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Next: French: Cuisine Classique

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!

Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

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.

Creme de Caviar Moulees
Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

Brut Sous Bois
Mareuil-sur-Ay, France, NV

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Chef Jenner preparing the sole table side.

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Les Pommes Soufflees

Turbot Normandy
Brioche, Mushroom, Mussels

Supreme de Poussin Albuffera
Tongue, Truffle, Timbale


Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Tableau de Desserts
Ile Flottante

Tableau de Desserts

Tableau de Desserts

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?

Pratic Hotel, Le Marais 

You can read all about my first visit to Paris here, basically, I fell in love with this city the moment we touched down at Charles de Gaulle in 2011. The past couple of visits, our time has been short in the City of Lights – often just a day or two. We would use points and stay in a beautiful Starwood property on Avenue George V, just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. For this trip, we wanted to be more frugal and wanted to get back into the neighborhoods.

Our first thought was to revisit our first Paris hotel, the Jeanne d’Arc, unfortunately, this specific weekend, that hotel was going for more than  €200 a night, which is nuts. In general, I say Paris is like New York or Las Vegas (huh? I know, bare with me). I’m not spending much time at all in the room, so I don’t need anything fancy. I need hot water in a private bathroom (I’m not walking down the hall and waiting in line to use the bathroom, fuck that), a door that locks and a bed that is comfortable enough.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do love the 180 square meter suite with two bathrooms and a fire place, but I’m here to see the city. I’m up early to get a pain au chocolat and I’m out late drinking wine in a cafe, watching the people. I just need a few good hours of sleep and a hot shower…and of course, I don’t want to get murdered as I sleep.

We chose the Pratic Hotel, which for four nights cost just €580 in total.  The hotel is just three minutes from the St. Paul Metro Station (Line 1) and surrounded by a young, vibrant neighborhood. This formerly Jewish neighborhood of Le Marais, is more of the gayborhood now, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. Yes, there are same sex couple walking around holding hands, but you aren’t being kept awake by any loud clubs. It is a perfect little neighborhood with great restaurants, fun bars and it is so centrally located, you can literally get anywhere in the city in minutes.

The Pratic Hotel is small. There are six floors, each floor with four rooms. The rooms have private baths. The hotel has been renovated recently and is very clean – it has a sleek, modern feel.  The rooms are tiny. Our room was about four meters by three meters (likely less, you had to walk sideways to get by the foot of your bed (there was probably 10 centimeters (6 inches) of clearance.

The beds were firm yet, quite comfortable. The bathroom was new as well and had a small sink, a toilet and a shower. The shower reminded me of the room in Bolivia. The shower itself was so small, I dropped the shampoo once and had to get out of the shower to pick it up. I’m not a small guy by any means, but that is ridiculous (I’m 5’11 and 185 pounds). I even got the shock of my life as I turned around in the shower and I accidentally bumped into the faucet, turning the warm water icy. Now that’ll wake you up, and make you a little more mindful of your surroundings.

Our room – fourth floor – quite a tight space, but worked well for us.

The hotel has no elevator, so walking to our room on the forth floor (room 418) was tiring at the end of a long day. Paris was blazing hot when we were there.  The high temperatures were consistently around 30C-32C each day. Our hotel didn’t have air conditioning. We felt like we were cooking at night. We slept with our window open, which faced Place Saint-Catherine. The Place was busy until 02h00 each morning and was really loud. Interestingly enough the noise  didn’t bother us, despite the wide open window drawing in all of that party sound.

The beautiful and vibrant Place Saint-Catherine in the 4th.

We chose not to take breakfast at the hotel. This decision was made based on two factors 1) The hotel was going to charge €7/person and 2) There were dozens of great boulongeries in walking distance, where we could get a stellar meal for much less.

The breakfast room – we didn’t eat here, nor did we see anyone else during our stay.

The Pratic Hotel was nothing to write home about, but it met all of our needs, including 1) Reasonably Priced 2) Perfect Location 3) Safe and 4) Comfortable. I would consider staying at this property again, but it all comes down to price. If it is cheaper than the other options, book it.

Where do you stay in Le Marais? Do you have a go-to hotel, or do you reach for the best prices property? What other hotels do you recommend?

