Monthly Archives: November 2013

Why I’m Renewing My Next Season Tickets

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably already well aware of the fact that Next has announced the three menus for 2014: Chicago Steak, Chinese: Modern, and Trio, January 20, 2004.

Prior to the announcement I was taking a wait and see approach to our season tickets for next year. On the one hand, I do enjoy the experience of going to Next because the highs can be so high (Paris 1908, The Hunt, etc.). On the other, the restaurant can be exceptionally frustrating. Service isn’t as good as it should be given the price point (I suspect their staff turnover is higher than average, but that’s just a guess), the terms under which you’re forced to deal with the restaurant are pretty anti-consumer, and there are inherent drawbacks in only running a given menu for three or four months. I could easily spend the significant dollars involved elsewhere, eating more on my own terms.

When news first started to leak about a steakhouse menu I honestly thought it was a joke. For such a creative team to put on the least creative menu possible was laughable to me. Well, turns out I was wrong and Chicago Steak it is. I’m sure it will be good but, frankly, I’m still disappointed in the choice.

But it’s the other two menus that are forcing me to re-up. I’m a fan of the more conceptual, more avant-garde stuff, which is what I’m hoping for with the Chinese menu. I don’t want to go to Next to eat Chinese food (I didn’t really enjoy going to Next to eat Thai food). I want to see what Next can bring to the idea of Chinese food. I know that sounds trite and ridiculous, but it’s the only way I can see the menu being successful.

I’m excited about the Trio menu out of a sense of nostalgia. Trio was one of the few restaurants to really force me to re-think fine dining. My first dinner there was the second meeting between my family and my future in-laws. The emotions of that combined with cuisine that was so radically different from anything I had ever experienced had me completely thrown. It was easily one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. Trio was also the first restaurant where I paid for a long tasting menu on my own dime. I had just received my first bonus at work. It wasn’t huge, but it was enough to do something fun and interesting. Rather than buying a new surround sound system I took my then girlfriend (now wife) to Trio for the Tour de Force. It looks like some of the dishes that were on that menu will be at the one served at Next. I’m sure I’ll have an emotional response that night, which to me is really what makes dining out fun.

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Odds and Ends – 11/18/13

Some of the things I’ve been eating lately…

Napoli’s Italian Eatery – My exploration of Canton dining continues. About a month ago one of my clients gave me his list of favorite spots in Canton, so I’ve been working through that a bit. Napoli’s is an old school Italian place in downtown Canton, right on the edge of the sketchy part of town. They seem to be known for their pizza, which appears to be a gigantic form of NY-style. I was in for dinner and didn’t feel like pizza so I had the “Penne Italiano”, which was penne with some pretty good sausage, peppers, and onions in a sort-of-spicy tomato sauce. Nothing mind-blowing, but the place really wins in terms of local charm. I’m keeping it on the list for future trips.

Pastaria – It’s pasta across the Midwest!. Pastaria is part of Gerard Craft’s local empire, specializing in (wait for it)…pasta. They don’t take reservations, and we had about a 45 minute wait arriving at 6:45pm on a Friday. It looked like there was a wait pretty much the whole time we were there, so factor this in if you’re planning on going. The pastas are all made in-house, and all three at our table were fantastic. My bucatini all’ amatriciana was nicely spicy with an almost stew-like sauce. The canestra in my wife’s cacio e pepe really made her dish, and our friend’s pistachio ravioli were unique and well made. Also, don’t skip the fried risotto ball appetizer.

Arami – Arami continues to be a shining beacon in Chicago’s sushi scene, which I maintain is remarkable given all of the changes they’ve been through. Well, here’s some more change. They have a new chef back in the kitchen, Fred Despres who used to be at Takashi. He’s already got some new items on the menu, including a wonderful hamachi poke and a damn respectable agedashi tofu. Their fish continues to be delicious and well handled by the guys behind the bar. Juno may be the trendy choice (and also very good), but the entire experience at Arami keeps me coming back.

Vera – I know I just gushed about Vera, so I’ll keep this short. They’re serving some gorgeous jamon iberico right now. It’s $28 a plate and it is worth every penny. Go eat it.

2014 Michelin Guide – The Good and the Not So Good

Ah, Michelin Day in Chicago. It goes something like this:

1. Chefs and some media folks start posting about their excitement, anxiety, and predictions

2. The rest of us either join in or start complaining that Michelin is stupid (note: the latter group is no fun and should be shunned)

3. Some of the list leaks. Nothing leaked is remotely surprising

4. The stars are officially announced. Some choices are good, some are not so good. Glaring omissions are made

5. Everyone goes back to what they were originally doing, since honestly who cares what Michelin has to say about Chicago

This year pretty much followed the usual pattern. Because nobody asked, here are my takes on this year’s list

Three stars: Alinea reigns as Chicago’s only three-star. No shock there.

Two stars: Newly opened Grace takes two (wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them get three in the next guide). Soon to close Graham Elliot keeps two (no one actually knows if this makes sense since no one eats at Graham Elliot anymore). L2O probably rightly keeps two. Sixteen gets promoted to two, which I have no opinion of since I haven’t eaten there since the place first opened.

One star: The news here is all about the new one-stars: Elizabeth, Senza, North Pond, EL Ideas, and The Lobby. I’d say these are all good choice, though personally I’m not a huge North Pond fan.

I made the comment earlier on Twitter that this year’s list represented a major step forward for Michelin, really due to the inclusions of Elizabeth, Senza, and EL Ideas. Should there be more places like those on the list? Absolutely. Places like The Bristol, Yusho, Vera, and (I would even argue) Telegraph are just as deserving of recognition. Chicago’s dining scene is far richer now that we have all of these great, casual restaurants putting out well-executed ambitious food. But I think we need to face reality here. For whatever reason Michelin has decided to be stingy with Chicago stars. Since the guide’s public comments seem to be issued most of the time from a non-Earthling, we’re only left to speculate about the reasons why. But given a small list to begin with, and also given the fact that we’re unlikely to see any significant change in any single guide, a few good additions really do help the overall list (and hopefully act as a predictor for what other places might be included in future guides).

Finally, I think it’s important to take a step back and look at the list of starred restaurants as a whole. It’s not perfect. The omission of Next alone is a significant flaw (which would be funny at this point if it wasn’t horribly unfair to Dave Beran). On an overall basis though, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than any other “best of” list. It’s fun to pick apart for a day, but then we move on until next time.

The complete list of starred restaurants, along with the usual bizarre comments from Michelin, can be found here.