I think it’s fascinating that, unlike other conversations I have had about Chicago restaurants, whether it’s The Girl and The Goat, or Hot Doug’s, or Tac Quick, or Avenues at the Peninsula, which always begin with “Did you like the food?”, the conversations I’ve had in the past week or so since I went to Next (with regular people, mind you, not with bloggers, journalists, or any self-styled “foodies”) always began with “How did you get in?”, then almost always promptly followed by “Was the hassle/stress/anxiety to get tickets worth it?” If you haven’t heard of Next, Grant Achatz’s much, much (over?)- ballyhooed, scrutinized, and talked about follow-up restaurant to Alinea where menus change every three months and where a supposedly cutting-edge (for the restaurant industry at least) pre-paid ticketing system is part of the diner experience, then you must either not have a pulse or had been hiding in a crevice deeper than the one James Franco found himself in 127 Hours. Either people assume that the food is spectacular because Achatz is at the helm so there is no need to ask about it, or that the buzz/myths/gripes that have surrounded the restaurant’s ticketing system have outshone all other aspects of the dining experience. I’m not really sure – all I can say is that the food at Next’s initial menu, Paris 1906, which pays tribute to Auguste Escoffier, the father of French gastronomy, is mind-blowing and gravity-stopping, simply one of the best meals I’ve had this year; but the ticketing system I can emphatically say I could do without, and actually dampens my overall enthusiasm for the restaurant. As TimeOut Chicago’s food critic Julia Kramer says in her spot-on review of the restaurant: “…to dine at Next at all is to experience a certain amount of privilege….it’s because of how hard it is to get tickets and the resulting self-satisfaction and cultural capital that one accrues (or believes, with varying levels of distortion, he or she accrues) by having dined there.” This sentence accurately, wrenchingly captures my ambivalence about Next, one of this demandingly food-focused city’s best, potentially greatest restaurants, because, until that ticketing system is revised or thrown out, any discussion of it can never be just about the food.
The frenzy around Next tickets has been chronicled elsewhere (with the Village Voice caustically comparing Chicago diners to the stampeding Black Friday shoppers who trampled a Wal-Mart worker to death due to the insane demand for tickets during the restaurant’s opening week), so I won’t rehash it here. Despite being in one of the first groups able to purchase tickets on the first day they were available (April 6), I wasn’t able to secure one under my name. Every time I logged on to the website during the first week of the restaurant being open, the tickets were either sold out, or if tickets were available, my computer settings were doing wacky things (Next’s website isn’t compatible, incredibly, with Internet Explorer, so I had to use Mozilla Firefox which always does otherworldly things to my laptop) or I’m not able to confirm a timeslot showing as available because 20 other people have clicked on it simultaneously (a website quirk that has been discussed ad nauseum on Next’s Facebook page). So I dined at Next as part of my friend Gabby’s fourtop (again, in what seems to be luck of the draw, some folks like Gabby were able to purchase tickets quickly, while others like me and several other friends, had a most vexing, ultimately futile experience). I don’t really see any benefit to the diner of this ticketing system (there may be benefits to restaurant owners and chefs, but this blog is not about restaurant owners nor chefs). First, the prices haven’t really been that low or variable between timeslots, a system feature that the restaurant had touted (I paid $185.76 for the eight course menu with standard wine pairings on a Saturday night; I’ve heard, anecdotally, that’s around the ballpark for some other folks who’ve gone on different days/times). Second, because of overwhelming demand for seats and software that doesn’t really effectively account for it, ticket purchases have been as much a function of patience, time on one’s hands to keep logging on to the site, and F5-refreshing dexterity, as it is of willingness to dine. And in my view, dining out shouldn’t be this hard. I’m all for the return of good, old-fashioned reservations, either taken over the phone, or via a website like OpenTable.com. At least everyone is on a level playing field. “Cutting-edge” doesn’t necessarily translate to “exceptional dining experience”.
On to the food, then. Some of the best dishes I’ve had this year, I had at Next. The Hors d’Oeuvres plate is stunningly organized and presented, transporting you back to when dining was civilized ritual. Two of its selections blew me away. The buttery, silky foie gras on toasty brioche with a dab of marmalade is both decadence and necessity. The quail egg with a runny center encased by a tart-salty anchovy is a perfect one-bite palette of many flavors – earthy, seaworthy, luxurious. The widely-raved roast duck with its rich sauce created from an antique duck press is an unqualified masterpiece: the breast perfectly juicy, tender, and medium-rare; the thigh and leg crispy, crackly, addictive; the sauce heady, bracing, enveloping; the presentation, extravagant, theatrical. My favorite dish of the night is the sole filet, unbelievably moist and flaky, lying on a pool of richly textured, unapologetically outrageous sauce normande, all buttery, creamy, salty-savory, a dish so indulgent yet so complicated, a trenchant reminder of how culinary greatness is more than molecular gastronomy, farm-to-table cooking, snout-to-tail rusticism, or any of the current trends and innovations that the culinary eco-system (chefs, writers, diners) obsess about. The Escoffier menu is impressive in its ambition and conception, in its forceful education of its diners, in its execution. And that’s why I’m a little disappointed about my initial Next dining experience (the upcoming menu, some form of futuristic Thai street food, is unveiled in July and hopefully, the system to get seats will have improved by then) – the restaurant doesn’t need a ticketing system to help secure its uniqueness. No one cooks, thinks, and engages diners like Grant Achatz, and ultimately, that should have been enough.
The Hors d’Ouevres plate – in addition to the foie gras on brioche and the quail egg wrapped in achovy, there is also an egg custard with hollandaise and truffles, pork rillette on cracker, and mushroom encased in leek.
Filet de Sole Daumont – my favorite dish of the night.
Caneton Rouennais a la Presse – the duck served with Gratin de Pommes de Terre, the terrifyingly addictive potato gratin.
Next is at 953 W. Fulton Market.
Tags: Next Restaurant