One of our favorite tasks every couple of months is predicting what the upcoming menus at the ever-changing themed Next Restaurant will be. We went to Next Sicily and Thailand, which we absolutely loved, and the current menu is the French-themed Bocuse d’Or, which is running through the end of the year. This time we guessed there would be a Brazilian menu coming up… and we were wrong. So here’s what’s actually slated for Next in 2014. First, a reinvention (or is it more of a re-creation?) of the classic Chicago steakhouse, next, a Chinese/Modernist themed menu, and last, a menu in homage to the shuttered restaurant Trio in Evanston, where Achatz was executive chef. Sounds pretty great!
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The ever-exciting Next Restaurant has moved on to their newest menu: a tribute to Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious biennial international cooking competition in Lyon, France. Check out the official trailer for the menu below. So what can we expect from Bocuse d’Or? The menu, running through December has 15 courses and is decidedly French, with canapes, veal terrine and pheasant dishes. Micheal Gebert has a fascinating behind-the-scenes photo series on all the prep involved in putting together the Bocuse meal at Next. For those want another look at what diners can expect, photographer Emilia Jane has a complete photo series of the dinner menu. Beautiful presentation and original food from Next as usual!
As fans and critics alike know, where Next really excels is in its uniqueness, and this boils down even to their drinks. Every restaurant does wine pairings, so Next does one better by also offering some pretty awesome non-alcoholic drink pairings. Next Thailand blew us away with their drink pairings (including of course Cha Yen, which was part of the meal) so we jumped at the chance to try their Sicilian offerings. As usual, Next did not disappoint. For full coverage of the Sicily menu, check out our complete review post. This go-around the Next drink menu included five pairings for $48. Here they are in order, with the names from the official menu.
The first drink started out on a fizzy and sweet note, and was brought out with our array of little street foods. In addition to the three ingredients listed on the official menu, the drink also contained Meyer lemon. Fortunately while the drink was sweet, it was not too sweet, and was cut through by the carbonation (done in-house). Of the lot, this was probably M’s least favorite drink (too much carbonation), though L quite enjoyed it.
2. Zucchini and Mount Olympus Flower
The second drink arrived with our first pasta dish. According to our server, Mt. Olympus Tea, rather than just being an ornamental name, is actually a floral herbal tea from the Mediterranean (if it actually is picked off of Mt. Olympus remains to be known). The flower in the tea is Sideritis, and since we enjoyed it so much, we are pleased to find it is available online. We found this tea (served cold) completely delicious and enchanting, with hints of lemon and sage. Despite its billing, we couldn’t really detect any of the zucchini flavor notes. This drink was L’s pick.
3. Green tomato, garlic, white pepper
We deemed this drink the “garden drink” and it is not exaggeration to say it was like a drinkable caprese salad. The server also mentioned celery, garlic and thyme. This drink, not surprisingly, was completely savory and this cognitive dissonance was not quite to L’s liking, but M gladly guzzled the remainder of her drink. Our server noticed this and even brought L some more Mt. Olympus tea (nice work servers). M thought the drink complemented the swordfish quite nicely, and flavor echoed the herbal notes of the mint pesto. Fans of V8 or the like will be pleased by this elegant rendition of a veggie drink.
4. Fennel verjus rouge, orange
The fennel drink, served with our last entree dish, reminded us of after-dinner digestifs (you know the candy coated fennel seeds, Mukhwas, you sometimes get at Indian restaurants?). This drink, as you can see above, was shockingly magenta. The blood orange probably only amplified the color. Though we might have never thought to combine blood orange and fennel, the result was delicious.
5. Watermelon, white balsamic, pinor noir juice
The final drink was watermelon-pink, served over crushed ice in an old-fashioned glass, the only drink to not come in a wine glass. The primary flavor here – no surprise – was watermelon, though you could definitely taste the acidic kick of the white balsamic vinegar. The pinot noir grape juice was very subtle, and was definitely overwhelmed by the watermelon. We were curious that they chose Pinot Noir grapes since they are typically grown in the Northern part of Italy, not Sicily. The drink, which came with our desserts, was a perfect cool palate-cleanser for the end of the night. As you can see below, we ended up closing the place down!
