13 January 2012

Chicago's Next

This post comes with a caveat: if you're not a food or drink or restaurant person, you may want to skip it. Even if you are, you'll probably want to skim. To be honest, this post is mostly about recording the experience for myself rather than sharing. Bear with me...if you wish. 

Let me start by saying that Next is not your typical restaurant. It doesn't have reservations; rather, it sells tickets to particular seatings. It serves a fixed menu, so everyone in the restaurant is eating the same food and enjoying wine pairing, non-alcoholic pairing, or no pairing. The concept is reinvented every three months, so you'll basically never get to experience a particular meal a second time. We were lucky enough to get tickets during the Childhood menu, which was based off of foods eaten in Michigan in 1985. After a lot of hype, we showed up at 9:15 on a Sunday night to a dark building without signs in a warehouse district. Clearly, this was not going to be a typical dining experience. And it wasn't. 

Without further delay, let's talk about the food. Was this the best food that I've ever eaten? Probably not, though it was certainly near the top. Was this the most creative and inventive food I've ever eaten? Yes, hands down. Was this the most whimsical meal I've ever eaten? Again, yes, by a mile. Would I go back? To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha! 

The first course was delivered in a wrapped package. We were told the following: do not shake the package; everything inside is edible; and the contents should be eaten in one bite with the mouth closed. We unwrapped the package and opened the box to find a little ball and lots of crumb-looking things. Following the instructions, we ate the ball with our mouths closed and were rewarded with peanut butter and jelly creamy goodness. Because the peanut buttery crumbles were too good to waste, we slurped them from the box without a hint of guilt. Ok, maybe a little bit of guilt, but the taste was worth it. 

For the next course, we were presented with a bowl of soup and told that the chefs thought that chicken noodle soup made more sense when the soup included a noodle of chicken...and it did. The flavors were true to homemade chicken noodle soup but in a more complex way, and the texture of the chicken noodle was just like an al dente homemade noodle. 

Next, we were served a square plate with a scene drawn onto it, meant to be a child's drawing that would hang on the refrigerator. Turns out, it was our delicious fish and chips course. The sea was made of slightly pickled cucumbers. The land was the star of the show: the most perfect herb and breadcrumb mixture ever. It included generous sprigs of fresh dill, which happens to be my favorite herb. The rock was fish foam. The little nugget behind the grate was a perfectly prepared piece of haddock, complimented perfectly by the balsamic vinegar drawing and (slightly overbearing) lemon sun. And that yummy grate (fishing net?) was made of crispy potato. Ohmygosh. So good. This course was one of my two favorites of the evening. I almost licked my plate to make sure that I didn't miss anything. 

Fish and Chips
Up next was our mac and cheese course. We were served a plate with several small garnishes arranged in a circle. In the middle was a vessel of creamy yumminess, which the serving staff released before leaving the table. Each garnish was meant to represent one of the many ways that mac and cheese can be prepared at home. For example, there were manchego cheese shavings for those who put extra cheese on their mac and cheese; there was a cube of powdered Hebrew National for those who put hotdogs in their mac and cheese; and so on. The mac and cheese alone was possibly the best that I've ever eaten (and I have sampled a lot of mac and cheese). Each of the garnishes brought back such memories that they were really icing on the cake. This was my other favorite course, and I think it was the favorite of the rest of the table as well. We all wanted to lick the plate for this one.

For our next course, called winter wonderland, we were served our meal atop a glass plate, which was resting on a hollowed piece of wood, which held hot rocks and fresh, roasting juniper. This was the most aromatic of the courses, and Denaye said that it took her right back to her family's Christmas tree shopping adventures. I can't really describe the food because I couldn't identify most of what I was eating, aside from some terrifically crisp chard and flavor-rich mushrooms; however, what I ate was absolutely, positively delicious. Every bite was a flavor blast. 

