There may be no American restaurant more talked about over the past two years than Grant Achatz and Dave Beran’s Next Restaurant in Chicago.
Next completely changes its concept every couple months—they’ve done a Sicily restaurant, a childhood food tribute, Paris 1906, and for my recent visit, we ate at Kyoto.
Why so much buzz? Next is like a Broadway musical for people who love food: there are no reservations, only tickets to seatings; no menu choices, it’s a 12-course tasting.
The food price itself is extremely reasonable when you’re comparing it to top-notch restaurants: $125 per person for the whole menu (La Belle Vie has a grand tasting menu right now for $145). Then you select a beverage pairing ($78 for the standard pairing—there’s a lower-priced non-alcoholic option, and a higher-priced “reserve” pairing). So it’s a $200 meal, plus tip and tax, which brings it to $270, which is certainly a bargain when you look at some of the top restaurants in the country.
The more I think about the meal, the more I like it. It wasn’t the most delicious meal I’ve had in my life, but it was the most interesting, cerebral, and creative. It was a very-Japanese meal with complex layers of textures and flavors, not necessarily bold flavors. The showmanship, scholarship, and execution of Chefs Achatz and Beran is an experience to behold.
It started with the first course: a corn husk tea with a charred corn husk on the side. Tea is how you’d start a Japanese meal, but to taste the sweetness of the corn and smell the char of the burned husk was that experience reinterpreted by Next.
One of the servers came out with the corn tea and recited a haiku—which made my wife and I look at each other in horror: “Is this really happening? How stuffy is this place?” Then the server laughed and said that he made up the haiku.
The service was friendly, efficient, and instructional—with some of these courses, we needed help. Can we eat that Maple leaf in the dessert course? (Yes.) How do we eat the braised abalone, fresh abalone liver, radish and kinome leaf course served in the abalone shell? (One incredible bite.)
Aromatics are a big part of the experience: they lit a centerpiece of hay on fire in the second course, and another course came out with a platter of sizzling pine needles.
Visually, the Japanese maple forest tray was absolutely remarkable: gorgeous leaves and trees with little treasures hidden throughout. Duck prosciutto wrapped around a pickled turnip (amazing), buttery-poached shrimp on the floor, fried shrimp heads sat on top of twigs, fried parsnip with trout roe, lotus root chips with a “dip,” oh my.
The creativity to come up with a perfect eel in the crazy maple dashi broth (lower left) is just nuts. The stock is created from maple bark, infused with fish and seaweed. It wasn’t too much maple that it took away from the delicious Shimeji mushrooms or the delicious anago (eel).
My favorite: the barracuda (lower right)—grilled, flash fried, and delivered to the table on a grill. If the barracuda was the only thing I ate at Next, I would have been grateful for the experience. It was incredibly delicious.
The room was small but lively—there were probably 40 other diners at our 8:30 p.m. seating. The meal took about two and a half hours from start to end, and each course was paired with Japanese sake or beer, with a spirit and a cocktail peppered in.
Most cooks have a hard time mastering one menu, so it’s remarkable to think these are mastering three or four different restaurants in a year, cooking extremely complex dishes.
So what’s Next? In two weeks, “The Hunt” opens (bear jerky, venison heart tartare, foraging ideas, and survival food, according to the Chicago Tribune), then an all-vegan tasting in May (“Creativity often comes from imposing limits upon oneself and finding novel solutions within a framework of constraint” according to Next’s Facebook page), followed by a Bocuse d’Or cooking-competition-style tasting.
Start scouring ebay or Next’s Facebook page for information on when to buy tickets.
And kudos to Chef Achatz, Chef Beran, and partner Nick Kokanas for such a fun, exciting culinary achievement.