Like any good foodie, when the masterminds behind Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz and Proprietor Nick Kokonas, decided to embark upon a creative and innovative venture called “Next,” I was immediately enthralled. Billed as an evolving restaurant that would change its identify every four months, including the theme, menu, and possible decor, Next embarked on an ambitious mission. Instead of the traditional reservation system, Next sold “tickets,” much like one would buy for a sporting or theatrical event. Dining at Next, one would soon learn, would be likened to going to the theater; only at Next, the food is the art. Each ticket would include the pre-fixe meal, tax, and a service charge, rather than a gratuity. Next would also offer various drink pairings at different price levels, including non-alcoholic, standard wine, and reserve wine pairings.
In order to sell these tickets, Next turned to social media, using Facebook and Twitter, to announce ticket sales. Glued to my computer in early 2011, I luckily obtained “tickets” to the very first menu: Paris 1906. I was then lucky enough to become a Next season ticket holder for two consecutive years. I have since dined at Next for every single menu. Some were huge hits, and some were definite misses, but over the top service has always been on point.
Recently, the concept has begun to lose its luster for me, with many dishes faltering in taste or execution, not to mention the obvious increase in prices. As a result, we elected not to renew our season tickets. And, it appears that many folks feel the same, as individual tickets are quite easy to come by for the current menu, that being Chicago Steak.
For the current menu, Next wanted to pay homage to the classic Chicago steakhouse, highlighting typical dishes served in such restaurants as the original Pump Room during the 1930s to 1950s, such as oysters Rockefeller, clams casino, and baked Alaska. Interestingly, while Next adopted a steakhouse theme, only one course out of the 10 on the prix-fixe menu, was beef. Others are vegetables, seafood, and dessert.
To start, a large silver bowl filled with ice and flowering crudites was place in the center of the table for sharing. The vegetables, which included kale, fennel, carrots, and celery, were dressed in a light ranch dressing with hints of dill pollen. It was a nice palette cleanser to start the meal. Freshly baked bread with an herb butter was also served.
Shrimp cocktail was the next course. Each diner received one single shrimp, served in a coup with fermented tomato sauce and horseradish, along with a tuille of celery. We found the cocktail sauce to be too liquidy and this dish fell short and felt unnecessary.
For the next course, each diner had a choice of three options: oyster il bronzino, Next’s take on oyster Rockefeller; surf and turf, made with grilled mussels and sweetbreads; or clams with pasta, a play on clams casino. My favorite of the three was the oyster, served atop crispy broccoli. The oyster was was smoky, rich, and delicious.
Each diner then received la vasseur salad, frog’s legs with watercress and pine nuts. The frog’s legs were tender and the salad overall was quite flavorful.
Next was one of my favorite dishes of the night: salmon coulibiac. The nicely cooked salmon was tucked inside a pastry crust and surrounded by a duxelle of finely chopped mushrooms and herbs, as well as a warm brown butter.
The sixth course was lobster thermidor, beautifully served in a cast iron skillet, and topped with microgreens and edible flowers. The lobster pieces were mixed with apple, sherry and a thyme focaccia and, overall, it was quite good.
Typical of all iterations of Next, a main dish is usually served to be shared by the diners, along with traditional accompaniments. For this menu, a large plate of 30 day dry-aged ribeye was placed in the center of the table, along with three different sauces, in addition to an onion gratine, Brussels sprouts, and “two-jacket” potatoes. While the ribeye was tender, it did not offer much flavor. However, all of the side dishes were wonderful; especially the potatoes.
Following the main course was a refreshing Champagne float intermezzo.
Finally, it was time for dessert. Diners again had to make a choice; this time, between a Norwegian omelette, another name for a baked Alaska, with flavors of hazelnut, cigar, and malt, which was set afire tableside, or a cheesecake brulée, which was my favorite, with hints of vanilla, and topped with ground graham crackers and blueberries.
To finish off the meal, the requisite thin mint was transformed into a mousse-like treat that was light and refreshing.
Overall, I really enjoyed this menu. While it was not my favorite out of each of the iterations we previously visited, as it was not as inventive or creative, the flavors were wonderful, service was superb, and the food was plentiful.
Next: Chicago Steak runs through April, 2014. For tickets, visit www.nextrestaurant.com.
953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, 60607