The latest from Chicago's reigning chef takes menu reinvention to the Next level
Author WAYNE CURTIS
JUST INSIDE THE FRONT DOOR of Next, a restaurant in Chicago’s burgeoning Fulton Market district, is a stripped-down dining area that reminds one of a waiting room. With vaguely brown décor and not much in the way of frills, it seems like a place you’d pass through en route to somewhere more exotic rather than a destination unto itself — which is entirely the point. Once seated, diners embark on a journey to a place that is decidedly not Fulton Market.
Other than being helmed by Grant Achatz, the three-Michelin-starred chef of the world-renowned Alinea, Next is most notable for its high-concept dining experience: Every three months, the prix fixe menu changes completely, down to the region and even the era of the cuisine. The first dishes were an interpretation of Paris in 1906. Then came Thai street food, followed by a more abstract “childhood” theme. Guests buy a ticket from the restaurant’s website in advance (if they can get one), and are rewarded with a selection of dishes that is as immaculate in execution as it is singular in vision.
Since debuting last April, Next has been a boon for foodies who both adore Achatz’s cooking and require a steady stream of new experiences. Diners who sampled decadent truffled egg custard and caneton Rouennais à la presse (a whole duck fed through a silver press and served in its own juices) from the Paris menu were able to taste braised beef cheek in a curry of peanut, nutmeg, coconut and lemongrass during Next’s Thai period. By the arrival of the childhood menu, some guests had gotten into the restaurant’s spirit, wearing Scout uniforms as they spooned up high-end mac and cheese.
But as much fun as Next is for patrons, it’s even more fun for the chefs, offering them the opportunity to “open” a new restaurant four times a year. Each theme requires a different strategy, Achatz says. “When we’re doing Escoffier [the chef who inspired the Paris menu], we’re literally cooking out of a book,” he says. “When we approach something like Thailand, it’s more of a broad exploration: What do we want to show people about Thai cooking?”
Where will Next go next? Kyoto and post-World War II Sicily are in the queue, and Achatz has been tinkering with a menu that duplicates the first night he worked at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s revered California restaurant. “I think we’ve established the fact that we can really be chameleons,” he says. Critics and discriminating diners seem to agree. When it comes to crossing the final culinary frontier, Next is well on its way. To sample the best of Windy City cuisine, check out Chicago Restaurant Week, Feb. 17-26.
IF YOU’VE SEEN one bartender, you’ve seen them all: Scrappy, kind-eyed and quick with a quip, they’re often more knowledgeable about human foibles than they are about foodstuffs. And that’s the way it should be. Or is it?
In Chicago’s craft cocktail world, as one observer recently noted, “knowledge is the new vodka.” In part because of pressure from the cocktail renaissances in New York and San Francisco, and in part because of the world-class chefs who call Chicago home, local liquor slingers have begun a collaboration between bar and kitchen that’s already yielded such delicacies as mezcal with smoked ice (at Michelin-starred Boka), a bacon and egg brunch drink (at the Bedford) and even an old-fashioned served inside an ice cube (at Aviary).
“Five years ago, the bartender wasn’t allowed in the kitchen,” says Debbi Peek, head of the Chicago chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild and a mixologist at Bristol Lounge. “But now, bartenders aren’t afraid of the chef anymore. A lot of times, the chef will ask us, ‘Hey, what can you do with this?'”
Founded in 2006, the USBG’s Chicago chapter now has more than 100 members, who convene regularly to take field trips to local distilleries and breweries. Members can also sign up for advanced classes, with topics ranging from how to pair cocktails with food to knife-handling skills (“We have to cut up a lot of garnishes,” Peek says). With such flavorful cocktails on the line, it’s safe to say that bartenders with more skills are good for everyone — as long as we still have someone to complain to about our bosses. — WAYNE CURTIS