least temporarily assuage the sting as both were not only good but downright fantastic.
Beginning first with the duck – sourced from Rouen and brined whole for “seven to ten hours depending on size” prior to roasting and subsequent carving with the breasts finished in the pan while the extremities were confited – it was absolutely flawless. Crispy skin, rosy flesh, full bodied taste without a bit of gaminess and a great contrast between the supple lean breasts and crisp fatty legs…really flawless and only made better by a briny mineral tinged sauce produced by pressing the duck’s carcass rendering its natural juices with cognac and red wine. Not to be outdone in the decadence department the side dish of mandolined “twice cooked” Yukon Gold potatoes layered with cream, herbs, and aged cheese finished in the oven were by far the best ‘au gratin’ potatoes I’ve ever tasted and with Dave sporting a rather slight appetite I had more than my fair share.
For our palate cleanser, at this point convinced there was no way we’d receive the bonus Sauternes Sorbet that I’d seen served to the gougeres table, Salade Irma would arrive featuring an edible nasturtium flower and its leaves, asparagus, radish, and frisee plus a light vinaigrette that although beautiful and elegant simply did nothing to add or subtract from the experience save for evoke a “well, that was pretty” from me and a “so, you can eat the flower – right?” from Dave.
With palates theoretically cleansed dessert would arrive precisely 75 minutes after we were seated and entitled “Bombe Ceylan” it would be perhaps my favorite dish of the night save for the duck. With a base of dark cocoa shortbread topped with a chilly creamed center of coffee semi-freddo and topped with a dome of rum ice cream sprayed with dark cocoa and surrounded by crème anglaise and rum soaked cherries. With four layers of texture and the flavors all blending flawlessly to create what was essentially an edible cocktail I only wish there had been more – or that I’d have had the group for the kitchen table so I could have tried the soufflé as well.
With the time now bordering on 90 minutes since our seating the Bombe plates were collected and within thirty seconds a tray of mignardises appeared with golden copies of the menu. Again shorting us our tray contained only three options (at least four were provided from what I could see a couple tables down as the tables adjacent to us were still enjoying their duck) – a beet gelee, salted caramels, and a unique pistachio butter cake with a texture something like a dry marshmallow – and with the tray collected we were thanked for coming and more-or-less led to the door where the friendly hostesses bid us a good evening.
As Dave and I bid one another farewell he noted “wow, that was good – but fast” and concurring I suggested he could come over to Aviary with my family and I for a drink but he declined due to an hour long drive home. With promises to get together again soon I made my way next door admittedly feeling a little bummed about both the brevity and overall price to experience ratio at Next; I specifically wondered to myself whether the restaurant would garner the hype it does based on the food alone and deciding this unlikely I was left with the nagging thought that while I’d gotten what I paid for, others around us had gotten more for the same dollar and while I can’t say for sure why that was (perhaps they were ALL friends of the house?) those tables also hadn’t been rushed through their service as we had. With good and sometimes great food, average but scripted service, and an idea that far outstrips the actual experience I admit I’m still intrigued to return to NEXT, but only to the Kitchen Table where I can rest assured that the experience – food, duration, location – at least stands its very best chance of living up to the hype created mostly thus far by a ticket system.
With my mood already a bit off the “greeting” at The Aviary was not exactly uplifting when I was stopped by a large bouncer-esque fellow dressed in Mad-Men Era costume communicating via Bluetooth to make sure my mother and aunt were inside before allowing me to enter (despite the space being less than 1/3 full.) When I was finally “okayed” I was told “have a nice time” and on making my way into the dark, chic, and genuinely sexy room with lavish drapes and comfortable couches abound swanky I was welcomed by a young lady who would lead me past the open “cocktail kitchen” to a space in the middle of the room where my family was seated enjoying bites and a couple of drinks. Greeted with a “wow, that was fast” regarding the duration of my meal at NEXT I told them a bit of the story but to avoid spoiling the mood decided to save my thoughts for later as a menu was presented.
With low-volume electronica playing overhead and the menu in hand it was explained to me that the list was arranged something like Alinea, but in this case from sweet to dry with the birds to the left ranging further from the text for more complicated tastes. With a taste of my mother’s Hemingway featuring Grapefruit, Lime, Maraschino, and Rum – a relatively straight forward option – and my Aunt’s Pineapple with Mint, Sanbitter, Chartreuse, and Pineapple juice that arrived in an ornate slowly melting form becoming sweeter with time I opted to embrace my inner “Dude” and selected the White Russian with Milk, Ristretto, and Rum – another slowly melting cocktail with high quality rum blended with a half shot of Intelligentsia Espresso and foamed milk alongside sweetened “milk ice” forming an angular slant in the glass.
With drinks to be enjoyed slowly due to both their price and their potency I additionally opted for three “bites” to go with my drink, but prior to receiving either drink or bite I was served a “cocktail amuse” described as a “Spicy Watermelon bite” with melon compressed in soju liquor and topped with soy pudding, sesame seeds, and micro cilantro – a tasty and refreshing burst of flavor that most certainly would not have been out of place at Alinea.
Moving on to the bites – pricey at $4-6 each – I opted for a trio beginning with “Chowder – Croquette, Clam, Spicy Corn Pudding,” then “Foie Gras – Rhubarb, Pumpernickel, Lavender,” and finally “Brioche – Chocolate, Smoked Salt, Vanilla,” all three excellent with the first tasting like a liquid hush puppy in a golden shell, the second a bitter/sweet amalgam with the sapor of foie gras giving way to notes of lavender, and the third a chocolate square topped with smoky salinity and filled with what I can only describe as liquid French Toast – all wonderful, as expected from my previous two visits to the North Halsted flagship.
With drinks consumed we debated whether to order a second round but having not yet even checked into our hotel and debating yet another dessert stop to finish the night we decided the better part of valor was to call it quits at a total of three drinks and nine bites – and a total bill of $106 – more than I’d ever anticipated spending at a bar anywhere, especially with my family, yet oddly a “value” that felt better than that at NEXT an hour prior if only for the novelty of it. If my tolerance were higher I would definitely consider going back for the kitchen table menu, but even as it stands I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to sample future creations on subsequent visits to Chicago – whether I return to NEXT or not.