We lucked into tickets to Next recently. For the uninitiated, Next is the newest project by the molecularly gastronomical Grant Achatz, of Alinea fame. The theme of the dinner changes every three months. The kick-off theme was Paris: 1906. We went to A Taste of Thailand.
It’s not easy to get tickets. They’re announced at an assigned time on a particular day, and the entire three month supply sells out in a matter of minutes. It’s a good sign that the economy is looking up when you have thousands of people competing to pay nearly $200 for a ticket to dinner (tickets include a seven-course meal with cocktail pairings, tax and tip). We had two friends with four tickets who were looking to sell two of them, so we bought in and shared a table. Both of the guys had dined at Alinea more than once, and had some wonderful Chicago food tips and stories to share. They were great dining companions.
What you really get with the Next price tag is a meal and a show. The entire dinner is akin to synchronized swimming. Servers swoop in at the same time, and, in tandem, they lay down Thai newspapers, which serve as tablecloths under the initial course of Thai street fair (delicious fermented sausage, pretty good roasted banana, so-so prawn cake, so-so bite of shrimp, delicious steamed bun).
Then they’re there again to lay out purple napkins and talk about the lunar implications happening right at that moment (my mind went blank in a fit of BS rebellion so I’m not sure what they actually said).
They’re there to pour a steaming broth of hot and sour soup over fresh heirloom tomatoes in your bowl (this course was a stand-out). And they’re back when it’s time for the catfish course, doling out any leftovers onto the plate of the lone lady in the group (that’s me!) lest she didn’t fend for herself.
There was one presumably unscripted moment with a server that’s become the quote of the night. As he was serving the beef cheek course, he muttered, “We like to run through fields shaving the faces off of cows.” Voila, enjoy your collagen-filled meat product, suckers! This course was actually one of the best, but I had a hard time getting past the mental image of the bovine-bound leather face.
The servers are then back to lay a rose on the table and encourage you to smell it as you prepare for the next course–rose-scented dragon fruit (which tastes much better than I make at home…I tried re-creating it a few days after that dinner) before serving you crave-able Thai iced tea out of a bag.
The meal inspired a mixture of reactions. On the one hand, it was delicious and novel. On the other, ridiculous, flamboyant and decadent. Some moments it felt like foodie heaven. Others felt like a satire. But overall, the experience was certainly memorable and I’m glad I got to go.
We were able to grab a table at Aviary afterward for a post mortem drink. The bar, which is attached to the restaurant, had recently changed its menu so that all of the really far-out drinks (the Sassafras made with their own twist on root beer, the warm Rooiboos cocktail, etc) are now a part of a “flight” menu, where, for $45, you can select three beverages from three different categories. Having just enjoyed an array of punch, wine and beer during our meal at Next, we opted for the more boring single drinks: The blueberry, the pineapple, the hurricane and the Hemingway.
It was as though they appeared out of a mad scientist’s lab. The hurricane wasn’t just a hurricane. It was seven layers of color, and looked like a food-color and oil experiment. The blueberry looked like an stick-filled aquarium in a canteen. The pineapple was like a smoking-cold Astro-pop, and the Hemingway looked like …. a margarita.
“Mine is the boring one,” I whined. And the server, like a true champ, was ready with a response. She explained that the Hemingway is the richest in history. Hemingway was diabetic, she said, and couldn’t have sugar, so he’d mix his beverages with grapefruit juice, as they’d done in this cocktail.
It was the End Scene on a dramatic evening.
Drink Recipes: (as printed in the Wall Street Journal)
Aviary 7 Layer Hurricane
2 oz cranberry stock (recipe below)
1 1/2 oz passion fruit juice
1 oz blood orange juice
1/2 oz lime juice
1 oz Plantation 5 year rum
1 oz Banks rum
1 oz Smith & Cross rum
What to do: In a narrow carafe, slowly and carefully pour ingredients one at a time in the order listed using a Cocktail Master ($45,cocktailmasteronline). Serve the layered creation to your lucky guest in a large glass of crushed ice with a straw. Instruct them to pour carafe contents into glass and stir.
500g fresh cranberries
400g granulated sugar
500g cold water
In medium saucepan combine fresh cranberries, sugar, and water. Place over high heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat when cranberries burst and strain through chinois and refrigerate liquid. Place leftover solids in wine press lined with double layer of cheesecloth. Presssolids to extract as much juice as possible, tightening press continuously. (Alternatively, if you don’t have a wine press, crush in large bowl and push through chinois, pressing down on solids to extract as much juice as possible.)
Note: Cranberry juice will not work as substitute because it’s the wrong consistency.
2oz Martin Miller Westbourne Strength Gin
1oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
1/8 oz of Maraschino liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters
5 drops of orange bitters
What to do: Combine all ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into a chilled coupe.