GUEST POST Today we have an epic guest post for all the readers of Food in Mouth. Jonathan who blogs at Hungry in Milwaukee went to Next Restaurant with his wife Grace and has an epic account of the meal. Many of you probably know all about Next Restaurant, but for those who need a refresher, it's a new restaurant by Grant Achatz and Nick Kononas. They previously partnered on Alinea, which you can read about here (also from Jonathan). The restaurant features a focus on foods from different historical periods. Right now it's 1906 Paris, France. They also have a slick new ticketing system instead of a reservation system. Secondary markets for their tickets have already been seen on Craigslist. So both in food and price discrimination terms, Next Restaurant seems to be paving the way. The Executive Chef is Dave Beran, so let's see what the creative team from Alinea and Chef Beran has in store from Paris, 1906.
I walked into Next with mixed feelings – excitement, curiosity, trepidation and frustration. It seemed like I had been through so much just to get to this point. It seemed so easy at first. Sign up on the Next preview website and have early access to tickets. And along with 20,000 people or so that’s what I did.
The whole endeavor seemed hyped with full-lengthed features in both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune in the months leading up to its opening. I suppose it’s fair since not only was the concept of the restaurant new, but so was the ticketing system. On top of a restaurant concept that would change every three months, reservations tickets had to be booked and paid for online in advance. And what seemed like a simple and straightforward process became the single most frustrating part of my day. It involved 5 major steps:
1) Stalk the Next Facebook Fanpage
2) If tickets are being released on the website (usually at 10 am) logon just before 10 am and madly click on the refresh key for 30 min hoping to see a calendar appear to buy tickets.
3) Stalk the Next Facebook Fanpage again hoping for same day ticket announcements
4) When same day tickets are announced (usually somewhere between 2pm-4pm) quickly send an email to email@example.com. Pre-write a template for quicker sending. Hope to get a call from the Next gods.
Mind you I live in Milwaukee so same day tickets would require me to somehow get to Chicago in time for the meal and then back to work the next morning. I suddenly found myself utterly frustrated at the fact it was almost impossible for me to compete with people sitting at a desk for tickets. It's hard to justify running out of a patient room to click refresh for 20-30 minutes. I started to get downright bitter and Grace, my wife, wrote off our chances completely. Then one day, with sheer luck, I got tickets – and all was forgiven.
Perhaps my biggest fear was whether food which Grace and I had read so much about would live up to expectations. Since we had all but given up we had read all the major reviews: Eater's blow-by-blow photo spread, Phil Vettel’s Chicago Tribune review, Julie Kramer’s Timeout Chicago review, and Mike Sula’s Chicago Reader review. Can a meal with no surprises be as good as the unexpected?
The answer is a resounding – yes. Even as Grace could call out which dish would come out next, we were consistently impressed by the flavors and surprised by small touches we hadn't caught in simply reading about the food. This seems to be a testament to both Escoffier's food from Le Guide Culinaire and the skill with which it was prepared.
(1) Hors d'Oeuvres
The first course is a plate of hors d'oeuvres and perhaps the closest to how things may have actually been served in 1906. As "the main liberty [Next has] taken with the presentation is to 'plate' most of the courses. At the Ritz, this menu would have been presented as part of a grand buffet, or served upon great platters set amongst the guests at large tables."
The plate consisted of 5 items:
1) slice of brioche piped with foie gras torchon and garnished with roasted mustard seed-apricot jam
2) an open eggshell filled with truffled custard and brandade, finished with black truffle shavings
3) quail egg with anchovy
4) pork face rillette
5) mushroom duxcelle stuffed leek
Each was outstanding in its own right, but some more than others. The stuffed leek was sweet and had an almost Japanese flair. The pork rillette on a cracker had strong roasted pig flavors, but the cracker was jarringly crunchy. The foie gras torchon was smooth and silky and melted perfectly into the brioche. But it was the eggs that left me craving seconds. The slightly sweet and sour anchovy perched atop an egg ready to spill its creamy yolk. And the creamy truffle custard matched with an enigmatic salty slightly tart brandade, oh to have just one more spoon.
(2) Potage a la Tortue Claire – Clear Turtle Soup (Escoffier 907)
The one thing I had been dreading was the Turtle Soup. I pride myself on my ability and moreover my desire to eat and try anything and everything. And turtle is low on the totem of bizarre food, but this was about something else. I have had few pets in my life, but I have had a turtle. So as a form of solidarity with my dearest of pets (Jam R.I.P.), I made a pact not to eat turtle. That is not to say that I have never eaten turtle (because I had prior to may pact at age 14), but it was my one item on the "do-not-eat list". And now I had come face to face with a choice. Do I drink the soup? Do I bother the kitchen? Or do I pass it on to Grace to have a second serving? In the end, I decided that after all the effort it took to get here, Jam would have wanted me to have a taste. So I did.
