Next - Childhood
|Peering over the table...||Dominic Armato|
NOTE : A great deal of Childhood's appeal lies in surprise. If you expect to attend, I would recommend not reading about it until afterwards. That is, unless you're the "read the last page of the book first" type.
When you're a chef who's known for revolutionary culinary technique, why not take a revolutionary approach outside the kitchen as well?
In actuality, "revolutionary" is probably too strong a word (and, to be fair, not one that I believe they've used themselves), but even if Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' follow-up to Alinea weren't already a shoo-in for a media free-for-all, they took it a notch further by taking a very unconventional approach to fine dining with Next. For those who don't typically follow restaurant news (or food nerds who are just waking up from long-term comas), Next takes the "dinner as theater" metaphor and extends it beyond the dinner itself. Achatz and Chef de Cuisine Dave Beran design a themed menu, and rather than taking reservations, the restaurant sells tickets in three month stretches. As the three month run comes to a close, a completely new menu with a new concept is designed, the restaurant switches over to a new production, and tickets once again go on sale (disappearing, incidentally, within minutes). Next opened with "Paris 1906," featuring French haute cuisine dutifully recreated with historical precision in the style of Escoffier. This was followed by "Thailand," a creative exploration of Thai cuisine that confused some by failing to stay inside the chrono cuisine box drawn by the teaser trailer released before the restaurant's opening. And so, for their third production, the team wanted to do something to put to bed the notion that they were going to let themselves be bound by expectations. Enter "Childhood."
|Left out last night...||Dominic Armato|
Arriving at 5:30 for a chef's table reservation, it seemed for a split second that our evening had started with a shocking service gaffe. The table was cluttered with what appeared to be used glasses, a half-smoked cigar lie in an ashtray, and the New York Times crossword puzzle sat completed under somebody's pair of glasses. But it took just a moment to realize that dinner had already begun. We'd been cast in the role of kids peering over the table, which was littered with detritus from the grown-ups' shindig the night before and the signs of their recovery the morning after. Even if we weren't already in a playful mood (though our crowd back in Chicago is a wonderfully playful lot), sneaking the last sip from the martinis, Manhattans and Bloody Marys left behind made us a little giddy and perfectly primed for the meal to follow.
So much of childhood is discovery, and rarely is the discovery process more exciting than when eagerly tearing the paper off a present. So they gave us one -- an edible one, in a small box carefully wrapped -- and warned us that even if it's sometimes the best way to figure out what's inside, shaking it wasn't recommended. The gift inside was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, reimagined in Achatz' modernist style. Spherical, slightly smaller than a golf ball (or, perhaps more appropriately, slightly larger than a shooter marble), it was a crisp tempura shell that, when eaten in one bite, gave way to a gush of liquefied roasted peanuts and pomegranate jelly, evoking the childhood classic but spinning it for older taste buds. It was packaged with a handful of crushed, salty roasted peanuts mixed with bits of a denser form of the jelly, and for lack of utensils, the only reasonable way to eat it was to pick up the box and throw it back as one might to capture the last bits in the bottom of a bag of potato chips. Or, as one of my dining companions discovered, dumping it out onto the wrapping paper and rolling it into a makeshift funnel was simple and effective, the beauty, of course, being that they'd already put us in a frame of mind where this seemed a perfectly acceptable thing to do in an upscale restaurant. I've no doubt this was precisely their aim.
|Chicken Noodle Soup (sans soup)||Dominic Armato|
An enormous bowl was next to hit the table, in the center of which was positioned a small and artful tangle of carrots, shallots, celery leaves, herbs and noodles. Though not pictured, a dark, rich chicken soup joined the bowl shortly thereafter, making for a noodleless chicken noodle soup, wherein the "noodles" were also made from chicken. Though I've enjoyed noodles composed of proteins done less scientifically (and, frankly, with more flavor) elsewhere, it was still a delightful and delicious bowl of soup, elevated by means of technique and wit. I particularly loved the choice to use a rather large spoon and a bowl the size of a dartboard, thereby gently reinforcing the illusion that we were kids sitting at the dinner table, leaning over a massive, steaming bowl of soup that seemed too big to finish, even if we'd somehow find a way.
