There is not much one can add to what has already been said about Next in Chicago. If the internet is full of articles about this restaurant run by Grant Achatz, Dave Berran and Nick Kokonas, the passionate support, or hate against Next are quite unique in the restaurant world. Having caused such a hype since its foundation, QLI has to ask if it is all worth it, and if this is a groundbreaking restaurant?
A lot of the hype has precious little to do with the food itself. Next made headlines mainly with the fact that it is probably the most difficult restaurant to book. This is a place that can easily claim to be the most exclusive restaurant in the world; not because of the menu price, but because of the difficulty to get a reservation. That’s not all there is to it however. Try getting a table here: First you log in on the website, and have to look for an available slot. Patience will be needed at this stage, as this search often ends in frustration. Once you do get lucky, instead of just booking your table, you will immediately have to pay for the entire menu, tip included. That makes a meal at Next more than a normal night out. Like a ticket for the opera or a concert, you book an experience that you will not want to miss.
Another, food-related, factor in Next’s success are the themed menus that change four times a year. Contrary to the very serious, creative and borderless cuisine of Alinea, Next looks very different. Of course, technically it is just as impeccable as Alinea. The difference however is that this is a place that manages to set itself a theme such as Thailand, Childhood or Paris 1906 and develop a menu that comforts and challenges you at the same time. Some of the most complete dishes served at Next sometimes make it on to the menu at Alinea, which essentially means that you have two of America’s best restaurants pushing each other further and further. The change of direction with the ensuing Thailand-themed menu could not have been more radical. The third theme at Next however produced one of the most convincing menus so far: Childhood.
Being perfectionists, this was no fairytale interpretation of the chef’s mother’s chicken broth. On the contrary, the childhood menu featured a pairing consisting solely of lemonades and juices. If that is surprising for a restaurant such as this, then imagine what your reaction would be when a lunch box is put in front of you. In this menu everything sounds ridiculous: the “uncooked dough” that you have to lick from the mixer, the macaroni n’cheese or the grilled marshmallow. What only comes through once you eat it is the way in which every element on this menu is brilliantly constructed. The mixer for instance is foie gras, and the Oreo cookie composed of black and white truffle. So, Berran and Achatz have managed to not only play with our perception and memories, but have introduced an element of such culinary genius into it all that a meal here really leaves you baffled. This is solid 3* food, and incredibly fun to eat at the same time.
Pushing the element of ridicule even further, a dish called fish and chips looks like the drawing of a 5-year old. What looks like a man fishing, is a carefully constructed set of flavours and textures that emulate a classic fish and chips. The only difference being the balance of these flavours and the incredibly well-cooked and seasoned fish. A tad more serious perhaps is the “Walk in the forest”. This dish brings the flavours and smells of the forest to the dining table in a manner that could appear to be gimmicky, but delivers with rich and complex flavours that make even skeptic diners smile.
One could go on and on describing the dishes that make Next such a special restaurant. The next few menus will be El Bulli, Kyoto and Sicili, which sounds more than promising… However, if one focuses on the constants in this ever-changing theatre, it are the dining room and the staff. Creating one of the most informal and warm atmospheres in the States, the people here clearly know what they’re doing and that their guests come here to have a great time. It makes the experience of eating here all the more special.
Faced with a restaurant that constantly reinvents itself, we can only say that it is impressive. Not many people have the courage, drive and intelligence to put something like this together. Next is a restaurant that pushes the boundaries more than most others in the world do right now. From the reservation to the moment you leave the dining room, this is a meal like no other. Therefore we can happily say that in this case, the hype is truly justified.