Good thing they used a nice single malt in my Ron.
Now was it worth it? Well, that’s a more complicated question. And it gets to the heart of the debate over that curious practice known as gastro-tourism. Many have traveled from the four corners of the earth to eat foraged berries and live ants at Noma in Copenhagen. Such venues are, after all, in short supply. But surely there are surely enough steakhouses across our fruited plain, most of which charge a heck of a lot less than Next, even in this era of sky-high beef prices.
Also worth noting: Next serves no porterhouses, no strips, no Caesar salads, no beef tartare, no multi-tiered shellfish plateaus. And there is no a la carte menu, which means there are no choices. The first course is crudites.
So let me explain the lure, because I’m not the only one traveling from afar to eat red meat. And raw vegetables.
Next is brought to us by Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz, the duo behind one of America’s best restaurants: Alinea, an avant-garde chemistry class of an eatery where an 18-course dinner date will easily set you back a grand.
And like Alinea, Next operates a bit like a theater company, selling pre-paid meal tickets instead of reservations. And because of Next’s indomitable fan base -- nearly 60,000 likes on Facebook and almost 30,000 Twitter followers -- tickets can fetch many times their face value on Craigslist.
Now you know: culinary scalping is a thing.
What helps drive demand is that Next fully changes its menu every four months. And true to form, some of my food friends dispense with thousands of dollars to visit Chicago and eat at Next three times per annum. God bless them.
Past menus have included an ode to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli (liquid olives), a game tasting (bison cooked on rocks), and a riff on the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition (long story).
I last dined at Next shortly after it opened in 2011, when Chef Dave Beran’s menu focused on dishes from 1906 Paris. It was a magical menu. We sampled food rarely found in high-end U.S. restaurants: turtle soup, sole in crayfish butter, Sauternes sorbet and more. So I’m sorry to say the “Chicago Steak” menu at Next, a 10-course affair that’s a throwback to the meateries of yesteryear, isn’t quite as magical.
And it might be the first Next menu to face serious competition. There aren’t a whole lot of places recreating Ferran Adria menus. But there are oodles of steakhouses.
That’s where pricing becomes a factor. It’s unlikely you and a friend will spend more than $295 after tax and tip but but before wine, on an admittedly shorter meal at New York's Minetta Tavern. But it’s impossible to spend less than $371 at Next, which is the minimum price for two -- and that's the off-peak charge.
Exactly how much you’ll spend at Next depends on when you eat, as pricing is dynamic, just like with hotels and airlines. That same dinner can shoot up to $464 on a Saturday night. Add wine pairings at $100 apiece and you’re at $724. Boom.
So what’s the verdict? The service is outstanding. The drinks are stunning. And the food is often well-executed. But boring. Here’s what you’ll eat.
Crudites: The waiter places an ice-filled bowl at the center of the table. It doesn’t contain oysters. It holds a face-high collection of carrots, fennel, radicchio and other edibles tossed in a tart ranch vinaigrette. Delicious. Think of it as the vegetarian version of raw shellfish. Such bounty is paired with a martini that’s equal parts shochu and vermouth. It’s a perfect drink, and for a few minutes, you’re under the impression that you’ll have an inspiring meal. You will not.
Shrimp Cocktail: It’s a fine classic version of a dish that’s often bland and rubbery. The blue shrimp, neither overcooked nor over-chilled, boast decent maritime flavor. The excellent red sauce, bursting with horseradish and tomato kimchi, should be jarred and sold at retail. But why not serve the crustaceans with their aromatic heads like at The Dutch in New York? Why not serve them warm to bring out their oceanic aroma? Why not truly update this static classic?
Surf & Turf: This is where Beran gives a hat tip to the a la carte format of steakhouses. Some guests will get oysters grilled in the shell with Iberico ham. The depth of flavor is profound. Just avoid the accompanying charcoal-roasted broccoli, which taste like lighter-fluid fondue. Other guests will receive sweetbreads with mussels, a combination of mild flavors and soft textures that walks a very fine line between subtle and bland.
La Grenouille: Frogs legs, at their best, are the succulent chicken wings of the swamp, boasting firm meat with a vaguely briny tang. Here at Next, the de-boned amphibians have as much flavor as industrially-produced soy protein. They’re placed atop a tangle of frisee and cress. Rating: Sell.
Salmon Coulibiac: Legend has it Escoffier introduced the French to this Russian dish and the Next version reminds us why: It’s phenomenal. Beran takes Canadian salmon, bursting with as much oil as fish roe, then coats it with shrimp mousse, black trumpet mushroom risotto and pastry dough. Every flavor shines.
Thermidor: This Gallic mixture of lobster, cognac, cream and egg yolk has always been a dubious one, and Beran’s update doesn’t make a compelling case otherwise. The runny mixture is served in a crock and drinks like a soup, minus the powerful shellfish flavor of bisque. It’s a one-note mess that helps kill your appetite before the beef.
Red Meat: Now here’s the thing. The point of a traditional steakhouse, for better or for worse, is to over-indulge with brontosaurus-sized portions and artery-clogging sides. Next gets the job done with a hefty cut of ribeye, breadcrumbed onions, fried Brussels sprouts and, best of all, fully loaded tater skins that are like Guy Fieri meets Joel Robuchon.
But at a regular steakhouse you encounter such excess at course number two. At Next, this is course number seven.
What’s worse: the beef isn’t memorable, even if the cooking is impressive. The meat is poached in a vacuum-sealed bag with beef fat, chilled, then seared to order. The result is exceedingly tender flesh, a crimson red interior, and a distinct char.
If only great cooking resulted in a great steak. When you close your eyes you detect a hint of dry-aged musk. And as you chew there’s a hint of beefiness. It tastes little different from a slightly above-average steak served at any proper New York meat hut.
And it lacks the profound complexity of better cuts I’ve sampled in Chicago, like the Miyazaki beef at Grace, or the single slice of Slagel Family Farm ribeye at Elizabeth. Both of those presentations were at the end of long tastings too. And both were portioned modestly enough so as not to overwhelm.
Its modern cooking techniques notwithstanding, Next might be paying too much homage to the past. A steak of the size and style Beran is serving has no place on a tasting menu.
Waiters help bring down diners from their protein comas with a superb high-end “float” -- brioche ice cream with good champagne. Then comes a flaming baked Alaska and a gorgeously minty cup of pudding that tastes like one of those foil-wrapped Andes Candies I gorged on as a child. And of course, there’s the Burgundian (ahem) coffee, a blend of steamed milk, honey, cold press brew and Deanston single malt.
Yes, Next is one of our country’s great restaurants and Dave Beran is one of our country’s finest chefs. But Next’s steakhouse menu is a skip -- especially for travelers.
Next is at 953 W. Fulton Market, Chicago. Information: https://www.nextrestaurant.com.
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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