18 July 2011

Next (Tour of Thailand), Chicago – Restaurant Review

In case anyone was still wondering, Next is the latest venture from chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, the team behind Alinea, one of the great restaurants of this world (stay tuned for a review of my latest visit). In the last few months there have probably been more column inches written about Next than perhaps any other restaurant on the planet. On my final night in Chicago I was lucky enough to bag one of Next's "golden tickets" and see for myself what all the fervent hype was about.

Comparisons between Achatz's two restaurants are meaningless, as Next is borne of a totally different ethos to Alinea. In fact Next is not really a restaurant at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a time machine, transporting you to different places and different eras in the past, present, or even future. Every three months the flux capacitors are charged, the DeLorean's doors are closed, and whoooosh, we're off to another time and place with an entirely different menu.

Next's inaugural set menu ran from April to June 2011 and featured food that the great chef Escoffier might have cooked at the Ritz in Paris in 1906. By all accounts it looked stunning. The second iteration is dateless, and is simply titled "Tour of Thailand" – a dramatic about-face from the previous menu that sees us go from beurre manié and mignardises to banana leaves and mango.

In charge of the kitchen is Dave Beran, one of Achatz's able lieutenants, who was brought over from Alinea. How Next's diverse approach must feel for the chefs, I can only guess. For three months you're immersed in the most classical of classic French cuisine and technique, then you're elbow deep in fish sauce and lemongrass, and then you're off to do something totally different again, and again, and again. Inspiring and challenging are words that probably don't do it justice, and I can think of no other restaurant that places such unique burdens on their chefs. I can't wait to see what other menus the Next team come up with – Rome 60 AD, Hong Kong 2046, ... erm ... Sesame Street 1975, perhaps?

But first, let's get one thing out of the way; getting a table at Next is a MAJOR ball-ache unlike any I have experienced before. It made getting tables at places like Noma, Alinea, and the Fat Duck seem like a toddlers' Easter egg hunt. You see, to go with Next's radical dining concept, a radical booking system was put in place.

The idea is to pre-sell tickets in advance, much as you would sell tickets to a concert. Everything from the food to the drink, tax and tip would be paid for upfront. These tickets would have different prices ($75-165 for the food, extra for the drinks) according to what time you eat – so 7:30pm on Saturday is going to cost you more than a table at 10:30pm on a Wednesday. A website was developed to handle ticket bookings, payments and transfers. The whole thing would be automated, so no more busy signals on a phone and waiting indefinitely on hold. It is a genius idea, and economically it is a boon for the restaurant; no more lost revenues from late cancellations, no more teams of people paid to man reservation lines. Payment up-front is also great from a cashflow point of view, and it allows them to accurately plan their food and wine purchasing months in advance. It is a fantastic system. In theory.

The reality is very different. Assuming you're not willing to pay $3,000 for a table from scalpers (something the restaurant is trying to crack down on), the booking process revolves around stalking Next's Facebook page for possible announcements about when they may (or may not) release tickets. When tickets are finally released the IT infrastructure creaks and groans under the load, and crashes are all too frequent. It took me over an hour of non-stop mouse clicking on Next's website to buy tickets, and even now I'm not quite sure how I did it.

Of course, this isn't entirely the restaurant's fault; instead it is the sheer number of US food lovers (and they invariably are US-based, as Next inexplicably doesn't take foreign credit cards) that are scrambling to get a table at Chicago's hottest restaurant. For the time being, though, I'll chalk it up as teething troubles and assume it's something they will try and improve upon going forward, but still, it's not the best way to start such a unique dining experience.

So, enough about how to get a table at Next. What's it actually like once you are actually in? Well, the answer is grey. Very grey. As the menu dramatically changes every three months, a neutral backdrop is needed that will be at home whether serving Escoffier's classics, Thai street food, or something else entirely. So, the long and narrow dining room is hued in shades of grey, with exposed steel beams arcing elegantly across the ceiling. It's a very comfortable place to while away the evening and, although there is a distinct lack of windows, it still manages to feel light and airy.

