As I mentioned earlier, we were on the fence about renewing our Next season tickets this year. When we saw that one of the menus was going to be Trio though, that sold us on staying in for another year. We were eager to revisit one of the first truly fine dining experiences that my wife and I enjoyed together (then as a couple only dating).
Saturday night we went for the Trio menu, and I can confidently say it will be our last dinner at Next as season ticket holders.
There was nothing wrong with the food per se. I thought that almost everything was well executed and several of the dishes brought back some nice memories. Plus it’s nice to eat the Black Truffle Explosion no matter what the occasion. But there were a few places where this menu fell short to me, something that really shouldn’t happen given the price-point for this menu (our tickets for this menu were $325 each including tax and service).
First, the service at Next continues to be short of where it should be. The way in which dishes were presented was inconsistent. Sometimes the runner would explain the background of the dish, or what Chef Achatz was trying to accomplish when he created the dish. Other times we just got a list of ingredients. This menu really requires the former style rather than the latter if they’re trying to get a story across. There were also minor missteps along the way. When we got to the restaurant, we had to tell the host that our companions had already arrived and checked in on Facebook in order to convince him we could be seated. Also. when you get up to use the restroom your napkin will be removed and a new one will be brought out, but when one of our guests got up and came back he had to ask for a new napkin. Obviously these aren’t major glitches in the grand scheme of things, but I could never imagine lapses like that happening at Per Se or Grace, or Alinea.
Second, the wine pairings were a major disappointment. I’m not a huge fan of wine pairings (they’re actually a terrible value in many places), but Joe Catterson always did an amazing job with the pairings at Trio and then Alinea (and the early days of Next). Even given how “odd” some of the food was, he managed to find wine and food combinations that would compliment and even enhance each other. It was a tough job, and he was great at it. At Next, though, there is no Joe Catterson. Actually, I’m not sure who is in charge of creating the pairings at Next these days. Regardless, some of the wines that paired with this menu just didn’t work at all. Most off the mark was a 2007 Puligny Montrachet that was served with a pancetta course where the main flavors were smoke and char. Even if this was the right wine for the dish, the flavors of the wine were completely obliterated by the temperature at which it was served. It tasted like they just pulled the bottle out the the fridge it was so cold. But even the remaining flavors of this slightly older white burgundy did nothing for the pancetta, and the pancetta did nothing for the wine.
Finally, and this is more of an abstract point, reproducing a menu like Trio can’t include a major part of what made Trio so great…the sense that you were eating something new and exciting. I had a number of strong emotional reactions to my first meal at Trio. My mind almost couldn’t comprehend it. But many of the things that were strange and new then are almost commonplace now. Or, at the very least, they are better executed now. A good example of this is the first dish on the Trio menu. A heaping portion of caviar sits on top of a lime cream, which sits on top of a layer of sugar. You break through the sugar to find some avocado cream underneath, and the flavors are then supposed to work together. This style of dish really got refined and perfected by Curtis Duffy, and is now one of the better courses at Grace. The Trio version seems almost primitive by comparison. The sugar “crust” isn’t the right texture, and the flavors of the lime and avocado were somewhat out of balance.
Other than this menu, though, there are other reasons why we’re not renewing. Probably the biggest factor is the price and the experience you get for that price. In short, it’s too much money to pay to eat on someone else’s terms. If I’m paying over $300 per person, I shouldn’t have to go on Facebook to try to move my reservation dates. I shouldn’t have to endure a no substitutions policy for things as simple as “no red meat”. And I should have a lot more flexibility in terms of how I want to drink wine or cocktails with my dinner.
But even beyond that, I want to feel appreciated as a guest. Not a customer, a guest. What do we even hear about when we hear about Next these days? The ticketing system, mainly. If your principal investor and your business model are the most talked about features of your restaurant, something has gone wrong. We don’t hear much about menu development. We certainly don’t hear much about staff training. The Trio menu kicked off with much hoopla, but almost right after it started we see that the back of house has gone off to Europe and the owner is in New York. As a season ticket holder, how is that supposed to make me feel? If the Next team is going to make analogies to sporting event or theater tickets, they should also know that season ticket holders are the lifeblood of those particular fan bases. As a Next season ticket holder I feel like I’ve been given the unique opportunity to give the restaurant a no-interest loan and that’s about it.
Things have changed at Next since it was first conceived. It was supposed to be a lower priced alternative to Alinea. It was supposed to be a way for Grant Achatz’s team to push new boundaries and explore new cuisines. It is no longer any of these things. It’s an expensive club that’s also a beta testing site for an ex-trader’s new business. So at least for me, Trio marks the end of my time with Next.