To briefly answer the question: I’m not sure. To give it a long go, read on.
I went to Grant Achatz’s mostly new restaurant Next a few weeks ago with Paul. I wanted to let it set in for a while before I wrote a review. Because, well, I was conflicted (and still am). For those of you who are unaware of the premise (gimmick??), a brief summary: You buy a ticket (with or without wine pairing… the cost is dependent upon night of the week, time of the night, and which pairing you choose) for an “event.” The event changes every three months. For the opening three months, the theme was Paris 1906—Escoffier at the Ritz. You and your dining companions enter the restaurant at the appropriate time, enjoy your meal, and leave. Everyone gets the same food, sorry no substitutions. So, this is how our night unfolded:
We arrived 15 minutes early and walked right past it. The windows were covered, the door is just a door, and the sign was rather small. Once inside it was pretty dark as they had the curtains to the dining room mostly closed. (It was an extremely chilly May evening.) After coats were taken, we were seated by the hostess (who incidentally was a classmate of mine in culinary school). Then, the server brings out a description of Paris 1906. It discusses Auguste Escoffier and his Le Guide Culinaire. Escoffier is studied in culinary school because he was extremely innovative in not just his cooking techniques, but in the way he organized his kitchen. He is pretty much the reason why we think French cooking as the highest level of cuisine. (Even if you don’t agree [and I don’t], you still think French food is froo froo fancy, don’t you? Blame the big E.)
The server takes away your little essay and starts bringing the wine and food. Each course is explained, each pairing talked about in detail. You will have different servers throughout the night—each one as competent as the next. Nothing is removed until everyone at the table is finished eating (a HUGE pet peeve of mine is when servers do the whole “Can I take this?” and your dining companion is still eating). We had the regular pairing wine pairing, and I’ve noted those at each course. The only one I didn’t like was a brandy-like white, but now I can’t remember which one it was.
Hors d’Oeuvres (paired with Château d’Orschwir Crémant d’Alsace Brut… yes Brut, it fizzes!): Presented on a large platter, we each received a semi-soft boiled quail egg with anchovy, small cracker with pork rillettes (like pâté), a mushroom concoction rolled in leek, toast with a circle of foie gras embedded in it spread with apricot jam, and truffle-topped egg custard sitting in an egg shell. I loved them all, and I especially enjoyed the miniature spoon for the custard (which had several layers, by the way… the top of which was rather foamy). Everything was very little, delicate, and perfectly assembled.
Soup Course: Potage à la Tortue Claire (paired with Domaine de Montbourgeau l’Etoile ‘Cuvée Spéciale’ Jura 2005): A clear turtle soup (consommé) with mirepoix. The server sets down a perfect white china soup bowl (two delicate handles and a pretty gold rim). The mirepoix is on the bottom and then he pours in the soup. Perfect temperature, mirepoix had a dried texture that I wasn’t sure about.
Fish Course: Filet de Sole Daumont (paired with Olivier Merlin ‘La Rochse Vineuse,’ Macon 2009): Crawfish head with piped in sole, a piece of sole filet, a mushroom stuffed with sole roe, and a breaded sole bit all sitting in a lovely, creamy, saffron sauce. There is bread to soak up the extra sauce. I loved this course, but to be fair, the breaded item was a fancy hush puppy.
Meat Course: Suprêmes de Poussin (paired with Château de la Liquière ‘Les Amandiers’ Faugères 2009): A wee bit of chicken (supreme just means free of all parts [skin and bones]) topped with something that I can only describe as butterscotchy (in both look and taste). There were two poached cucumbers filled with chicken mousse on the side. Even though they were wrapped in salt pork and topped with dill, I found them to be odd. They were the most disappointing part of the meal. Warm cucumber? Ick.
Meat Course Two: Caneton Rouennais à la Presse served with Gratin de Pommes de Terre à la Dauphinoise (paired with Domaine Brusset ‘Les Travers’ Cairanne 2006): For all of the fancy words, it was pressed duck with a side of cheesy, scalloped potatoes. But, make no mistake, as I told Paul, I can use five words to describe this course: Worth the price of admission. If you like duck, you need to eat this duck. If you don’t like duck, you need to eat this duck. It will change your mind. Let’s not talk about how the duck is made (pressed duck… seriously, don’t look it up). But let’s talk about how this course has lingered with me. The skin was crispy, the inside tender and moist. The potatoes were ridiculous. They had multiple layers of cheese and butter. When I die and they crack open my chest to take a look at my arteries, they will find these potatoes. And, I will be happy to say that it was worth it. And, the sad irony is that this course has ruined duck and potatoes for me. Nothing else will ever compare. (I’m not even going to go on about the sauce…. Oh, sweet Lord Almighty, that sauce.)
Salad Course: Salade Irma: Asparagus and radishes with a flower on top. About the only time I can get behind flowers on my food was this course. And, thank you, for actually serving it at the end of the meal. The dressing had hints of lime.
Dessert: Bombe Ceylan (paired with Graham’s Tawny Port): I love port and by this point, let’s be honest, I was drunk. The server would give us a healthy pour and then leave the bottle at the table for the remainder of the course. (What? I know!) The bombe was ice cream with cocoa powder coating, chocolate cookie bottom and happy (rum-soaked) cherries on the side. My ice cream fell off the cookie, but it was still good.
Mignardises (paired with coffee for me and tea for Paul): That would be French for wee bitty desserts after the dessert. (There is a reason we love the French.) There was a jellied beet square (I did not like that one bit. But, I hate beets.), nougat, and salted caramel. Woo hoo on the caramel. The coffee was fabulous. Like I remember in my dreams from Europe about how coffee should be. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of my dream coffee, it should be a bit thicker (hot chocolate consistency) and not bitter. Smooth and nice. Drinking a meal.
And, then just as soon as we started (and three hours later), we were done. Our server came back with the menu tucked into our previously read essays. (And, just in case you don’t own a copy of Escoffier’s tome, the numbers after each item on the menu correspond with the recipe in Le Guide Culinaire. So, perhaps, next month, I will remake some of these fine items as Escoffier imagined them.) Our server then walked us to the door where our coats and car were waiting for us. And, that was it. It felt oddly liberating to walk out without having to sign for a check or think, “Holy Moses! With tip, this is going to be a bit more than I anticipated.”
So, now, the food was excellent and small bites, but we still left full. I mean, the duck really put us over the edge. The service and place settings were top-notch.
Now, for the bad side of it: I reserved my tickets right when we were allowed to reserve, but if you didn’t reserve early (from their waiting list), you are basically stuck getting same night seats off of Facebook. (The restaurant opens up tables each morning for that night and only alerts you on FB.) So, if you have any sort of child living at your home that would need tending, it’s a bit difficult to plan an evening. Some might say that the room layout is also a con. It’s a typical Chicago-style restaurant—long and narrow. So, a draft from the door will blow through the place.
Will I go back? A decided maybe. I don’t have the money to make this my regular haunt. And, honestly, you only need to go back every three months when they change the menu. Having said that, it will take a very interesting theme for me to return. I liked the take on Escoffier, because I had studied him in school. And, it was like crawling around Grant Achatz’s brain while eating each one of these dishes. You could really see where he was going and why he did what he did. This is NOT authentic 1906 food, but rather his idea of what is possible with Paris 1906 ideas.
What my trip to Next did for me was make Alinea (Achatz’s upscale joint) even more of a must-eat trip. (Does anyone have $800 that they could lend me?)
Location: 953 W. Fulton Market. Valet available, but street parking isn’t that difficult depending upon the night you go.