By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 11, 2011 4:00PM
Next isn't Alinea. That might seem an obvious statement, but it's the most important premise to keep in mind when dining at Grant Achatz's new project. If you go in expecting modernist gastronomical fireworks, you may be disappointed. And that would be a shame, because the cuisine at Next has its own pleasures in store.
If you're not a nerd for old-fashioned French food, you may not be quite as impressed as I was. Don't get me wrong, you'll still have an amazing meal - but you'll be even more impressed if you understand what the kitchen is trying to do. Right now, Next is turning out dishes that American kitchens haven't produced in 50 years, and the experience reminds us that while we may think we're special in the 21st century with our foams and our carbonated fruits, Escoffier still has us completely whipped.
The meal began with a platter of "Hors d'Oeuvres" that made me realize that I hadn't understood the meaning of the phrase. Tiny, perfectly constructed bites each more beautiful than the last, and each with a little surprise. The highlight, a brioche toast with a smear of foie gras, turned out to have an entire plug of foie, perfectly aligned with the slice of the bread. The egg cup, filled with a savory custard and eaten with a demitasse spoon, forced me to use genuine restraint - rather than delicately pecking at the egg with our dainty utensil, I wanted to break it open and lick it clean.
Course after course of surprises came. A dish of white meat, formed into a diamond, somehow convinced me that chicken could be exciting. A turtle consomme (turtle soup!) was possessed of such belly-warming richness that I wish it had been colder outside, so I could've run in and out of the dining room to appreciate it more. And then, the much-talked-about piece de resistance, the pressed duck. I may be threatened by torch-wielding Yelpers for saying this, but the duck was nothing compared to the accompanying potatoes, a Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise that made me sit up and beg for more.
Is everything perfect? No. The Salade Irma, served after the duck, is utterly forgettable, except for the fact that it allows nerdy foodies to feel superior, since they already know that in French cuisine, the salad comes after the main course, not before. The pastries, while solid and enjoyable, are oddly free of spectacle, given the tendency of French cuisine towards over-the-top sweets. Indeed, the meal seemed to peak a little early, though given that the peak was so high, the rest of the experience may have simply been the safe, cautious return to reality, a slow decompression chamber rather than a nosedive.
One point of the otherwise-perfect service deserves mention. The paired wines, despite my cash-saving passion for the libations of Chile, Spain and Australia and the modern snobbery of California, reminded me that France still has some tricks up her sleeve. But, for each of the main courses, the wine bottle is left on the table. This is jarring for a few reasons. First, after 4-5 pours of wine, the last thing a diner needs is access to an all-you-can-drink buffet. Second, the bottle left on the table is not a fresh bottle, but whatever the staff is pouring from at the moment, meaning that you could be left with a single glass, or three. It seemed a gesture designed to convey a feeling of abundance, rather than actually contributing anything to the meal.
Achatz and his executive chef, Dave Beran, have accomplished exactly what they set out to. Next takes diners to a moment in culinary history, and uses the perfectionism developed at Alinea to do justice to that moment. Hopefully, as the hype calms down, Chicago will see Next for what it is - a great, geeky restaurant, encumbered by a complicated set of barriers to entry. In any case, the hoops are worth jumping through.
Next is located at 953 W Fulton Market.