The second Great New meal I had this week was in Chicago, at Grant Achatz’s Next. The theme was “Kyoto”. I have to confess I had never been to Chicago, and although I of course knew who Grant Achatz was (who doesn’t) and had read about Alinea many times (I even bought the cookbook, which remains to this date my only cookbook from which I have not been able to cook a single thing), I wasn’t up to speed with what was going on at Next, and how they were so radically changing the menu every 3-4 months to celebrate another cuisine, region, city, country, era or even restaurant (they did El Bulli). A close friend was bringing me up to speed over the phone about all this but was also complaining how difficult it was to get tickets to Next (Achatz’s restaurants are now “ticket” based, i.e. you have to buy in advance a ticket to your full meal, as if i were a play or musical). What a strange coincidence that in parallel I also talked to my good friend Ryan Sutton about these Next tickets, and a few hours later, in quite the secret club style, I got a message from him “Next On Sale Now”. We immediately jumped ship and got a hold of the much demanded tickets, and just like that the first trip to Chicago was born!
When you arrive at Next it makes you feel like you really belong to this secret dining club. Dark entrance, dark corridor, dark corner. After you announce yourself you are walked down the single corridor dining room (tables to the sides) , with the see-though kitchen in the end, often guarded at the entrance with the powerful looking Chef de Cuisine, Dave Beran.
We arrived at 10.15pm and left almost at 2am. Diners at next are no light matter, true culinary marathons of impressive quality and substance. Grant & Co. have made a name for themselves for pushing creativity beyond its known boundaries, and Next is no exception. It’s one of those meals were every single bite evokes a conversation, an opinion, and guessed try as to how they came up with this, how did they cook that, what comes Next?
The first thing we were asked to do was read a story that same in a small rolled up piece of parchment. The story was about the origins of Kaiseki, and how what the guys at Next aim to do is so similar to it: an evolved dining experience aimed at taking you on a culinary journey. The journey here was Kyoto in Autumn.
The first course was a sweet delicate soup made of burned corn, “corn husk”. A delicious way to start. The immediate second course started giving you a taste of what was about to come…. an amazing tofu/chestnut square with tiny slices of apple. The chestnut flavor went really well with the tofu texture of the square. Impressive. At that point there was a bit of drama added to the dinner by the lightening up with a small blowtorch of some hay pieces on the table. I trust this was a good pairing in terms of taste/smell.
What came next was probably the experience made the whole trip to Chicago worthwhile. A large tray called the “Forest” which contained multiple surprises, some hidden, some not so hidden, for one to discover and eat. Everything was tasty and eye opening, from the nutty flavor of the shrimp to the soy powder on the bottarga disc. Shrimp heads, legs, the parsnip “bark” with roe, the lotus root and yellow sauce. This is truly the reason one comes here, something you can’t get or experience anywhere else. An adventure in its own right this whole course was.
The next course was small pieces of sashimi. Maybe it is my ignorant palate, but the sashimi was delicate and soft but nothing too different from sashimi I have tried at other high end japanese restaurants. The sticky black sweet soy sauce was a plus.
We were then presented with the strangest most elaborate course of the night. Abalone. There were at least 8 tiny components inside the Shell, half of which I suspect where the meat/offal of the Abalone the other half added garnishes. The liver was particularly delicate, the meat slightly chewy. Interesting dish. Never tried it before.
Following the Abalone was a very delicate Dashi, with a small deep fried Anago (eel), Shimeji mushrooms and scallions. Very nice. After Dashi came the Chawanmushi, great as well but not too different from the one you get at Naoe, for instance.
At this stage in the meal, Grant Achatz came out of the kitchen and walked down the dining room to disappear through another door which I believe leads to the Aviary. He looked excited, sad, tired, energized, crazy, thoughtful. All at the same time. We were the only table turning heads to see him so probably everyone else is either a regular at Alinea or an ignorant tourist!
Next up was the Ayu, small meaty fish that had their flesh skewered and presented on a small charcoal grill at the table. The meat was very flavorful and rich. The big plus were the skeletons of the Ayu which were presented deep fried table side, fully edible and delicious. Very rarely one gets to enjoy and entire fish in this manner.
The tempura style leafs and vegetables that came next were perhaps the most delicate course of the night. The way tempura should be, really.
The final dish consisted of a Soup. The broth was poured at the table in the communal bowl, and the contents included mostly radish, tiny mushrooms, rice and tiny green sprouts. The broth was sweet and savory, but the highlight of the dish was the beef content. I had to ask since it felt so familiar, and of course, it was none other than Cap of Rib-Eye. It felt familiar of course thanks to this meal.
The final two courses were the desserts, the first of which included an edible maple leaf, soy ice cream and a soy curd. The second dessert was a “foamy” green tea with a small chocolate /soy jelly
We were given a brief (don’t touch) tour of the kitchen, time at which almost everyone was ready to go home. Surprisingly Chef Beran furiously shook my hand! Amazing level of energy for that time of day and that job. Impressive.
I strongly suggest anyone who is serious about food get on the Next bandwagon and be on the lookout for these tickets. Amazing meal, experience, and journey. Impressive.