Travel: 2016 Year in Review

Last night we closed out 2016 and as is a tradition for me, I like to provide a Travel Year In Review.  I’m not sure if you’ve all noticed this yourself, but the disparity between paying for a coach seat and paying for a business or first class seat (at least domestically) has shrunk pretty dramatically.  I found myself actually purchasing domestic first outright a couple times – often the difference between a coach seat and United’s domestic first has been just $100-$150 round trip (and that’s between ORD and LAX/PDX/SFO).  You get double the Premier Qualifying Miles and a bit more on the your Premier Qualifying Dollars too.  Thanks to these pricing changes, I was able to cross a new threshold with United this year – I’m now Premier Platinum (more on that to come). Here’s how my year ended up – with the previous 3 years included as a comparison.

By the Numbers: (2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013)

Total Miles Flown: 68,278 | 72,293 | 53,322 | 73,825
Total Segments Flown: 45 | 41 | 37 | 44
Cabin Segment Breakdown (F/B/C): 8/5/32 | 2/5/34 | 0/5/32 | 7/4/33
Total Airlines Flown (new airlines bolded): 5 (United, LATAM, Avianca, Air France, Air Canada) | 5 | 4 | 7
Total Hotel Nights: 69 | 67 | 56 | 71
Total Hotel Stays: 35 | 47 | 32 | 31
Total Airlines Miles Redeemed: 0 | 155,000 | 37,500 | 105,000
Total Hotel Points Redeemed: 106,000 | 283,500 | 134,000 | 13,400
Countries Visited (new Countries bolded): 2+2 (Peru, Bolivia, Canada, France) 3+2 | 6+1 | 8+1
Longest Single Segment: ORD-CDG @ 4,153 | ORD-HKG @ 7,787 | MUC-ORD @ 4,535 | ORD-PVG @ 7,056
Shortest Single Segment: CUZ-AQP @ 195 | CVG-ORD @ 264| YUL-YQB @ 145
Northernmost Airport: CDG (Paris) | LHR (Heathrow) | ARN (Stockholm) | LHR (Heathrow)
Southernmost Airport: LPB (La Paz) | HKG (Hong Kong) | MCO (Orlando) | SGN (Ho Chi Minh City)
The most frequent non-home airport: Tie between EWR & LAX (Newark and Los Angeles) | BNA (Nashville) | YYZ (Toronto) | BNA (Nashville)

I flew enough miles to:
Circumnavigate the world: 2.3 times | 2.9 times | 2.0 times
Make it a quarter | a third | a fifth of the way to the moon


How did your 2016 Year in Travel turn out?  Did you keep your status – upgrade your status?  Were you able to check off one – or more – of your travel bucket list items this year?  What is in store for 2017?  Do you plan on taking that one big trip you’ve been talking about, or are going to take many smaller trips to visit friends and family?  If you want my advice, it doesn’t matter where you go, just go. Enjoy the journey. Experience the destination. Share a drink, a meal and a laugh.

Correcting a Restaurant’s Wine List?

Following our recent trip to Yosemite, we capped our vacation with a meal at Coi (pronounced kwa, not coy) in San Francisco.  We opted for the tasting menu and decided to splurge and do the wine pairings as well.  I was that guy who took photos of the meal, but I did so with my phone, without flash and as clandestinely as possible.  I will share those photos and the full menu shortly.

After a bit of a debate on whether we would spring for the full wine pairings, we delved a bit deeper into the list.  Their was a Burgundian wine that looked and sounded great.  The menu read:

2006 Sérafin Père et Fils Les Millandes Premier Cru (Morey-Saint-Denis) Premier Cru, Bergundy, Germany.

I am not in the wine business.  I am just a consumer.  I love Pinot Noir and I think Burgundy and the Willamette Valley (Oregon) have the best in the world.  I had never heard of Burgundy, Germany.  Was it a misprint, or was there a small German region of which I was unaware?  I was told by MS to leave it alone and not to ask about it.  So I obliged…for a while.  This wine was to be served with the seventh of of the 10 courses.  We had some good laughs with the server and when he mentioned this was what was up next, I asked him about the menu and our interaction went something like this:

Server: Gentlemen, next up is the 2006 Sérafin.
Me: Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this wine.  I am a huge fan of Burgundian wines.  What should we be looking for as we taste.
(He then proceeded to talk about the grapes and the key influences of terroir, etc)
Me:  So this is the wine from Burgundy, Germany?
Server:  (Flabbergasted).  Um, no sir.  Burgundy is in France, not Germany.  It is located southeast of Paris, but just a couple hundred miles from the German border.
Me: Oh, my mistake.  I would have sworn the menu said it was a German wine.
Server: (Scoffs). Oh no, sir. It says Burgundy, France.
Me: Ok, my mistake.  Well, you may want to take another look at the list.
Server: I am sure it is accurate. (Giggles nervously).  If we did make a mistake, we will have it corrected immediately….and we will make this worth your while.
Me:  Thank you.