|Art Class with Chef Beran||Dominic Armato|
Childhood's Fish and Chips has gotten quite a bit of play online for its playful presentation, but dining at the chef's table brought a little something extra to the experience. First to be set down was a glass filled with paint brushes, followed by a large, square plate covered with small bowls bearing dish components and Elmer's glue bottles repurposed for use with sauces. Though it seemed clear this course would be a hands-on experience, we wondered precisely what was in store when one of the restaurant's minions tacked up a large sheet of paper on the far side of the glass separating our table from the kitchen. We quickly discovered the answer, however, as a gentleman in a chef's coat came strolling in armed with a set of dry erase markers. Art Class with Chef Beran was in session.
|Fish & Chips Before...||...and After||Dominic Armato|
In the style of Bob Ross, he walked us through the process of creating our edible masterpieces, laying out pickled cucumber waves and malt vinegar sea foam, covering our tartar sauce shore with tempura crumb soil and planting it with little herb sprigs, and painting in a Meyer lemon coulis sun and balsamic reduction fisherman, who hauled in the final component -- brought in fresh and hot -- a tender piece of walleye (a childhood fish of the chefs) caught in a fried potato net. This was the only dish of the evening where I felt the food suffered a bit at the hands of the presentation. The balance and freshness of the ingredients would have been better realized with a more traditional plating, delivered straight from the kitchen. But it was still a delicious dish, and so much fun that I didn't mind the minor tradeoff for a moment.
|Mac & Cheese||Dominic Armato|
The tour of iconic childhood dishes (iconic to an American Midwesterner growing up in the '80s, at least) continued with Mac and Cheese, brought to the table in a glass cylindrical mold and released to ooze into an army of miniscule accoutrements. The mac itself was another mature take on a kid favorite, with a thick, rich cheese sauce -- cheddar and manchego, perhaps? -- that was unusually intense and a great deal sharper than most. The accompaniments were a mixed bag, but all fun. The fried noodle and cheese crisp both made for lovely textural contrasts. The prosciutto and arugula roll was a good pair, as was the tomato pulp, even if the latter was so small as to be all but undetectable unless mixed with half a noodle. Less conventional was the "hot dog rock," produced by somehow transmogrifying the fat rendered from hot dogs. It's been much maligned in some quarters, and I confess, is a little jarring in an otherwise fairly refined dish, and I certainly wouldn't want to eat a plateful of it, but for a single taste I found it enjoyable.
|A Walk In The Forest||Dominic Armato|
If dinner up until this point could be described as delicious and diverting, with this dish it took a turn, if only briefly, into stunning. Autumn -- or A Walk in The Forest, as the chefs have come to refer to it -- was a test of our servers' forearm strength, as it arrived in half of a hollowed-out log covered with a glass plate. Beneath, rustic aromatics like hay, apple and pumpkin lay over searing hot rocks, creating a smoky scent (not to mention actual smoke -- the dish was technically on fire). Above sat a chaotic and yet artful jumble of ingredients that I couldn't possibly catalogue in their entirety without a scorecard, but which included things like fried leeks, maitake mushrooms, polenta, broccoli and other vegetables and berries all manipulated for maximal textural impact. Because I'm not even certain of everything that was contained within (if I hadn't been so lost in it I might've thought to ask), the best I can do is to say that it made me feel like a deer that had found a really fabulous bush to munch on. It was as though on this walk in the woods, I'd scooped up a handful of the forest floor -- leaves and berries and twigs and soil and mushrooms -- and popped it in my mouth, only to discover with delight that it was intensely pleasurable. The textures, aromas and flavors somehow managed to capture the forest, or at least how I imagine it, but in a way that was palatable to humans rather than wildlife, making it possible to experience the woods through the one sensory path that's not usually an option. Though it's been a polarizing dish on the intertubes, for me it was without question the most impressive one of the night.
