Eating the Thailand Menu at Next

953 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL

Our vain efforts at reading the Thai newspaper on our table were interrupted by our server: “Have you ever heard Thai hip-hop?” The music moving through the spare dining room was far from our usual interests, but our server’s first question seemed to set the tone for our evening at NEXT: unabashedly sophisticated delights, innovative presentations, and informed, efficient, and unpretentious service.

We entered the restaurant at 5:15, fifteen minutes ahead of our ticket time. As such, we were the first ones to sit down, and so we stayed a course ahead of everyone else in the place for the night, so we were first to find out the next surprise. What followed were nine courses spread over 2 1/2 hours, and easily one of the great meals of our lives. Each flavor, bold and distinct, melded together with a carefully orchestrated set of sensory stimuli Grant Achatz threw at us: the smell of flowers worked subtly into dishes; the flash of color changes of napkins and place settings; the tactility of piles of chopped cocount shells; and the flavors, monotonously recited by our waiters until the explosion of that first bite. What follows is less of a review than a memory recap, and sincere apologies to all of you who were not able to get tickets. Enjoy:

Course 1: “Thai street food.” Utensils: a Thai newspaper, a banana leaf; paper plates, and plastic knives and forks. Dishes: Roasted bananas topped with pickled garlic, fried shallots, tiny Thai chilis, cilantro flowers and leaves; Fried Prawn cake with white pepper, lime zest, and coriander; Sweet shrimp with raw garlic and bird chilis, wrapped in a mint leaf; Fermented Thai sausage topped with peanuts, galangal, and and grilled scallions.

Cleanser 1: Juice of guava, mango, and papaya.

Course 2:  Thai street finished with two steamed buns, filled with mushrooms and spicy green curry.

Cleanser 2: Juice of chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee.

Course 3: A riff on Tom Yum Soup: hot and sour broth with pork belly, tomato, and kaffir lime.

Course 4: A bamboo basket of steamed rice, paired with three sauces: a) A spicy mixture – the finest combination of flavor and capsaicin M has ever had – with chilis, shallots, and garlic; b) a sauce of salted duck egg with green mango and white radishes; and c) a sauce of pickled fruits and vegetables mixed with basil (pictured).

Course 5: Catfish braised in caramel sauce with celery, coriander root, a hibiscus flower, and the most amazing pearl onions we’ve ever had. No idea what he put in those things, but they were worth the price of admission.

Cleanser 3: Juice of carrot, ginger, and orange.

Course 6: Panang Curry remix: braised beef cheek in a curry of peanut, nutmeg, coconut, and lemongrass.

Cleanser 4: Juice of watermelon and lemongrass.

Course 7: A hollowed out coconut, served two ways. On the left: freeze-dried egg yolk, coconut, chili flakes, and licorice-infused tapioca balls. On the right: sweet coconut sorbet.

Cleanser 5: Juice of corn and pineapple.

Course 8: Half of a dragon fruit, served with a “smelling pairing” of a pink rose. We were instructed to eat half of the fruit, then smell the rose and eat the second half, taking note of the difference in flavor.

Course 9: Thai iced tea served in a to-go bag, as is common in Bangkok.

For the price we paid this was an unbelievable amount of food, and all of it executed to perfection. We have never been so full or satisfied with such a high-end meal in our lives. And we hear there is a Sicilian menu in the works….

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