What do you say about a restaurant that has already had so much written in its honor?
Next was Chicago’s most-buzzed about and most-loved restaurant in 2011 and shows little sign of giving up that reign in 2012. A meal there ends up the perfect blend of upscale dining with down-to-earth fun, serving exceptional food, but in an environment that places you at ease. Through the course of the meal, the staff and the kitchen present a light-hearted and effervescent feeling that somehow hides the fact that you are part of a highly-choreographed and demanding act.
Next’s current menu is Childhood. Playful and whimsical, it is a twist on foods we loved as kids, but the meal is evocative rather than carbon-copied. Our last experience at Next was for Paris 1906 and it was traditional French in every way. However, Childhood is Modern. Modern with a capital M. It’s a style embodied by strange cooking techniques, foams, powders, and smells, and while there is inherently a higher level of risk, there is a similarly extreme possibility for reward.
The Fish ‘N Chips is an example of Next’s whimsy. Standing on a beer-battered beach, the balsamic Lady drops her russet potato net into the cucumber sea to pull out a fillet of slow poached Lake Superior Walleye under a Mayer lemon sun.
We were the first table seated at 5:30 on our particular Saturday night and we took about three and a half hours to slowly drool over a ten course meal, dining much longer than any of our neighbors. We asked questions, debated flavors, sipped our wines and refilled the glasses again before ending it all with a personal peak at the kitchen. We had come in this time without reading much about the menu ahead of time and were blown away with many great surprises. What more, really, can you ask from a meal?
One of these novel surprises was Winter Wonderland. A hollowed half-log arrived filled with fragrant smoldering juniper branches that could be smelled a few tables away. On top, a translucent glass plate held a gastronomic forest floor. Polenta rocks abutted a carrot log and an abandoned bale of hay was formed nearby from leeks. Autumn’s fallen leaves of chard lay crisp and dry juxtaposed atop soft decaying mushrooms. The whole scene was then dusted in the first powdery white mushroom snow of the season. This dish is flabbergasting in its rich imagery and suggestion, but equally triumphal judged only on taste. The chard stems are earthy and rich, redolent of beets but better. The whole mushrooms, tender and falling apart, lend a soft seductive flavor instead of a powerful fungal one. It was unexpected and — on some level at least — moving.
The smoldering Winter Wonderland
Or consider the equally entertaining, but utterly dissimilar Hamburger. A deconstructed and smashed up Big Mac homage, this seemingly humble entree succeeded through impeccable imitation. There was a smeared bun paste topped with sesame seeds, a salty ketchup that was unmistakably McDonald’s, and a short rib melt-in-your-mouth “patty.” Somehow each bite conjured up the whole and anyone with Happy Meal memories could connect — instantly, viscerally and primally — with the spirit trapped in the dish.
Looks like a train wreck, but tastes like a Big Mac
This sort of subconscious tapping was the theme at Childhood. The Mac & Cheese was a creamy Parmesan and Manchego wonder with a bevy of garnishes. The Fellow had a flashback of growing up when he bit down on a salami-basil pinwheel and when the Lady tasted nutmeg, a tear nearly formed. Later we had "Foie"sting and Donuts, a savory dessert of caramel and foie gras frosting served on the beater from a hand mixer with a side of fried apple cider dough bites. Maybe we never ate anything that tasted like that that as kids, but who hasn’t asked to lick a beater clean?
"Foie"sting and Donuts
At our Paris 1906 experience, the wines floored us with their complexity and uniqueness. They were extravagant, opulent and downright “Ritz”-y. For Childhood though, the pairings seemed a bit more even keeled; they were solid, but not necessarily adventurous. One of the pairings was bad — a mixed berry and juice cocktail backed by zinfandel that tried a little too hard to be a crappy juice box, — but a couple were laudable like the lovely, yet simple cocktail of Madeira and Luxardo Maraschino served as an aperitif and the sweet, creamy and honeyed Joseph Phelps ice wine with dessert.
The best wine trick of the night, however, came when we were given two glasses and encouraged to pair them to the dishes ourselves. A light and spicy 2006 Caparone Sangiovese turned out to be a favorite of the Lady while the fat, dark fruit-laden 2008 Sarah’s Vineyard Charbono was the pick of the Fellow. Each of us kept our respective glasses filled and smiles upon our faces until we reluctantly gave the bottles back.
The Fellow unpacking his lunchbox.
Our experience at Next again was brilliant. It was an unusual meal, yet one made comfortable and casual by the staff and presentation. Next has become a special spot for the two of us and it is the place against which we — both consciously and unconsciously — compare experiences. It is an example and a luxury, and it sets a high bar to match.