Savoring last days of Paris, at Next
By Janet Rausa Fuller
June 29, 2011
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We’ll always have Paris 1906.
Well, not all of us. Some of us. Some 6,400 of us.
That’s the number of diners who, by the end of this week, will have eaten the debut menu, inspired by the great French chef August Escoffier, at Next, the convention-busting restaurant from Alinea chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas.
The restaurant at 953 W. Fulton serves four menus a year — four radically different menus drawing from various places and eras. Escoffier-era French was first; a tour of Thailand will be next, starting July 8.
You don’t call to reserve a table at Next; you buy tickets on the restaurant’s website, choosing your date and time and paying for the food, drinks and tip upfront.
Of course, if you followed the development of Next over the past year via the Achatz crew’s detailed Facebook postings and YouTube videos; if you’ve read the countless, breathless blog posts documenting the buildout, and the handful of official reviews that don’t feel quite official (Chicago magazine critic Jeff Ruby channeled a dead guy, writing in Escoffier’s voice, and the Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula and Timeout Chicago’s Julia Kramer both owned up to the fact that with the way the ticketing system works, their anonymity was out the window before they walked in the door) — why then, you know all this.
Dave, my brother-in-law, didn’t know any of this. “Grant Achatz” and “Next” rung the faintest of bells.
My sister checks in on Facebook once a year, though by virtue of being my sister — sisters talk, you know — she knew a little more than him. She knew, for instance, that Achatz is the chef who famously fought tongue cancer.
And so, with my husband, the four of us planned for Paris. This would be our anniversary dinner. (We had a double wedding. Another story, another time.)
I’d scored tickets (not sure there’s a better way to put it than that) on April 6, the day they went on sale. After waiting and waiting, and clicking and clicking, and triple-checking by phone with the others that a Saturday in early June would work, the confirmation at last landed in my inbox.
Even before stepping in the door at Next, it already feels like a production. An event. A few diners who’d arrived early like us dawdle outside the barely marked door, all of us dressed up and trying to look cool.
After a few pleasantries in the small entryway, we are shown to our seats in the cool, low-lit room and given slim, folded programs describing how Escoffier might have done all this in 1906 Paris.
The first bite: four warm, Gruyere-filled gougeres, each about the size of a doughnut hole. “When the real ones come out,” Dave cracks, “we’ll take them.” Giggles all around.
The silver tray dotted with anchovy-topped quail eggs and other such dainty hors d’oeuvres quiets us down. We ogle, then attack. The plate of foie gras-filled brioche taste as wondrous as the countless photos of them online would have you believe.
Our server describes the wine poured with the turtle soup as sherry-like, which prompts Dave to reminisce about the time, as a teenager, he stole his mom’s sherry. The whole concept of Next is time travel, Kokonas has said. It’s working.
My sister, who has chosen the non-alcoholic beverage flight, marvels at her concoction of aged sherry vinegar and sparkling apple cider. “I’m going to try this at home with balsamic and apple cider,” she vows.
The rhythm and volume of the room pick up as we work our way through sauce-blanketed sole and a chicken dish that is a study in geometrics — a precisely formed diamond of chicken next to a chicken-stuffed, pork-wrapped cucumber round. The lamb dish, our server tells us, has been dubbed “Tower of Terror” by the staff because one wrong move, and the onion rings perched atop the dish could tumble. Yes, onion rings.
We are invited back to the kitchen to watch the completion of our duck course — possibly the most documented dish in Chicago. Chef de cuisine Dave Beran is a sport (as all the staff are). He must feel like a zoo animal, and yet, he does not let on as he carves our duck in seemingly four strokes, smooshes the carcass into an antique duck press and cranks the thing until the juices come running out.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Dave says as we leave the kitchen and settle back into our seats. “I never want to waste stomach space on crappy food again.”
All this, and a staff that doesn’t miss a beat. They know their stuff, but they don’t flaunt it. They’re funny, too. “This,” one server says, not breaking character, as impossibly round rolls are placed on our bread plates, “is” — pause for effect — “French bread.”
We work through that duck, served with a crusty, rich potato gratin. The delicate salad that follows has shavings of the tiniest radishes I’ve ever seen.
A Sauternes sorbet is pure and tongue-deadening cold, as is the ice cream dome called Bombe Ceylan.
By the end of it, we’re stuffed and, minus my sister, a bit soused, and Dave has a spot of something on his white linen shirt. Out of nowhere, a server comes bearing a Tide pen tucked in a napkin.
Among the mignardises, the beet pates de fruit sparkle like little jewels. We feel guilty leaving any stray sweets, so we don’t. Dave pops a candied almond cluster in his mouth. He’s allergic to almonds but, he says, “I don’t care.”
He survives. He’s fine. We all are.
The inclination, after an evening such as this, would be to say, “Let’s do this again.” But we know — you and me, both — that there won’t be any other evenings like this at Next.