Dear Friend, forgive me for this trespass. From this day forth I renew my pact with you. P.S. Your brother was delicious.
(3) Filet de Sole Daumont (Escoffier 1950)
4 elements (sole, fried roe, crayfish stuffed mushroom and a crayfish head filled with crayfish mousse) on a bed of creamy yellow sauce. One of my favorites and enticing enough for me to look up in Escoffier just to see if I could ever think about reproducing it. What I found of course is that Escoffier is written like a maze - this recipe taking no less than four others to complete.
Spread fillets with a fish and cream forcemeat finished with crayfish butter (234). Roll them up Paupiette shape (2000) and shallow poach with fish stock.
When cooked, drain and place each Paupiette on a large cooked cup mushroom filled with a Salpicon of crayfish tails à la Nantua (2102); coat with Sauce Normande (139).
Arrange in a circle on a suitable round dish with 4 crayfish carapaces filled with the same forcemeat and poached, and 4 nice soft roes, egg and breadcrumbed and shallow fried in butter, placing one of each between each Paupiette.
(4) Supremes de Poussin (Escoffier 3130)
A dish that Grace was most interested in as it seemed controversial amongst the critics (Vettel loving, Sula and Kramer not as much). In the end, both Grace and I fall more in the love category. While the thin, flat, diamond-shaped piece of poached chicken coated with a layer of sauce don't exactly pair perfectly with the two sections of poached cucumber stuffed with chicken mousse and wrapped in a thin band of salt pork they are both delicious and sometimes that’s enough.
(5) Caneton Rouennais à la presse (Escoffier 3476) & Gratin de pommes de Terre à la Dauphinoise (Escoffier 4200)
The sixth course - a family-style platter of pressed duck with a dish of Comté-saturated potatoes dauphinoise – is already almost legendary. The restaurant specifically has two antique duck presses for this dish to press the roasted bone for the rich and sanguineous sauce. It is the best duck I have had in a while. The confit leg and thigh that comes along side is perfectly salted and moist, holding its own against the tiles of perfect duck breast. It truly makes one wonder: are you a breast or a leg man? With these choices it is hard to choose.
Salade Irma (Escoffier 3839)
A lovely salad in a light mayonnaise sauce. Perhaps more remarkable than anything is its place on the menu.
(7) Bombe Ceylan (Escoffier 4826)
Ice cream covered in cocoa powder on a chocolate cookie - a very nice dessert, but not as memorable as any other part of the meal.
Salted caramel, beet gelée and pistachio nougatine.
Minor quibbles: the bread was an afterthought and nothing special. The gratin was salty and on the verge of inedible – so close to the edge in danger of mimicking a Wiley Coyote like fall.
At the front of the kitchen is a clock. In front of the clock are a line of tickets with the story of every meal. The staff surreptitiously notes the diners every move. The spies (as I always suspected) are all around us. On the dinner ticket is the exact time you stand to go to the bathroom (twice, once for each of us, early in the meal) and exact time you get your drink poured. Food, as it turns out, should follow your drink by a minute - just long enough for you to enjoy your first sip and not long enough for you to wonder when your food is coming. In the end a total tally of how long the meal took (1:46).
The service is without a doubt fantastic. The servers are jovial and each personable in their own way - some with a smile, others with a wry sense of humor. By the nature of table setup it can at times feel like a flurry of activity if tables around you are being served at once, but this is a small matter.
Because of Grace's current state of ":with child": and my current state of ":can't-hold-his-alcohol": we both got the non-alcoholic pairings. To my surprise they were in fact pairing in the spirit of wine pairing.
I can't really believe I haven't encountered this before. Why not just build a drink to pair around flavors that wine tries to evoke? It seems so logical.
1) Ginger, elderflower, pineapple – light and herbal
2) Blis elixer xo, sparkling cider – sparkling cider, like a nice champagne
3) Carrot, saffron, fennel
4) Pomegranate, verjus, ti kuan yin – made like a pinot noir, pomegranate juice infused with the scent of tea
5) Cherry, lapsang souchong, sanbitter – gunpowder like aroma, bitter aftertaste improves with duck and its sauce
6) Roasted banana tom and jerry - like a banana shake
Every restaurant experience comes down to expectations, execution and the perspective of the diner coming into the experience. If anything, Next had the deck stacked against it. I was bitter, and expectations were high. But in the end, the experience was fantastic and makes me curious to see it in its next form – Thailand 2032. I just hope I have the patience to try and get tickets.
953 W Fulton Market.
Chicago, IL 60607
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