Winter Wonderland: a walk through a Michigan forest 
Winter Wonderland: a walk through a Michigan forest

Next, we were served a really strange-looking plate. It appeared that a bun or Kraft singles had been melted onto the plate. The dish was genius. The bun/Kraft single element had the consistency of a thick sauce but tasted exactly like a sesame seed bun. Each of the sauces on the plate tasted like a particular flavor on a fast food burger, with one tasting a bit buttery/greasy so that a bite that included that sauce tasted like a particularly greasy burger. The beef, of a cut I can't remember, was tender and flavorful but not too pretentious to be paired with the rest of the flavors on the plate. The more elements of the plate that you could fit into a single bite, the more complete the burger flavor you'd experience. For me, this was the most nostalgic because I was rewarded with a McDonald's Happy Meal after most doctors appointments (which were frequent for me as a child). 

Hamburger: McDonald's, Burger King, White Castle?

Hamburger: McDonald's, Burger King, White Castle?

As though we weren't already full (I was), we were next presented with a vintage lunch box. The star of this course was the wagyu jerky. The lunchbox also included a homemade funyun, truffled Oreo (oh so delicious and seriously trufflated), Nutella Snack Pack-inspired pudding, and some apple-brandy Fruit Roll-Ups-inspired candy. No lunchbox is complete without a thermos, and ours were filled with a delicious mixed berry punch, either spiked or not. For me, the memorable part of this course was when Denaye and David discovered that they did similar things with their Fruit Roll-Ups before eating them when they were kids. 

Lunch Box

The pudding and Oreo of the lunchbox were a nice transition into dessert. The next course was called "Foie"sting and donuts and was served on a mixer beater. As you might guess from the name, the frosting was made with foie gras or was at least foie gras flavored. This was the only course that I did not enjoy. My pregnant palate couldn't make the sweetness of the dish and the flavor of the foie gras work. 

'Foie'sting and Donuts

To finish our meal, we were served sweet potato pie. Well, sort of. First, some sweet potatoes were lit on fire in the center of the table, eliciting some serious campfire memories. Then, we were instructed to move the sweet potatoes to our plates after the fire went out and to add some caramel sauce. Our plates contained several yummy morsels, including marshmallows, something similar to a granola, bourbon ice cream, and some unidentifiable bits. What I tasted was fabulous, but I would have enjoyed this course a lot more if it had some earlier in the night (ie, if I'd actually had room for it) and if I would have had the kitchen hold most or all of the bourbon ice cream. Still, when was the last time that a restaurant served you with a campfire of sweet potatoes? 

Sweet Potato Pie: campfire on your table

And because no meal is complete without a hot drink, the night ended with hot cocoa. Ahhhh. Thankfully, they sent us away with a copy of the menu (which we had not seen until the meal was over) so that we could remember all of the courses. 

Now, a word about the pairings. The wine pairings were generous, leaving the bottle at the table until it was finished. The wine drinkers at the table seemed really happy with the selections. Of the ones I sipped, I thought the Sarah's Vineyard Charbono from Santa Clara (who knew?!) was great. I'm always excited to discover new grapes, and I'm sure we'll keep our eyes out for charbono now. George loved the very earthy, rustic, wild Caparone Sangiovese from Paso Robles. I enjoyed the non-alcoholic pairs, and I really appreciate the effort of doing creative pairings for the alcohol-free crowd. I loved the apple cider, and I could have consumed a gallon of my favorite drink, which was a meyer lemon, thyme, and lemon verbena lemonade that tasted just like a Lemonhead

Now, a word about the service. This is the only restaurant I've ever visited with service rivaling Canlis. I swear, the staff at Next knew exactly what each and every person in the restaurant was doing at every moment. The second that I started to back away from the table, there was a server ready to escort me to the secret bathroom (I must be starting to look pregnant). Upon return, there was always someone there to push in my chair. The Next servers were better at comfortably pushing in a chair than the servers anywhere else I've been. 

I went into this meal prepared to be disappointed. However, Next perfectly executed a balance between fun whimsy and deliciously sophisticated food. I doubt I'll ever forget my meal at Next, and I'm so glad that I was able to share it with my husband and dear friends. 

If you've made it this far, give yourself an award. This is one long blog post. 

1 comment:

Janie said...

Wow! What can I say. Great food. Great surroundings. Great memories to share. Great company. A great experience. Another wow! Looks fascinating............and yummy to boot!