Next Restaurant – 953 W Fulton Market – Chicago, IL
I’ve been pretty lucky to eat at Next a significant number of times – I have the utmost respect for the Achatz team, and Next continues to push the envelope and it keeps on innovating. I was even luckier to have the opportunity to buy season tickets this year for a group of menus that sounded much more interesting than last year’s. I’ve definitely set my expectations quite high for each meal I eat there at this point, and unfortunately, when expectations are set that high, it sets up for a bit of disappointment. That being said, the Chinese Modern menu at Next was interesting – had some hits and misses – didn’t astound or wow me like some of the previous menus, but was still a solid effort from Dave Beran and his team.
It’s been a bit over a month, and a number of dishes stand out in my mind, and some do not, so I’ll focus on the highlights.
Loofah – Chinese Okra
Pressed Chinese okra with coriander, Szechaun pepper
Taking a page from the Achatz book, the meal starts by involving the centerpiece, a large stalk of Chinese okra pressed into a bowl of tea, seasoned with Chinese spices – an interesting idea and gimmick, but an average start to the meal.
Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb
I was torn between expecting a solid performance of a known entity vs. embracing Beran’s expected twist on the traditional. He came out here with three variations on Dim Sum – the left is a foam congee, the second – a pork mousse “soup dumpling”, and on the right, a scallop dumpling, The foam congee served over a perfectly cooked pork braise was incredible, the scallop dumpling as well. The soup dumpling is where I missed the traditional, as it didn’t have that “burst’ of flavor you get with a soup dumpling (or a black truffle explosion)
Monkfish with pickled white asparagus and shaved celery
Coconut with crab, green chili paste
The coconut dish was one of my favorites of the evening – quite rich with flavor, refreshing and filling at the same time. The crab was remarkably meaty, and was balanced perfectly by the subtle sweetness of the coconut, which was amazingly refreshing, making me wish they had saved this dish for later on in the meal.
Next up, a take on Chinese street food, squab and skate wing, both heavily spiced, heavy on the peppercorns, heavy on the salt, but in the end, a small bite.
Beef with Broccoli’
By now, I’m starting to get unusually full for a Next menu, and the next few dishes were extremely rich, but some of the late highlights of the menu. The Next take on beef with broccoli was interesting – glazed slices of a beef-jerky like preparation (apparently of leftover beef from the Steakhouse menu), the beefy flavor accentuated by the preparation, and some fried broccoli florets which were just alright. The duck here was perfectly cooked and solid, but the supporting cast left a bit to be desired.
Pulling Threads sweetbreads course
The last of the savory courses was a bit over the top. The idea is serving fried sweetbreasds, taro, and bananas, dipped in a more savory caramel-like sauce that hardens after dipping. The textural component of this dish was fascinating, but the sauce was quite intense and a bit much at that point.
Frozen rice soup
Dragon’s Beard Candy
Finally! Dessert choices here were pretty solid and not overly powerful in terms of taste. The frozen rice soup was more refreshing than flavorful, but the freeze dried english peas added a nice subtle flavor. The dragon’s beard candy, with a light sesame flavor and some floral notes, was one of my favorite Next desserts to date.
Of course, the meal ends with a fortune cookie, containing our menus (although it may have been nicer to get actual fortunes.
Service, as alawys with Next was solid – very informative, attentive without being stuffy. The meal was definitely pretty solid, but didn’t wow me like other meals I’ve had there and at other comparably priced restaurants in the city. It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in thinking that one of the big gripes about Next is that it started off by billing itself as a reasonably priced fine dining experience, but at this point, it can easily get up to well over $200 I got tickets to Trio and it’ll probably be the last I see of Next for a bit (you know, the whole marriage thing and all). But I am definitely looking forward to it.