I specifically refrained from reading about other people’s experiences before I dined at Next, the new restaurant from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas with Dave Beran running the kitchen, so if you are set to dine there within the next six weeks (the remaining duration of the current theme of Paris 1906), I will not be offended if you refrain from reading this.
The concept behind Next is to present a completely new dining experience every three months with each experience based upon the food of a specific time and place. Opened about six weeks, the initial theme is Paris in 1906 – the food of Escoffier and Cesar Ritz, who, together, opened the Ritz Hotel in 1906. I wasn’t quite sure how far the concept would go to recreate the atmosphere and experience of dining in Paris. Figuring that the style of food that would be served, would have most likely been eaten in a formal atmosphere, we dressed appropriately given our current era and lack of duds from that epoch. With suits and ties, and nice dresses, it quickly became clear that while we were not inappropriately dressed, we were in a distinct minority amongst the guests, most of whom wore nice, casual attire.
The restaurant is located in a part of Chicago that has been revitalizing over the last decade and is otherwise the home of warehouses and meat-packing facilities as well as other restaurants, including Moto. Coming up to the restaurant in a taxi, there wasn’t an obvious sign, but on close inspection of the dark corner building, there was a small sign in a window stating “Paris 1906.” We had arrived.
The room itself, long, narrow and dark was actually era-neutral as were the clothes of the service staff. Next was wisely not trying to be a Disneyland show with the near impossible recreation of the ambiance of the period. The backdrop of the restaurant acts as an essentially neutral canvas for whatever era they plan to present. With curving metal girders traversing the ceiling, Next gave off a bit of an industrial or futuristic vibe that reminded me of the Italian Futurists from the early 20th Century – coincidentally, not long after the era of Paris 1906. Though I’m not sure it was specifically intended to do so, we felt that the ceiling suggested the Eiffel Tower, at least enough to massage our overactive imaginations.
The reality was that the era of Paris in 1906 would have to rely on the food and the wine coming from the kitchen to fully feed those imaginations as well as our bellies and our souls.
My wife and I were excited enough to come to Chicago with a couple of good friends just for one night in order to dine at Next, but when we were seated we grew even more excited when we noted Chef Achatz himself, seated and dining with family at an adjacent table. This was, in fact, extraordinary as it is my understanding that Chef Achatz had never actually previously formally dined at one of his restaurants. The honor of sitting next to him and his party helped make our evening that much more special.
Upon being seated we were each handed what appeared to be a menu, but what instead was a brief description of the significance and background behind the selection of Paris 1906 as Next’s opening concept. In addition, they explained the main liberties they took with their service. To be totally historically authentic or accurate, the meal would have been served as part of a grand buffet. In a nod to current fashion, they preferred to plate the dishes individually with a couple of exceptions which were served on platters to the table and apportioned by the diners themselves as would have been done in Escoffier’s day.
Our meal commenced with warm gougeres and a glass of champagne. The gougeres were tasty and well executed, filled with a liquid Mornay filling. The champagne, 85% chardonnay and 15% pinot noir was a non-vintage bottling from Vincent Carré. I also learned something that I had not previously known from our server as he poured the champagne. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the second fermentation necessary for the production of Champagne and other sparkling wines using the methode champenoise, was understood enough to be used in a controlled and reliable fashion. By the 1840’s, the sparkling wine business of Champagne was well established and by the end of the century had become an industrial giant with the reputation for excellence and quality that it still enjoys today. Thus, in 1906, Champagne as we know it, was incredibly popular, but still a relatively new phenomenon on a grand scale (1). It would suffice through our hors d’oeuvres.
Petite brioche stuffed with foie gras torchon, topped with plums, apricots and pickled mustard seeds and sprinkled with fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper was placed in the center of the table with a piece for each of us. The technique used for the brioche was stellar with the torchon perfectly centered and round. The fruit provided just enough sweetness and acidity to cut the lovely richness of the foie while the pickled mustard seeds added a hint of pungency.
Hors d’oeuvres were served in the Escoffier style – on a platter placed in the middle of the table with one piece of each hors d’oeuvres per diner. Beautifully arrayed, the selections included ouefs benedictine – a custardy mixture of cod, truffle and cream served in eggshells; a salmon fishing boat – salmon mousse in a barquette; green leek wrapped mushroom duxelles; crackers with pork rillete; rabbit boudin blanc with rhubarb and radish; and quail egg with a liquid-filled center topped with pickled anchovies, red onion, tarragon, chervil and a strand of lemon zest. Each one or two bite morsel was as delicious as it was beautiful and delicate. Of the group, the ouefs was the most decadent. We had been instructed to eat the quail egg in one bit due to its liquid center. It struck me, that a dish like this may have been a forerunner to the one-bite spherifications of Ferran Adria and those who followed. Then again, I suspect that these eggs were cooked in a temperature controlled water bath, which would not have actually existed in 1906. Which came first?
The next wine pour was rather interesting and an ideal pairing for the dish that soon followed it. From the Jura region of France came the lightly oxidized, sherry like 2005 Cuvee Speciale L’Etoile from Domaine de Montbargeau. Primarily chardonnay with a touch of the local grape Savagnin, the wine tasterd like a good fino sherry – dry and full of appley fruit.
