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Next: World’s 50 Best – The Experience

Next.  The brainchild of Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea, has been ranked Best in the World for several years. Next, located in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, offers a tasting menu dining format where tickets are sold in lieu of reservations.

We’ve been to Next five times before this visit. In general, Next really delivers. We’ve had times where a course (sometimes multiple) miss the mark but only one time where service was bad. The service you get, like everywhere, really depends on the servers. We’ve had some phenomenal servers who were so knowlegable and passionate about the menu at hand. We’ve also had servers who would come out and set the food down and just disappear. They wouldn’t provide guidance on the course (what was being served or why it was selected). You lose a lot during a menu like this if you don’t get all the background and history.

During our most recent visit, our servers fell into both buckets. The courses that had a full and proper delivery and description ended up being the ones we liked much more too. Is it all in my head? Probably.  We actually had a really good service, save for a couple courses where the food or wine was delivered without comment – we had to flag down another server to get the details on the dish.

Next changes their menu a few times a year, 50 Best Restaurants is the third and final menu this year. The 2018 schedule will be released in mid-November.

Ticket prices vary based on day and time of reservation. Our tickets were $285 each for a Saturday reservation at 20h45. Wine pairings were extra – three different levels of wine pairings were available. We chose the standard pairing – the top of the line pairing would have added another $495 per person. I’m sure the wines would have been phenomenal, but we couldn’t rationalize this add on.  As it was, our dinner, with wine pairings, tax and tip came in at just under $1,000.  This meal isn’t an everyday occurrence, but a truly special experience.

We find ourselves using the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list quite a bit when we travel. Most recently we used the list to plan dining in Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Bangkok. Last year when visiting Peru and Bolivia, this list was the cornerstone of our fine dining experience. We ate at three restaurants on this list in Lima alone. Two of which were brought in for this menu (although Maido didn’t actually make our tasting – perhaps the menu will change a bit throughout its run). The best restaurant meal I’ve ever eaten was at Central in Lima and they presented an early course at Next.

When designing this menu, the chefs at Next worked with the chefs represented on their menu. The honored chefs sent recipes, detailed techniques and even videos to show how to properly prepare and plate their entrants. Some chefs even sent ingredients (one even sent seeds to grow the beets!) – others offered substitute ingredients (some of the shell fish was hard to source in proper quantities in Chicago).

Ok, enough lead in, right? Let’s get into the meat of this, shall We? We arrived a couple minutes after our reservation time and were immediately seated. Our table was properly set (a napkin and a tweezer plus water glasses). The table was also adorned with a rose for each place setting and a small bowl with some moss and a couple leaves. Having done this type of dining before, we were confident this would be our first and second courses.

We sat eagerly awaiting the start.

Before we get to far into this, I should let you know that I don’t like poached eggs. I really only like eggs if they are baked into something (cake, for example) or mixed into something else (eggs scrambled into a stir fry). Fine dining tasting menus almost always have a poached egg included. I usually just eat around it. When booking this meal, and filling out the survey, I notified the restaurant I didn’t like poached eggs. A couple emails back and forth (so they could understand if it was an allergy, or if I’m just a pain in the ass – it’s the latter) we were all set.

Our first wine pairing wasn’t a wine at all, but a cocktail with an apple base and foam topper. It was a great pairing with the rose and leaves on the table. As we progressed through the courses, a new wine would arrive. We were given some high level details on the drink (it was all wine, except for the first cocktail), then told how many courses the wine was pairing with. The most courses we had with a single wine was three, but they were good about topping you off if you were running a little low.

I won’t bore you with an analysis of each of the courses and the pairings. But you can see the photos I took of each course. I try to be respectful of other patrons, so I never use a flash (although others were). The lighting at Next was a bit low and my Samsung S6 Edge, which usually does a pretty great job in this situation, struggled a bit. You can also see that I forgot to take a picture of one dish before I dug in….Sorry!