953 West Fulton Market
An ETW exclusive! We are pleased to present the first full review of the NEXT Sicily menu, complete with photos! (Grub Street Chicago posted the menu earlier today, but we got all the pictures). Chef Achatz’s approach to traditional Sicilian fare, nodding to history and time-honored techniques, was surprising given the experimentation for which he is known; but in that relative conservatism was an impressive array of flavors that hit some very, very impressive high notes over the course of the evening. While some of you may remember our tour of the Thailand menu last year, we found Sicily to be overall more interesting and the decidedly better meal of the two. Update: for a description of the non-alcoholic drink pairings check out our complete review post here.
The meal begins with four antipasti, served family style, all at once:
L, who is Sicilian, declared these arancine to be better than those we had in Sicily, and M would have to agree. Perfectly fried, the rice inside was wonderfully cooked, and the lamb tongue filling braised to perfection. The highlight of this dish was the accompanying caper-tomato sauce, which hit on perfect notes of saltiness and and a mixture of other flavors that made this antipasta one of our favorite dishes of the evening.
Our understanding has always been that grilled artichokes are more of a Roman dish, but we will give the chefs a pass on this. Lightly seasoned artichokes were grilled over an open flame, leaving the exterior charred and the interior flesh moist and delicious. We were encouraged to peel off the charred bits and suck off the flesh underneath, and M in particular was happy to find the taste of the char was an excellent accompaniment to the artichoke flesh, almost like a dry-rubbed and barbecued artichoke.
“The whole garden in a dish” is how our waiter described our third antipasta, a wonderful take on caponata. A variety of vegetables accompanied with the perfect dose of a wonderful sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. The pink Egyptian star flowers, said the server, were delivered only minutes before service began that evening, and so were a last-minute addition to the dish.
Panelle are a type of Sicilian fritter, but these disappointed us. Well-seasoned with a little shaved cheese, they were far too thin to maintain their structure on their own, not to mention when paired with a caponata. Despite being directed by our server to put a spoonful of the caponata on our panelle, L laughed when hers disintegrated in her hands and onto her plate. Hopefully over the course of the menu service they will solidify the panelle and give them more backbone, because otherwise they are a difficult dish to even stand on their own, much less with the caponata weighing them down.
We soon realized this meal would follow a very traditional Sicilian structure: the antipasti finished, the plates were cleared to make weigh for consecutive pasta courses.
This small dish was the highlight of the evening: home-made bucatini in a rich, flavorful, complex sauce of fish roe and cheese, topped with thinly-sliced fish and wild mountain basil. We are not usually fans of fish roe, but the way Achatz integrated the cheese and roe into that sauce was nothing short of masterful – we will remember those flavors for ever. Add to that the basil, which had a much stronger and more inviting flavor that the standard variety, this was a dish that pulled a lot of flavor punches, but did so in perfect balance. Incredibly disappointing that this dish was so small, because we could have eaten a few more courses. The dish was not without its problems, however: the buccatini was perhaps 30 seconds from being perfectly cooked; as a result, the pasta stuck to our teeth a little too much. A very small kitchen mistake, but one that prevented this from being the dish of the year.
The national dish of Sicily – and the servers introduced it as such – Achatz did a great job paying homage to this classic, and L would have critiqued him heavily if he had messed it up. Perfectly-cooked gemelli was mixed with currants, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, a hint of lemon (we think) and fennel sprigs, and topped with a grilled sardine. The sardine – of which we are normally not fans – was grilled perfectly, and had its saltiness reduced just enough to make it blend very well with the rest of the pasta. Overall, this dish was the epitome of refined rustic cooking. The added accompaniments were great complements to the dish, and executed wonderfully.
The sardine was a well-positioned transition to the meal’s third portion: the fish course.
Our fish course was grilled swordfish with mint pesto, served topped with a bunch of grilled mint and a charred head of garlic. On its own, the swordfish was a bit of a disappointment given the wonderfully complex flavors that had emerged thus far in the course of the evening. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and nicely grilled, even with the mint pesto we found the flavor a little underwhelming in the context of the rest of the meal. This changed once the fish was eaten with a bit of the accompanying salad: chickpeas, basil, and Romanesco (“fractal”) broccoli in lemon juice. This small salad added exactly what the fish had been missing: a little vibrancy of citrus, contrasted and paired well with the mint pesto.