Turtle soup was a very popular dish 100 years or so ago, but is rarely seen nowadays. I had never had it. Next served an even more refined Potage a la Tortue Claire, a consommé of Louisiana snapping turtle. Our waiter explained that turtle was felt to have properties that would help sustain an appetite throughout a big meal. Whether or not this is true, I can’t really say. During this meal, the food itself was sufficient for me to maintain my appetite. The consommé was poured table side over a finely sliced mirepoix. In addition, the consommé manifested a hint of the flavor of Madeira, which had been used in the preparation of the consommé. It was an elegant, light and satisfying dish, which showed that not all classic French cooking was rich and heavy.
From mostly chardonnay to all chardonnay, the next wine in the flight was from southern Burgundy, specifically Macon. The 2008 Olivier Merlin “La Roche Vineuse”, a light, crisp chardonnay was pleasant enough on its own, but excelled with it’s paired course. Wine Director, Joe Catterson did his homework and came up with interesting and tasty wines that matched the food beautifully.
Bread and butter came next. The bread, a small roll was delicious with a nice crisp crust and soft crumb, but the butter was outstanding – sweet, rich and eminently spreadable!
Filet de Sole Daumont just has that ring to it of a classic French dish. It also had the look. The French cuisine term “a la daumont” refers to a fish dish garnished with fish roe, mushrooms, crayfish and occasionally quenelles of fish. This preparation included all of those elements and featured a paupiette of sole that had been poached and a crayfish carapace that had been stuffed with a mousseline of crayfish and sole. The mushroom had been stuffed with crayfish and sole roe was breaded and lightly fried. The plate was bathed in a classic Sauce Nantua made with bechamel, cream and crayfish butter. I felt like I was back in a Lyon bouchon dining on pike quenelles in Nantua sauce, where food like this still proudly lives on.
The Languedoc was the origin of the next wine. A combination of carignan, grenache and mourvedre, we had made the move to red!
The plate was uncluttered. Though what was on the plate was clearly of the era of Escoffier when eaten, the plating style itself of the Supreme de Poussin reminded me more of the much later Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was composed of two different components, each featuring chicken, which at the beginning of the 20th century was widely considered a luxury ingredient.The intent of this dish was to show why it was once considered such an elegant dish. Borrowing a late 2oth century technique that has since become widely popular, the chicken was cooked sous vide, poached in butter and then sliced into quadrangles and coated with a rich, creamy blanquette sauce fortified with foie gras. The other half of the plate was occupied by poached cucumber rounds stuffed with a chicken mousse and wrapped with house-cured pork belly. The latter was unique to my palate and experience. The texture of the cucumber was like a soft pickle, but without the acid zing. It was marvelous, but even more marvelous still was the chicken breast. That was silky, moist and melting. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
This next dish was a surprise. When the wine was poured, a rich Rhone wine, I was expecting it to be for the famous duck dish. Made with syrah and grenache grapes, the 2006 “”Les Travers” from Domaine Brusset in Cairanne in the Cote du Rhone, was a big, brooding wine, that was chosen to go with “the sauce”, which is as we were explained an essential part of the cuisine of Escoffier. Our server was correct, this wine did match well the rich sauce of the next dish, but I was wrong. It was not the duck. We were receiving extra courses and this was to be one of them. Carré d’Agneau was presented beautifully and plated individually. Using Elysian Fields farm lamb, the preferred lamb source for Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, the dish consisted of lamb done three ways. At the top of the tower, were onion rings. Directly underneath were fried “heart” sweetbreads (pancreas). This lay on top of roasted lamb loin, which, in turn topped a rillette of lamb’s tongue. The layering was not yet quite done as the meats sat atop a fondant of Dutchess potatoes and then finally, at the bottom of the plate, a Sauce Choron, which is a Bearnaise sauce that has been tinted pink with tomatoes. Surrounding the sauce Choron, was a reduced and rich lamb jus. Of course, the lamb was perfectly cooked and everything was deeply delicious. If there was one flaw with the dish, it was a perhaps slightly over-aggressive seasoning with salt, but that would be picking hairs.
The duck – perhaps the most famous dish of the Paris 1906 experience was the Caneton Rouennais a lá Presse, a whole duck roasted, separated, pan-finished, sliced and served with a sauce from the jus of whole ducks that had been squeezed within a duck press. When served at the kitchen table, the duck is pressed at the table, however, in the main dining room, the jus is taken from multiple ducks that had been pressed in the kitchen. What we may have lacked in show, was more than made up for by the beautiful platter presentation and the brilliant flavor of this marvelous Rouen duck. Since it was served family style, we each got to take as much as we wished, choosing amongst beautifully cooked breast meat and wonderfully confited extremities. Despite becoming rapidly satiated, I could hardly have enough of this amazing bird. The duck had initially been brined whole for approximately seven hours then roasted whole before the breasts and extremities were separated and finished in the pan. It was the remaining duck carcass along with its organs that went through the press. The jus from this process was reduced along with cognac and red wine. Served along with the duck was a killer Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise. These “princely” Yukon Gold potatoes had been poached in butter, thinly sliced then cooked a second time in cream and herbs. The potato slices are then layered along with Comte cheese and finished in the oven – truly and lovingly decadent! Oh, the wine! I wasn’t totally wrong about the Domaine Brusset, as it was appropriately carried through for the duck.
