Monthly Archives: October 2013

Happy Birthday Vera!

This week Vera is celebrating its 2nd birthday and I just wanted to offer a few words of tribute.

Over the last couple of years Vera really has become one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago. Liz is always an extraordinarily gracious host and her husband Mark does a fantastic job putting out wonderful, straightforward food.

When I recommend Vera to people they ask me what kind of food it is. I usually respond with “Spanish-influenced wine bar”. I guess that’s more or less accurate, but an almost better way of putting it (although much more crass) is “no bullshit”. What do I mean? Just read this interview with Liz and Mark from yesterday. It’s pretty honest, soul-baring stuff. We don’t hear it enough but owning a restaurant is hard. Most fail. We as diners don’t get to see the hard work, the struggles, the tears. We see celebrity chefs tweeting pictures of their “research trips”. We hear about what awesome celebrity was in the dining room last night. We read about what the latest “protein wrapped in fat” creation got conjured up by the kitchen.

We don’t have to deal with this with Vera. Instead we get fabulous, simple (but not simplistic) dishes that Mark creates as we move through the seasons (see the chicken thigh dish on the current menu). Or we get things that rightly stick on the menu like beef tongue pinchos. Perfectly tender, but with a nice sear, beef tongue and some salsa verde. Who needs cronuts or a ramen burger when you can go eat those with a perfectly paired sherry from Liz? Who needs annoying restaurant PR when you just have Mark tweeting out pictures of some new dish he’s come up with? Here, come eat this. Done.

This is all a bit fawning, but Vera really does deserve more praise and attention than it otherwise gets. So Happy Birthday Vera. Congratulations Liz and Mark. I wish you many, many more years of happiness and success.

Season Finale at Next: Bocuse d’Or

The final menu of Next’s third season carries the theme “Bocuse d’Or”. There are flags hanging from the normally bare ceiling and TVs showing clips of the international food competition, but at least in my mind, that’s really where the concept of “theme” for this menu ends. Oh, there are also parades, but we’ll get to those.

I think Next is generally most successful when the theme creates an experience that is completely singular, giving the diner something that you simply can’t get anywhere else. In this category I would place Paris, 1906 (no one cooks like that anymore), el Bulli (the restaurant doesn’t even exist anymore), The Hunt (seamlessly blending primal dining with technical precision), and now this current menu. Like Paris 1906, you generally can’t get food like you get from the Bocuse d’Or menu at many restaurants in the US. Of course it requires a kitchen with an absurdly high level of technical ability to pull something like this off, and of course Next’s kitchen does just that.

While I thought that just about every course on this menu was successful on at least some level, two really stood out for me:

The first was a cauliflower mousse covered in pushed foie gras (think: a torchon of foie gras pushed through a strainer so you get little squiggly bits). Given the sheer quantity of foie gras involved in this dish you would think it would be too rich. And it almost is. But the mousse provides a perfect balance, and rose petals harvested from the centerpiece using liquid nitrogen provide another foil for the foie.

The other dish that really stuck with me was the trout and eggs. This was one of the courses that tried to draw a direct connection between what we were eating and the Bocuse d’Or competition. During one of the (twice nightly!) parades through the dining room, a couple of somewhat dour servers walked by our table with a platter meant as a tribute to this traditional combination. The actual trout and eggs dish served to diners is almost as elaborate, featuring both of the main ingredients in several forms (poached trout, fried trout skeleton, trout roe, a broken egg yolk sauce, etc.). Some would say there was too much going on with this dish. I actually enjoyed the interplay between all of the different flavors and textures. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Let’s come back to the parades for a minute. With our 6pm reservation we were treated to two of these “spectacles” during the course of the meal. I guess this is the other element in place that’s supposed to tie back directly to the theme. The lights in the restaurant come up, and servers come out of the kitchen schlepping large elaborate platters of food in the tradition of the Bocuse d’Or competition. If you watch the intro video to this season you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. But it’s sort of a bizarre thing to do really because Next only takes it half way. They need to fully commit to the spectacle. Instead of the servers clad in black marching through the dining room, send some cooks in their gleaming whites and tall toques. Have some actual bugles in the dining room announcing the arrival of the platters. I think Next in general could stand to have a bit more fun with itself, and this would have been the perfect opportunity.

This menu provided a wonderful close to an impressive third season of Next. I mentioned The Hunt earlier, but I also found the Vegan menu to be a great experience (if, for nothing else, the degree of difficulty in pulling off something like that). It will be interesting to see what will happen with season four and keeping this almost impossible culinary endeavor going. I’m stuck on trying to figure out what next season’s “hook” will be for retaining/attracting season ticketholders. In season two it was el Bulli and this past season it was Bocuse. My totally uneducated guess is that season four is when we will finally see a French Laundry menu. This would seem to be a logical follow-up to highlighting one of Thomas Keller’s current endeavors (he’s been a driving force behind trying to get the US team back to respectability in the Bocuse competition).

If you’d like more context (as well as pics) for the current menu, check out Mike Gebert’s Reader post here.