We are seated at a table adorned with Thai newspaper pages, which serve as a makeshift tablecloth for the opening salvo of tonight's meal. A waiter comes over to tell us a little bit about the cuisine we are about to experience. Pink paper napkins, plastic spoons and cups set the scene for our foray into Thai street food.

What arrives next can only be described as a barrage of flavour. First, a welcoming ice-cold drink of guava, mango, papaya and a touch of cucumber soda. Then, five bite-sized pieces of food bombard our palettes. Small intensely flavoured bananas are roasted in their skins and topped with fried garlic, pickled shallots, chilli and coriander. The robustly flavoured toppings working so well with the sweet sticky banana, as well as lending a nice textural contrast.

Fried prawn cakes made from dried prawns, white pepper, coriander and lime zest are an addictive combination of crispness and chewiness that packs a big umami punch. A bamboo steamer contained delicious soft buns filled with beech mushrooms and green curry. Next, some mint leaves that are adorned with barely cooked sweet fresh prawns which have been garnished with raw garlic, mint and slivers of bird's eye chilli. Although good, this was probably the least successful of the five snacks, with the strong garnishes lending it an almost medicinal taste.

Better though was the Naem, or fermented sausage; a specialty of the Northeast Isan region of Thailand. Here minced pork is blended with sticky rice, garlic and chillies and topped with peanuts, galangal and spring onion. The resulting sausage is dense and chewy with a pleasingly sour tang to it.
To follow was a hot & sour soup with a twist. The typical addition of chicken or prawns to this soup was replaced by cubes of meltingly tender pork belly. Although I'm a big fan of pork belly – and here it was fantastic – it definitely took a backseat to the actual soup. An aromatic broth, with plenty of emulsified pork fat in it, was poured into the bowl and was about as perfectly balanced a hot & sour soup as I've ever had. Each of the five key components of Thai food: sourness, sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and spiciness were equally present with laser-sharp clarity. Garnishes of tomatoes, chillies, shallots, ginger, Thai basil, and wafer thin slices of mushroom completed the picture. To go with the soup, a drink of chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee was served.
Then steamed jasmine rice arrives with much fanfare in a small banana leaf lined wicker basket. Accompanying it are three condiments: Nam Prik (the ubiquitous Thai paste of chilli, shallot, garlic, sugar, fish sauce and shrimp paste) had a depth of flavour that went on for miles and miles; the watermelon and unknown vegetable pickles could have been more punchy; and we're told that the moreish salted duck egg with green mango and white radish would have historically been used as a substitute for the then much rarer delicacy of fish roe.

Of course, now that the rice had been served, we knew the main event was just around the corner. Sure enough a fish shaped silver platter was placed on top of a charcoal burner at our table. In the platter were two pristine fillets of catfish that had been perfectly braised in a rich caramel sauce. Shavings of celery and coriander root added some fresh-tasting crunch. I'm not normally a fan of catfish, often finding it to be a bit bland and somewhat muddy tasting, but in this dish it worked really well: the neutral flavour of the fish being a perfect vehicle for that heavenly caramel sauce. With this course we drank a juice made with carrot, ginger and orange.

Following this, the final savoury course of the meal was served. It is telling that the only slip-up of the night from a service point of view was that this next dish was served while we were still only halfway through the catfish course. I don't think this was by design as we didn't see it happen to other tables. It's hardly a major issue, though, but when service has been as flawless as it had, it's the little things like this that stand out.

A deep bowl containing an enormous beef cheek was placed in front of us. The beef had been slowly cooked so that it was the very model of that hackneyed "fork-tender" cliché. It sat in a silky smooth Penang curry sauce of coconut, peanut, lemongrass, sweet corn and lime leaves. Hardly an original dish, but when it's executed as well as this, who cares? This course was served with perhaps the most exciting drink combination of the night: a hibiscus, mangosteen, and Thai long pepper soda added a pleasing astringent pepperiness to the dish.
Understandably, Next have opted to err on the side of caution with the chilli levels, but a little birdie told me that for those that ask there are two other "secret" sauces available to pep up your meal with: let's call them "fire" and "funk".  As it's name suggests the "fire" sauce is a mix of eye-wateringly hot Thai green chillies, garlic and oil, while the "funk" sauce is for those that really love their shrimp paste.

