Next, in Chicago, is one of my favorite fine dining restaurants in the world, is part of the Alinea Group. Foodies the world over know Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, but I dig the work of chef Jenner Tomaska – trying the new menus at Next is one of my culinary highlights each year. Historically, we have been pretty lucky when it comes to tickets for dinner at Next. For the most recent menus, we’ve just gone online and found a Friday or Saturday night reservation (at a reasonable time – 20h00-21h15 usually…we never do the 17h15 reservations) for later that same week. I’m not confident that our luck will continue to hold out, but so far so good.
We snagged tickets for 20h15 on Friday night. I ended up working until about 19h30 and then just walked over to the restaurant, which for me took about 30 minutes. After a couple minutes of chatting with the team at the front door, checking our coats and briefcases, we were escorted to our table, a booth towards the back of the restaurant – actually the same booth we sat in during our first meal experience at Next. I prefer this seat to any others we’ve had before – you don’t feel crowded and the benches are much more comfortable than the banquette and chairs at the other tables.
Our table was already set with a water glass, napkin and caviar spoon for each of us plus a large sculpted ice sculpture of two fish surrounding a corked cantaloupe. Our first course was waiting for us – as has been the practice for the past couple of menus we’ve enjoyed.
As we get settled (washing hands, blowing noses – it is winter in Chicago after all), a server provided both still and sparkling water and immediately another server welcomes us – he ended up taking care of us most of the night. He started off by talking a bit about the menu (which remained a secret throughout the night, until the course was delivered to our table). This menu focuses on classic French cuisine and techniques – from the 16th-18th Centuries. The second menu of 2018 will focus on more modern French cooking, can’t wait!
The ice sculptures were keeping the first proper course well chilled. The cantaloupe was a wonderfully refreshing aperitif – with cantaloupe and a French wine. We’ll be stealing this drink idea once the weather warms up. We loved it.
The next seven courses were perfectly timed. We’ve had a couple experiences at Next (and other fine dining restaurants) where you can feel rushed or worse, you are sitting around just wondering if the next course is on its way…or if you are done for the evening). As with my previous posts about Next (and others), I’ll spare you the course by course critique and just share with you the photos and then provide further details after.
As I said, we sat down to eat at 20h15 and we were walking about the door at 22h30, while it wasn’t a quick in and out, it was far from the longest meal we’ve eaten at Next. Most of the courses came with a few descriptive sentences not only about the meal, but a bit about the time period and why this dish was specifically selected to be part of this Classique menu.
There wasn’t a single course that I didn’t care for, but that being said, I would say my least favorite was the first dessert, the Ile Flottante. The flavor was just fine and the spun sugar reminded me of razor wire atop a fence.
My favorite course was the Turbot, which surprised me. The crispness on top and the buttery tenderness of the fish paired perfectly with the octopus, mussels and veg that surrounded the delightful fish. I was so surprised by the Timbale too. This was a mushroom filled shell of cooked bucatini pasta. The bucatini was wound tightly making a nearly impermeable shell, which was a little gummy, but since it wasn’t served as a proper pasta, it worked. The lobster course was the most beautifully plated, with a lovely mirrored platter. The trout roe with the asparagus was a bite that I needed more of too.
There were two optional courses you could add on to the basic menu, each cost an additional $150. We chose the sole and absolutely loved it (wasn’t as good as the Turbot though). Another option was squab en croute. The pan that cooked the bird was topped with a very salty dough designed to seal in all the moisture as it cooks. Every service we saw during our meal opted for one or both of the add-ons. The table next to us indicated the sole was the better of the two options.
None of the wines we had really knocked our socks off. We usually take just the standard wine pairings and while we do truly enjoy wine, we aren’t too keen on adding an additional expense to the dinner.
Have you experienced French: Cuisine Classique at Next? Do you plan on enjoying the Moderne menu starting this spring? What has been your favorite menu at Next? What is your favorite fine dining restaurant in the world?