You never know when a kitchen accident is going to turn out to be serendipitous. Achatz tells the story of one time back at Alinea, when Curtis Duffy took a piece of sous vide short rib and seared it off on the flattop only to discover that it tasted like hamburger. That wouldn't work for Alinea, but years later it turned out to be the perfect treatment of beef for a deconstructed modernist hamburger, complete with cornichon chips, gelled mayonnaise, an odd sort of sesame bun paste that was splayed over most of the plate, and assorted other manipulated accoutrements. Outside of this context, it's no substitute for a hamburger, to be sure. But it was a delight to eat, quite delicious, and though eerily reminiscent of a Big Mac (the sesame seeds, perhaps?), the flavors managed to simultaneously be nostalgic and refined.
|Brussels Sprouts||Dominic Armato|
The side dish for our hamburger didn't come with an admonishment to eat our vegetables, but the message was clear. Tender Brussels sprout cups were arranged artfully and (mostly) filled with decidedly adult fillings. The Brussels sprout slaw was creamy and amped up the sprout flavor. The bacon jam and hollandaise were both rich and delicious, one smoky and sweet, the other lightly tart and refined. Chestnut puree was the least conventional of the five, though appreciated, and the title of most decadent went to a dark truffle mousse, earthy and pungent. My sole criticism would be that the sprouts themselves had a good deal of the flavor cooked out of them, pushing them out of the spotlight. I suppose it could be argued that this is the ideal strategy to get the little ones to eat their greens. But I'm not little, and for me, I wish their natural flavor had come through a little more.
|Jello Mold||Dominic Armato|
Let me assure you that this photo doesn't convey the enormity of the Jello mold. It was easily ten or twelve inches in diameter, which would be entirely appropriate for a table of six if it were, say, cherry or lime. But no, this mold was aspic flavored with game stock, decorated with an inlaid cream flower, and studded with chunks of foie gras and poached pheasant. It came with slices of toast and a small plate of accompaniments -- salty walnuts, endive, microgreens and shallot jam -- but to share this between six people was to eat an enormous helping of aspic. Or in my case, three of them. I couldn't bear to let so much of it go back to the kitchen. None of which is to throw my companions under the bus. They did yeoman's work. But this mold, delicious as it was, could have easily served a dozen. Still, with a dark game flavor, sweet creamy foie and cool, juicy pieces of pheasant, I find it hard to rail against its formidable size.
|ST:TNG... booya.||He started it!||Dominic Armato|
The lunchboxes have gotten a good deal of press, and I daresay the luck of the draw netted me an excellent one. I learned after the fact that Flash Gordon was also in the house, complete with Sam J. Jones' visage, and it's probably just as well that I didn't get that one. My heart might've exploded with pure glee. But in any case, the lunchbox contained an assortment of goodies, none of which were especially photogenic, but all of which were tasty to varying degrees. The apple fruit roll-up was a little surprising in its conventionality, and the funyun was a less artificial-tasting version of the popular snack. The beef jerky was enjoyable, with a soy-based flavor, and we received a chocolate and hazelnut (I believe?) snack pak, which was simple and delicious, though I wish we'd gotten the parsnip version that was axed after the first week and a half. In truth, while an awful lot of fun, the lunchbox was more an exercise in whimsy than refinement. Or it would have been if not for the truffled oreo, which was shocking both in the intensity of the truffle flavor, and also in just how delicious it was. I would have swapped my thermos full of alcoholic berry drink for another in a heartbeat. Incidentally, while I don't imagine it would have been very practical, part of me wishes we'd all received different treats, to encourage trading.
|Pixy Stix and Bubblegum Float||Dominic Armato|
With the lunchbox acting as a sort of transitional course, we then moved straight into dessert, starting with pixy stix and a bubblegum float. The pixy stix came in three flavors -- pomegranate, strawberry and one I don't recall -- and they weren't quite as sweet as commercial pixy stix, more powdery than granulated. This kept the overpowering sweetness of their inspiration in check, but it also made it a little more difficult to get them out of the tube. No matter. The real star of this course was the float. Made with an exceptionally sweet but wonderfully flavored bubblegum soda and a gorgeous ice cream made with crème fraîche. I'm neither a fan of overly sweet soda nor of bubblegum, but the float was fabulous and I found myself wishing it were twice its size.