Following the rich beef curry came welcome respite and refreshment in the form of a cooling shot of near frozen watermelon and lemongrass juice.
Some audience participation was required for our first dessert course. We were instructed to hold out our hands to receive a seemingly whole coconut. The top of the coconut was then removed to reveal layer upon layer of the most wonderful flavours and textures. 'Noodles' of coconut and sweet egg yolk were (I think) joined by powdered coconut, nitrogen-frozen corn parfait, mango, candied limes, liquorice-infused tapioca pearls, anise hyssop, and pink peppercorns. Into the "lid" of the coconut went scoops of a light and sweet coconut water ice. This dish had more than a hint of Alinea about it (in fact, a similar combination of flavours has appeared on Alinea's menu) and was, for me, the star dish of the night. I could never grow tired of eating this; eating coconut and corn should be made compulsory. Simply amazing! This was paired with an interesting drink of orange, pineapple, corn, basil and lychee.

For the final dessert, a single rose was placed on the table. This was soon followed by half of a dragon fruit. Again, with another little nod to the alchemy being created at Achatz's other restaurant, we were instructed to sniff the rose then eat some of the white-fleshed fruit. The fruit had been infused with some sort of rose water, but the scent of the flower really intensified the taste of rose. It was a clever trick to extract maximum flavour from this otherwise bland fruit. A small glass of cooling cucumber water was also served with this course.

Finally, as a parting gift, and an echo of the opening street food style of food, some iced rooibos tea mixed with palm sugar and milk was served in plastic bags with straws. The tea had a wonderful mild smokiness to it, and was a playful end to a wonderful meal.
And that was it. A quick tour of the kitchen, a pleasant farewell, and off into the Chicago night we went. I must say it felt a bit strange, but also very liberating, not having to faff about paying a bill at the end of the night; we literally just got up and left.

The service at Next is definitely worth a special mention. Three months after the restaurant opened, the front-of-house seems to be running like a well-oiled machine. Service here straddles that fine line of being friendly without being overly colloquial. Staff are knowledgeable and have an infectious enthusiasm. From the moment we walked in through the door to the final farewell of the evening, everything seemed perfectly orchestrated. If you need to go to the toilet, a waiter will appear seemingly from nowhere to show you where it is. Not just point the way, mind, but actually walk you there. For a second I was a little worried he was actually going to come in with me. On your return to the table a waiter will push your chair in for you, where you will find a fresh napkin awaiting, neatly pleated like some piece of origami.

Of course, the danger with Next's concept is that it risks being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. But I don't think Next's goal really is to serve the best of a particular genre of food; that's always going to be an impossible task. In fact I've no doubt you will find better tom yum soup in Thailand and better Caneton à la presse in France for example. But what Next is about is seeing how one of the world's greatest chefs interprets a certain type of cuisine. Shakespeare may have written the script, but it was Laurence Olivier's talent that brought Richard III alive. In the same way, it is Achatz's sheer precision and attention to detail that brings fresh life and a new perspective on seemingly familiar food. The most successful dishes of the evening were those that combined the creative brilliance we see at Alinea with traditional Thai cuisine. It's a pity we didn't see more of this approach.

Good food has always had an element of theatre about it. Next takes this concept literally and turns itself into a limited-run production every three months with remarkable effect. Where else can you witness a new Grant Achatz restaurant being created every three months? To this end, I can't see the sheer level of demand for tables diminishing anytime soon, and Next is sure to be a long-term box office hit. So, if you're in Chicago, beg, borrow, or bribe your way to a ticket; that way you can sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Next really is all that.

Food:           8 / 10
Service:       9 / 10
Ambiance:   8 / 10

Next
953 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
U.S.A.
Next on Urbanspoon