Rose, Apple, Pomegranate
Quique Dacosta | Alicante, Spain

Jerusalem Artichoke
Walnut, Rye
Geranium | Copenhagen, Denmark

An Oyster’s Frozen Kiss
Oyser, Radish Flower
Mugaritz | San Sebastian, Spain

Eggs Benedict
Caviar, Asparagus, Ham
Eleven Madison Park | New York, USA

Marine Soil
Sea Urchin, Jicama, Razor Clam
Central | Lima, Peru

Bagna Cauda, Artichoke, Squid Ink
Mirazur | Menton, France

Bison, Sunchoke
Estela | New York, USA

Bison, Sunchoke
Estela | New York, USA

Badger Flame Beat
Blue Hill at Stone Barns | Pocantico HIlls, USA

Riso Cacio e Pepe
Parmigiano Reggiano
Osteria Francescana | Modena, Italy

Wasabi, Mango, Thai Vinaigrette
Restaurant Tim Raue | Berlin, Germany

Aubergine, Fermented Peppers
De Librije | Zwolle, Netherlands

“Vuelve a la Vida”
Scallop, Beef Tongue, Salsa Bruja
Quintonil | Mexico City, Mexico

All Parts of the Pumpkin
The Skin, The Seeds, The Flesh
Attica | Melbourne, Australia

All Parts of the Pumpkin
The Skin, The Seeds, The Flesh
Attica | Melbourne, Australia

Parsnip, Almond, Lavender
Next | Chicago, USA

Parsnip, Almond, Lavender
Next | Chicago, USA

Foie Gras, Black Truffle, Chives
Restaurant Andre | Singapore

Chanterelles, Granite
Relae | Copenhagen, Denmark

Milk Chocolate, Blueberry Yogurt
Alinea | Chicago, USA

The course I was looking forward to the most, Central. They did a really great job with the razor clam and leche de tigre. Despite my complete and irrational aversion to poached eggs, I really loved the fare from Eleven Madison Park. Instead of a pickled yolk, my egg was cooked though and tasted amazing with the ham, asparagus and Cavier. One of my favorites of the night.  Speaking of favorites…what was mine you ask?  I really loved the Riso Cacio e Pepe. The risotto was made with parm broth and it was spectacular. The course that really made the night for me was the langostine. It had a puffed rice and wasabi coating that just attacked your taste buds. I wish I had a couple more of those. Utterly phenomenal.

For those of you who have sampled this menu at Next, what was your favorite course? If not, which of these courses are you most looking forward to? What about your favorite menu at Next?

Thai Airways Royal First Class – Ground Services BKK

The beauty of flying First Class doesn’t start once you walk down the gate, with good airlines, it starts long before.  Thai Airways is known for this great service and their First Class Ground Service at BKK (Suvarnabhumi Airport) was one of the reasons we planned our return trip like we did.  We could have returned on Air China or ANA for the same number miles (we didn’t pay cash for this flight, but cashed in United Miles) and left around the same time.  If you aren’t flying Thai in Royal First you don’t get access to all the amenities that Thai flyers get.

Our Uber dropped us off at the door near the First Class Check-In area at BKK and we see this beautiful sight.  Other than the woman at the door (and the three armed guards with assault rifles, just out of frame) no one was around.

I envision the Pearly Gates of Heaven to be like this.

We walk towards the Royal First Check In area – located away from the hustle and bustle that is BKK.  It was around 20h00 and the rest of this terminal was buzzing with activity.  We make it about half way to the check-in podium and the woman guarding the door greets us and asks for our names and the City we are traveling too.  Less than 10 seconds later she flags over two young men who grab our bags and lead us into the Check-In Area.  This woman asked for our passports and said that we would be checked in here and it would take about 10 minutes and that we should relax. Before we could even make it into the Check-In area a couple asked this woman for help (they were flying business on ANA) and she quickly told them that she was with her Royal First Passengers and that surely someone “over there” could help.  She wasn’t rude, but she was forceful.