|Foiesting and Donuts||Dominic Armato|
There's a little bit of genius in using electric beaters as a utensil for a childhood menu, and I can't think of a more apt juxtaposition of childhood and adult experience. The apple cider donut holes were excellent, fried hot and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. But there can be no mistaking the star of this plate. Dripping from the beater in the background is Next's "foiesting," a sweet, thick and creamy foie gras puree. Foie in a dessert context is nothing new, but there's something beautifully minimal and decadent about this, licking sweet, rich foie from the beater, getting it on your nose and cheeks, and generally making a sticky mess of yourself with a precious and expensive ingredient.
|Campfire||Sweet Potato Pie||Dominic Armato|
When the lights are dimmed that usually means fire, and Chef Beran brought in a small campfire set on slate and set it alight. The logs were sweet potato wedges, made dark by poaching them with blue corn, and fueled by white clumps of powdered alcohol. And as the fire burned, the table grew quiet. I'm not sure whether the occasional crackle and pop were made by the fire or my imagination, but somehow it felt like a summer campfire just for a moment. Once the lights came up, back on our plates were chunks of crumbled, candied dough acting as a stand-in for pie crust, a fabulous bourbon ice cream, light vanilla marshmallows, and some manner of light fruit puree. We added the logs, scooped on some charred powdered alcohol (which bore a remarkable resemblance to toasted marshmallows in flavor), and topped it all with a drizzle of warm butterscotch meant to resemble Werther's candies. It would have been a wonderful dessert even if served in a conventional manner, but the presentation really was an awful lot of fun.
|Hot Cocoa||Dominic Armato|
To round out the meal, we received a simple cup of hot cocoa. Not drinking chocolate, not spiced Mexican dark chocolate, not chile spiked Venezuelan chocolate, but smooth, creamy and sweet hot cocoa. As we filtered out of the restaurant, I noted with shock that our meal had set a new record for me, clocking in at six hours and fifteen minutes. And yet, I've had two hour meals that felt much, much longer. I attribute this partly to the company, and partly to the fact that the meal was such an unconventional delight. I've heard it said that the food, when taken in a vacuum, leaves a little to be desired. It certainly isn't at the level of Alinea (nor, to be fair, is it intended to be). And though some dishes were stellar, some were less so, and I'm not sure I can argue with that conclusion. But this meal didn't take place in a vacuum. It was a complete piece -- a fully conceived entertainment -- and while my usual MO is to consider the food apart from its environs, this is one instance where I just can't. Or more accurately, I really don't care to.
Though a wild success, Next isn't lacking for critics. The ticket/production structure has caused the more cynical to cluck that Kokonas and Achatz have cleverly devised a way to sell out every seat, obtain all of their fees up to three months in advance (soon to be a year when they start selling four dinner "subscriptions"), and assure that they get a fresh look from the press four times per year. And all of this is true. It is kind of sly. But as far as I'm concerned, a dinner like this completely justifies the existence of the restaurant. Where else could something like this be done? You couldn't maintain these menus for any length of time. It's a wonderful experience, but I certainly don't feel compelled to have this same meal again. And I don't see how a pop-up could be executed with this level of refinement and precision. But a dinner like this deserves to be done, and if not at Next or a restaurant like it, then where? It was ten or fifteen minutes after we sat down, just barely into the meal, when my friends started sharing childhood stories. And as the meal progressed, every little discovery evoked a laugh, a smile, a memory and another story. This continued through the night as we giggled, chatted, played with our food and generally acted in an even more juvenile fashion than usual. If having that experience means that a couple of the dishes weren't quite all that they could be in a stuffier context, then this is one of the very, very rare occasions where I really don't mind.
|935 W. Fulton Market|
|Chicago, IL 60607|
|Wed - Sun||5:30 PM - 11:30 PM|