Just when I thought I would burst from all the meats and fats, we were served the cleanser. Salade Irma, named for my mother – it wasn’t. but that was her name and I would like to thin that it was – hit just the right light note after the duck. Consisting of a nasturtium flower, nasturtium leaves, frisee, cucumber, radish, poached cauliflower, asparagus and two forms of the same vinaigrette – a lightly emulsified lemon-pepper on top mixed with the greens and a creamier, more emulsified version at the bottom of the plate. The salad did a great job of cleansing the palate with its combination of textures and bitter, acidic and peppery flavors.
Our pre-dessert was a sorbet that utilized a bit of contemporary wizardry to recreate a dish from the age of Escoffier. Liquid nitrogen was used to quickly freeze a dose of Sauterne to create Sorbet Sauternes. As this rejuvenating sorbet warmed it became a slushy then returned to its role as a dessert wine – marvelous!
The dessert was the bombe! Billed as the Bombe Ceylan, it had a bottom layer of a soft chocolate cookie, topped with a core of coffee sem-freddo, which was surrounded with a shell of darm rum ice cream.The bombe was sprayed with 70% cacao. In addition, the plate contained rum-poached cherries. Syrup from the cherries and a vanilla creme anglaise were dribbled around the plate.
The bombe was accompanied by a lovely tawny port, a popular after-dinner bit of sustenance in Escoffier’s time and though perhaps not quite as popular today, still sustaining.
Our dinner ended with a tray of mignardises, naturellement. With beet pates de fruit, fennel shortbreads on top and salted caramels, pistachio nougats and almond and cacao nib caramels, this was a lovely way to end an incredible meal. The salted caramel was a fabulous version of its kind, but my favorite of them all was the pistachio nougat, which really captured the most wonderful qualities of pistachio flavor in a pleasing texture. This brought our meal to its conclusion, but not our evening.
It was a fun, delicious and evocative meal. Everything about it clicked, from the food to the wine to the superb service throughout. We were treated royally and it didn’t stop here.
With our meal ended, we got to go back into the kitchen and chat with Chefs Beran and Achatz and were taken for a great behind the scenes tour by Sous Chef Rene DeLeon. The kitchen was designed along similar lines as Alinea with the idea to be particularly flexible given the concept of changing cuisines imposed upon the restaurant. While the main kitchen is significantly smaller than the one at Alinea, there is considerable additional space in the basement and tremendous capacity for efficient work including a sink area to butcher whole animals.
Chef Achatz is clearly amazingly creative. His vision and those of the people around him such as Nick Kokonas, Martin Kastner and others is light years ahead of almost everyone else’s. Aside from the culinary concepts behind Next, the restaurant breaks incredible new ground in the operation of a top restaurant. A notoriously risky business, they have reduced their risk as much as possible. Certainly, there is a risk that the concept may falter and the excitement die (I doubt it), but the whole approach to the restaurant limits that potential financial pitfalls of that possibility. By selling tickets and having a tiered pricing system based upon time and content, they are able to predict and control the flow – no last minute cancellations of large parties at Next – at least not with having to worry about lost revenue. The revenue is generated up front and with set menus food costs are controlled and waste limited The know what they need and when they need it. This should lead to a better product as freshness can be kept at ideal levels. The same is true with wine. The pairings are excellent and interesting as one would expect, but what is not necessary is a huge inventory of a wide variety of bottles. They can purchase and pour specifically what they need and it is all paid for – brilliant! This model may not work for the next nearly anonymous start-up restaurant, but for a restaurant that includes a top restaurant like Alinea in its genealogy, the demand will be there. I tip my hat to the team at Next for thinking this up and having the courage to pull it off.
The culinary concept of Next is certainly ambitious and is ultimately what the success or failure of the restaurant will hinge upon. The idea to change the entire cuisine and style of cooking every three months certainly presents an incredible challenge. Alinea is a restaurant in which the food continues to evolve at an extremely rapid pace, but for the most part does so within a singular vision and style. The changes may be dramatic, but so far, at least, not in the way that Next promises to be. With Paris 1906, Chefs Achatz, Beran, DeLeon, and the rest of the brigade along with wine guru Joe Catterson and co-owner Nick Kokonas are off to a tremendous start. While I never actually left 2011, the experience did an amazing job of providing context to what we were eating and to reopen our palates to the almost, but not quite forgotten glories of another era- great fun! Whether the team can consistently do that with the varied styles and eras proposed remains to be seen, but I, for one, would not bet against them! I can’t wait to see what else they have in store.
- Also supported by Larousse Encyclyopedia of Wine, Larousse, Paris, 1994, 1st Edition, pg. 210.