Next, the sequel restaurant from Grant Achatz of Alinea, is all of 19 days old, but it hums with the grace and confidence of a veteran. Which isn't completely surprising; Achatz, partner Nick Kokonas, operations manager Joe Catterson and executive chef Dave Beran are as details-obsessed a restaurant team as any I've seen.
"The philosophy and execution are pretty much the same," says Beran. "We just make it look different on the plate."
Some of the first nibbles that come one's way are, indeed, pure Alinea. The opening amuse is classic foie gras torchon and toasted brioche, except the torchon is placed in a hollow in the brioche's center. Luxury dining, meet toad-in-the-hole. Classic sauce gribiche is presented three dimensionally, as a whole poached quail egg, the hidden yolk still liquid, crowned with white anchovy and flecks of chervil and tarragon.
A bit of background, in case you missed any of the 387 barrels of ink that already have been spilled in service to this restaurant. Achatz announced his plans for Next last May. Bit by bit, details dribbled out to the public: The menu would focus on a specific place and time — past, present and even future — changing its focus quarterly. Rather than take reservations, Next would sell tickets, their prices varying with the day of the week but always including beverage, tax and tip.
It's a brilliant business model; such banes of restaurant existence as no-shows, cancellations and parties of four that materialize as parties of two, or six, are of no consequence when tickets are purchased up front. Nobody arrives at the opera with two tickets and an extra couple they're hoping to squeeze in. If customers accept this format, and in the early going that appears to be the case, Next may have launched a restaurant-reservation revolution.
I'm going to guess that Next will never repeat this first menu, which is scheduled to run another 10 weeks; the 7,000 or so diners who manage to experience "Paris 1906" will have bragging rights for a lifetime, akin to theater patrons who saw "Bleacher Bums" at the Organic or Gary Sinise and John Malkovich's "True West" at Steppenwolf.
Indeed, what Achatz and company have done is reframe the dining experience as a form of repertory theater. The performers remain the same, but every three months there's a new script. And where better to stage such a coup than Chicago, where repertory is the very backbone of its theater identity?
Ticket sales may just be the beginning; subscription sales may be the logical next step.
If so, sign me up. Alinea has established Achatz as an avant-garde innovator, but Next reveals him as a culinary historian of boundless zeal and thorough scholarship. Though there are scant few, if any, diners prepared to question a menu based on Auguste Escoffier's cookbook, Achatz takes pains to share his thought processes. When dishes arrive, a captain provides historic background, explaining, for instance, how the sole Daumont is actually a pastiche of Escoffier presentations, or how the kitchen took some liberties with its sauternes sorbet, freezing the dessert wine in liquid nitrogen to eliminate the need for added sugar or thickeners, and so that, as it melts in the dish, the sorbet returns to its original state — a glass of wine.
Next serves a set menu, so there's no point to my recommending one dish over another. But I can express admiration.
The legend is already growing, justifiably, about Next's duck, presented on a long platter (as per Escoffier), with a sauce created by means of an antique duck press. But the dishes that wowed me were the lamb, vertically combining lamb loin, sweetbread and tongue amid duchess potatoes and tomato concasse; and the chicken breast with sauce blanquette, remarkable in flavor and texture, accompanied by a round of cooked cucumber filled with ground chicken, wrapped in a band of salt pork.
I'd also call your attention to the lovely Salade Irma, the Bombe Ceylan that tastes like a frozen tiramisu and, lurking amid the mignardises at meal's end, the cunning beet pate de fruit.
But mostly, I'd suggest choosing the matching wine option when purchasing tickets. It's possible to opt for no wine at all, but then you'd miss some of Joe Catterson's inspirations, such as the oxidized, sherrylike wine he pairs with a clear turtle consomme, and the breathtaking Rhone he matches to that lamb composition.
The predictably luxurious dining room is a dimly lit and contemporary blend of gray, taupe, charcoal and possibly purple (hard to tell in the soft light). The look speaks to neither time nor place, a practical consideration for a concept that whisks one to Paris one season and somewhere else — Thailand? Argentina? The third moon of Endor? — the next.