We were whisked to a small seating area while our checked bags were weighed and our boarding passes were printed.  She asked if we needed anything as we sat at the small seating area.  I, of course asked for a glass of champagne…and Mike thought I was nuts.  Why would anyone need a glass of champagne while you sit and wait for someone to check you in for a flight.  To that, I say “Who wouldn’t want a glass of champagne….”  We sat here and chatted – both excited for the experience the next 24 hours would give.  I finished about half my glass before our escort showed up to take us to the Royal First Lounge.  Our escort handed us our passports and boarding passes, but took our hand luggage.  She quickly escorted us through the First Class Security area, which was a bit of a clusterfuck because the security guards required us to carry our own bags and remove our electronics.  I don’t care about that, but you’d think that they’d have this process down a little better.  Carrying our own briefcases is fine.  We were the only ones going through the security checkpoint when we were there.

Once we cleared security, we hopped on a golf cart and were whisked down to the lounge.  I’m not usually a golf cart in an airport guy, but it was a pretty long haul and I had a lot of things I wanted to do in the lounge.  Unlike in the US, the Thai golf cart driver just honked the tiny horn and floored the cart.  I know we clipped a couple people as we shot by, but the cart did have a Thai Royal First sticker, so I guess that was okay.  One of the people the cart clipped turned and apologized to us – which is probably just a polite gut reaction, but c’mon, we hit you with a cart, you should not apologize.

We make it to the lounge and are handed off to our Lounge Attendant.  She tells us that she’ll be taking care of us during our stay and that she will personally come get us when it is time to board the plane.  Sometimes these folks won’t get you until the very end of boarding and you can feel a bit rushed once on board.  I’d rather get on a bit early, get settled, maybe even change into my new pajamas, get a glass (or two??) of champagne – basically, I want a leisurely start to my First Class experience.

Our Attendant took us into the lounge and helped us find a seat.  She was very apologetic for it being so busy.  The Royal First Lounge has traditional lounge seating areas, plus private rooms.  We passed by several that were occupied – of course, I asked if we could have a private room and she was hesitant.  At first I thought she was saving those for families or larger parties, but as we continued to walk through the lounge, I saw a couple with just one person hanging out.  Then, as if it were timed by God himself, we came across a private room that was being serviced.  The empty glasses were being taken out and a woman just finished sweeping the floor and wiping down the tables.  SCORE.  We got a private room.  These rooms don’t have doors and one side is all glass that opens up into the rest of the lounge, but it is still just for us.

When flying Royal First, passengers get access to complimentary massages too.  You can get up to 60-minutes of spa treatments.  You can do a full body massage (with or without oil) or two 30-minute massages (shoulder and foot) or you can opt for just a 30 minute massage, if time is limited (again, your choice is shoulder or foot).  Business class passengers can choose one of the 30-minute options.  Before our Attendant left our private area, I asked her about massages and we were in luck – two 60 minute spots were available immediately.  We were told to leave our bags in our area in the lounge (which really concerned me, but I grabbed my wallet and passport and left my bag there).

The Spa is actually in across the hall from the Royal First Lounge and we were escorted over and quickly checked in.  Things were moving very quickly and efficiently.  The massage area is quite large and separated into two rooms.  You have the main area with your massage table and a separate area where you change and can shower, shave, etc.  I wanted to take more photos of the massage area, but my masseuse seemed to be in a hurry and I didn’t want to keep other patrons from having a massage before their flight.

I popped into the changing area and found XL Disposable Underwear, which were still a bit tight (I’m 1.82M/6′ 84kg/185lbs), but fit so much better than those disposable undies in Myanmar.