Fast forward about four minutes and the server returns.  He has a semi-shocked look on this face.  He quietly apologized for both the menu error and for his doubting us.  He said the menus were being reprinted and we would be given a proper menu before we leave.  He would not let me have a copy of the menu with the error. He also mentioned that this wine list hadn’t changed in months and no one had said a word about it.  He continued to thank us throughout the dinner, but the best part, was that he continued to joke with us.  For example he mentioned the lobster (which was served with this Burgundy) was from “Maine – a beautiful Region in Northern Germany, not too far from Berlin.”

The menu had an error. He was horrified. He fixed it and we all had a good laugh about it. We had some delicious food at Coi and some amazing wine, but we also had a fantastic time chatting with the staff (some of which are recent Bay Area transplants from Chicago).  I love places that can be serious, but also poke fun at themselves and have a good time.  The world isn’t perfect, but this meal was one of the closest version I’ve gotten to culinary perfection in a very long time.

So, how did the server “make it worth our while”, you may be asking.  He added a wine pairing for us with the first of the desserts and quite honestly, his ad hoc selection paired so much better than the pre-planned wine (which was still great).

We ended the evening with some long chats with the staff, getting recommendations for breakfast and lunch the following day, even some recommendations for Chicago.  This would be a great place to visit more regularly – I just loved the team at this restaurant.  Too bad we are in Chicago and they are in San Francisco.  This restaurant is definitely a splurge meal and not a regular occurrence.  If you have the opportunity to dine here, I would highly recommend it. It was such a great experience.

Have you come across a menu with an error like this?  Would you have said something?  I’m not a wine expert and I’m sure I’ve come across, but didn’t notice, many other errors on wine lists (incorrect vintages, block blends that don’t make sense, etc), but this error just jumped out at us.  How would you have handled it?

Bordeaux in November

Each year we take a trip for Thanksgiving.  We’ve visited:

This year we want to head back to France.  During our last trip to France, we started the trip off in Paris, this time we want to close out our adventure in the City of Lights.  We want to go someplace with good food, good wine,  something to do and still have the ability to relax.  Our initial thought was to bum around in the Loire Valley, but I read an article in Wine Spectator that got me excited about Bordeaux.  Our plan now is to land in Paris, hop on the train and head down to Bordeaux.

A picture taken on March 14, 2016 in Bordeaux, southwestern France, shows a general view of the Wine Civilisations Museum (Cite des civilisations du vin). The official opening of the 14,000 m2 building, designed by the architects Nicolas Desmazieres and Anouk Legendre from X-TU agency, is scheduled for June 2016. / AFP / NICOLAS TUCAT        (Photo credit should read NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on March 14, 2016 in Bordeaux, southwestern France, shows a general view of the Wine Civilisations Museum (Cite des civilisations du vin). The official opening of the 14,000 m2 building, designed by the architects Nicolas Desmazieres and Anouk Legendre from X-TU agency, is scheduled for June 2016. / AFP / NICOLAS TUCAT (Photo credit should read NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)

We want to spend a few days in Bordeaux, then spend a day or two working our way back to Paris. I want to be in Paris for Thanksgiving and we return home the Saturday following the holiday.  I’ve got Thanksgiving dinner all planned:  Tour d’Argent and their world famous Caneton à la presse.

I need your help with Bordeaux. Where should we stay? There aren’t any Starwood Luxury Collection properties in Bordeaux, so our preference is to go local, but we don’t want a hostel or a cramped little room in a far off corner of the city. We’d like something central, walkable and if possible historically significant.

Where should we eat? Not all of our meals need to be Tour D’Argent quality, but we want good French food. It doesn’t even have to be consistently Bordelais, just good food, traditional or modern – we want to experience both old world Bordeaux and the newly invigorated City.

Where should we tour/taste wine? What tour company should we use to schlep us between vineyards?  We don’t need a master sommelier to drive us from place to place, but someone with knowledge of the history of the area, the wines/grapes of the region and the wine making process.

My favorite question too: what should we NOT do whilst in Bordeaux? Is there something you did that you wished you hadn’t?  Was it a waste of time and/or money?

What am I forgetting?