Next: Chicago Steak was born when owner Nick Kokonas took to Twitter to declare that nobody does steak right these days. I’m not sure where Nick is eating his meat because I’d like to think there are plenty of excellent steakhouses out there. Hell, we’ve got a couple right here in Chicago. I’d also put Carnevino in Las Vegas up there. Well, after dining at Next: Chicago Steak I’d have to say that Kokonas & Team isn’t doing it right either.
I’ll start with some of the good because this menu isn’t a complete disaster by any stretch, and a few of the courses were really quite good. The broccoli salad served with oysters as part of the “a la carte” course (more on this in a bit) was delicious. A salmon served in puff pastry with shrimp mousse was a real highlight, the pastry in particular. The steak which serves as the centerpiece of the meal is as good as you would expect, particularly when paired with the three different sauces that come out with this course (though you better like your steak rare…really rare). The finishing bite of Chocolate Mint was intended as an homage to Frangos, but really tasted more like an Andies (which I consider to be a good thing).
But then there were problems…
For the first real course of the night (following a rather bizarre crudite presentation) four different plates came out to our table. One person at the table wasn’t eating shellfish so she got fried sweetbreads. I got a shrimp cocktail that contained two (2) shrimp. The third guest got that oyster and broccoli salad, which contained two (2) oysters. The fourth guest got a surf clam dish that was meant to reference clams casino. We were then encouraged to share the dishes between us. Now, I like to think I’m a math guy. I spend a lot of time each day with Excel spreadsheets. Maybe it was the opening cocktail clouding my mind, but I was having a hard time wrapping my brain around how three of us were going to share two shrimp. I didn’t even want to think about how we were going to deal with the oysters. I didn’t have a knife at this point so I managed to cut the shrimp with a spoon so I could distribute allotments to my dining companions. At this point I’ll remind you that our meal was $350 per person including wine, tax, and tip. $350 and I’m sitting there trying to divide two shrimp for three people with a spoon. Also, the surf clam was cold and the sweetbreads were mostly breading. Basically this course was a disaster, and we told our captain as much when he came to the table afterwards. He said that the individual dishes weren’t really meant to be shared, it was supposed to be “a nod” to a la carte ordering in a steakhouse. You know what else would have been an effective “nod” to a la carte ordering? Actually letting people order that course a la carte.
- The lobster thermidor was a dish largely tasting of cream, but not much lobster (even though there was plenty of lobster in it).
- The wine (standard pairing) that was paired with the steak was completely wrong. A super fruity grenache-like grape from Sicily didn’t work with the steak at all. I can’t imagine Joe Catterson letting something like that happen
- There’s a champagne float served as an intermezzo before dessert. The brioche ice cream served in the float had this odd flavor that I couldn’t place for a while. Then it hit me. Remember that ice cream you would get that came with a little wooden stick that you used to eat it? The ice cream would take on some of the flavor from the wood when you ate it. That’s kind of what the float tasted like.
The service at Next is clearly getting worse, and at an alarming rate. Before the salmon course, a runner came out with what I assumed to be a stunt fish. A giant salmon wrapped in pastry. She said something to the effect of, “This is the salmon, your next course. Um, yeah”. The “um, yeah” part is a direct quote. Truly a fascinating insight into the preparation of the dish. Also after the debacle of the a la carte course described above, there was no effort by anyone at the restaurant to make up for something that had clearly gone wrong (though we had been told our feedback was passed along). A runner later on the meal made a snarky reference to our troubles sharing the earlier dishes, almost under his breath. I heard him, and I didn’t think it was funny. Finally, the last beverage pairing came out to the table well after our desserts had been served (another course where the table was forced into a sharing situation…two of us got cheesecake brulee and two of us got Baked Alaska).
In addition to the execution and service issues I’ve described, I really feel like the whole concept of this menu is flawed. As I’ve talked about before, Next is at its best when it provides a singular experience. Something so far outside of what you could get at other restaurants in town it almost creates a feeling of a must see spectacle. So that was always the problem with the theme of “Chicago Steak”. Is there a more generic restaurant experience than going to a steakhouse?
But Next could have taken on these issues head on. One path would be to faithfully execute an old school steakhouse: dark lighting, tableside preparations of steak tartare and Caesar salad, your choice of cut of meat, maybe some braised short ribs, and a glass of brandy after dinner. The other path would have been to completely modernize the experience, making it almost unrecognizable as a steakhouse. So instead of shrimp cocktail you get something like Achatz’s Virtual Shrimp Cocktail.
Instead, Next: Chicago Steak falls somewhere in between, but really nowhere actually. Much like the ridiculous parades that were part of the Bocuse d’Or menu, Next just can’t seem to fully commit. And when you go halfway with anything you’re going to wind up with an inferior product. And a $350 per person inferior product isn’t just a failure for the restaurant, it’s insulting to those who have stuck with this restaurant and this team.