Wearing XL Underwear isn’t an ego booster…

The massage was good and the room was quite quiet, considering how much was going on just outside the room.  It did take me a bit longer to get relaxed – I think it was because of how much running around we were doing just to get to this point.  She did a great job though.  I chose the Full Body Massage with Oil.  After the massage I took another shower (so far this day, I had a shower before breakfast, a shower at the St. Regis spa…yes, I had a massage earlier in the day, a shower before we went to the airport, as we weren’t sure if we’d get a massage or not and I couldn’t wait until Munich for a shower) and headed back to the Royal First Lounge.  Our Attendant was waiting for me to finish and walked me back to the Lounge.  I assume they pinged her and said that I was done and that she didn’t just wait there for 75 minutes…

The private area of the massage suite at the Thai Airways Spa.

The toilet, agape, in the Thai Airways Spa.

The Robes were a nice touch, but not really needed.

I made it back to the Lounge and found an elderly Thai woman (in full Thai Airways Uniform) sitting on a folding chair to the entrance to our private lounge space.  She wasn’t on her phone. She wasn’t reading. She was just sitting, perfectly straight.  She thanked me (for what??) and folded her chair up and walked away.  I was told that she was there to watch our stuff and keep unauthorized people out of our room.  Hmmm.

I sat down and before I knew it, our Attendant brought me a glass of champagne, a still water and a menu for food.  The Royal First Lounge does have a full and proper sit down restaurant (white table cloth type of place). I’ve heard that the food there is authentic and amazing, but after Nahm for lunch and Gaggan for dinner the prior night…and a full dinner on the plane, I couldn’t bring myself to eat a sit down dinner…so I just ordered some fried spring rolls.  Hey, it’s still vacation, right?

Champagne and fried spring rolls. A lovely combindation.

By this point it was about 22h30.  Mike had returned from his massage and we relaxed in the Lounge.  Our flight was scheduled to leave at 00h50, so I thought we’d head over to the gate, which wasn’t very far from the Lounge at around 00h00, but our Attendant really didn’t like that idea.  She asked, then begged us to stay.  She said the flight was a bit delayed because of mechanical issues and it was a bad idea for us to just go stand at the gate. As she said when we first came in, she reminded us to sit and relax and she’ll get us when it is time to leave. Fair enough.

At around 00h40 we decided to leave. We just felt uncomfortable and the lounge was getting pretty empty.  When we walked up to the Lounge entrance we found six other passengers in our same boat — uncomfortable that we were still in the lounge just minutes before scheduled departure.  Most of these people were German…

Our Attendant finally agreed and they collected the final people for our flight and walked us to the gate. No one had started boarding yet.  It was mayhem.  Our Attendant had stayed in the lounge and our new guide was a bit frustrated.  We had a couple folks who couldn’t follow simple directions – they got lost on the way to the plane and he had to go find them.  After a few minutes waiting in the gate area, our guide pushed through the crowd saying something in Thai, something in German then “First Class Passengers, please move”… ouch.  I loved it though.

Thai Airways 747. This bird took us from BKK to MUC. It was a bit rickety, but still the Queen of the Skies.

The gate area was surrounded by glass and doors into a glass wall lead to the gate itself.  We were escorted directly past the glass doors and then spent a few minutes hanging out – watching all 300 of the other passengers glare at us as we moved to the front of the line. I’m sure they could smell the champagne and massage oil on us as we moved by.

I really enjoyed the Royal First Lounge and the full 60-minute massage.  I do wish I could have tried the full restaurant.  I also wish I had a bit more time in the Spa.  There are rooms that have full bathtubs where you can have a massage then a nice long relax in the tub.  The problem here is that I really shouldn’t be spending so much time in an airport lounge, right?  I’m on vacation in an amazing city like Bangkok, I should be out and about.  Maybe next time I can schedule a longer connection at BKK (as long as I arrive or leave in proper Royal First, otherwise, I don’t get access to all the amenities).

Have you visited the Royal First Lounge in Bangkok?  How was the food?  Did you spend enough time in the lounge or did you need more?  What massage option did you go with?