This dish may have tied the bucatini as the highlight of the meal. With so little meat in Sicily, it is saved and savored for weekends, when pasta sauce is made with chunks of meat, the meat removed and the sauce served over pasta, and then the meat consumed on its own after. This is a rich culinary tradition – it still goes on in our large Italian family homes – and it could not have been better represented on this plate. The pork shoulder we were served – and this is not an exaggeration – dissolved on our tongues: “Yeah, we braised it for a little while before you got here,” our server said with a wry smile. We have never had any pork so amazingly cooked in our lives, and it would take such a large, sophisticated, and pre-set menu to allow a chef the chance to do this outside of a small restaurant that would specialize in such a thing. The accompanying red meat sauce tasted like something one of our grandmothers would have made, and hit well on all the notes of the pork (thus confirming they were in fact made together). Grilled (and very juicy) meyer lemons took the dish to new heights. With all that flavor, the grilled zucchini and tomatoes served with it were something of an afterthought, and probably our lest favorite dish of the evening. They were fine, just unremarkable and completely unnecessary given the wonder of the pork shoulder’s main event.
At this point, we were completely stuffed. Antipasti, pasta, fish, and meat had been served: only dessert remained.
This was a very smart part to include in the meal: something light and cool to cleanse your palette and allow you to digest before taking on dessert. Apparently (said the server) the Arabs developed shaved ice while in Sicily, and they were also the first to cultivate the islands wide array of citrus fruits for which Sicily is justifiably well-known. The granita at Next was unpretentious, nothing more than ice flavored with blood orange juice (and thus quite sour), but a welcome interlude before Sicily’s most famous product: dessert.
L’s family is from the region around Palermo, where Cassata originates. She knows this dish well, and was thrilled to see it on the menu. A spongecake usually covered in almond-flavored marzipan, the chefs did not use the almond flavor on this go-around, instead just letting the marzipan speak for itself. Topped with a marinated strawberry, the cake was garnished with vanilla (with a hint of lemon?) whipped cream, candied orange peel, a candied pecan, and mint sprigs. Light, sweet, and well-garnished, we enjoyed this cassata immensely.
Our final dish of the evening was a celebration of traditional Sicilian pastries. The fried ravioli were filled with a a locally-sourced strawberry jam. Giugiulena, one of our favorites, is a heavy sesame-seed pastry that tastes like peanut to the unfamiliar palette (a bit like a thicker, seedier version of halva). These first two pastries were solid albeit unremarkable, which frankly was welcome after the onslaught of flavors we had previously. We saved the cannoli – our favorites – last, but were sorry to say these woefully disappointed us. We found them much too small; the shells far too thin (we had a similar problem to the panelle where they broke into pieces as soon as we bit them) and, sin of sins, the cream inside did not have a hint of sugar. Cannoli are not easy to create, but we are saddened to say these are some of the most disappointing cannoli we have had recently, and absolutely pale in comparison to those we have eaten in Sicily or elsewhere in the U.S.
Not that this really disappointed us. Our meal complete, we walked away awed at this menu’s fusion of technique, flavor, and commitment to tradition. This is difficult to pull off, and we can only think Chef has been refining his thinking in this way after the El Bulli menu – billed as a “celebration” (as opposed to an “imitation”) of El Bulli’s creations. If that were true of the previous menu, Next Sicily follows suit: this evening was an impressive celebration of Sicily’s culinary innovations and explorations. As a foodie you will be glad to come here. But rest assured, your Sicilian grandmother will enjoy the meal as well – and that is saying a lot.
We had the rare luck of snagging a ticket to the latest iteration of Grant Achatz’ eclectic Next restaurant, Sicily (for once, sitting at a computer and hitting “refresh” 400 times had a payoff). We visited Sicily on our honeymoon, so we are highly anticipating Achatz’ take on Sicilian home cooking. Our ticket is for this week, so you can expect a report back soon. In the meantime, check out our report of Next’s Thailand menu from last year. Update: Check out our full Next Sicily review here.
953 W Fulton Market
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….
There had been much speculation about the next iteration of the shape-shifting NEXT restaurant, including some buzz about a possible El Bulli menu – but here’s the dish, right from Grant Achatz himself – being interviewed in Time Out Chicago:
So basically Dave [Berand, Next’s chef de cuisine] and I were going ‘All right, we did Escoffier and then challenged ourselves with Thai—which, side note, we don’t claim to be Thai experts but it was our version of it—so we did those and now what?’ … So he was like ‘What if we try to create a menu based on a book of children’s poetry?’ and I’m like ‘Oh Jesus, talk about taking a risk, now we’re opening a huge can of worms.’ But at the same time I thought it was really cool idea, very creative.
So Childhood next, Kyoto in spring 2012, Sicily in summer 2012…what about El Bulli?
So coming up in October is going to be a tribute to Childhood! I can only imagine what forms that will take. But to be honest, I’m really looking forward to the Sicily menu.