Tag Archives: Chicago

Next Trio – Beginnings and Endings

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.

Ceres Table – The Restaurant East Lakeview Needs

I’ve lived in the vicinity of the Lincoln Park/Lakeview border since moving to Chicago in 2001. When I first arrived the dining options around me were dreadful. I ate at Duffy’s a lot, but that was fine since I was a 22 year old former frat guy working in consulting. Fortunately though, as my tastes matured, so did the restaurant scene in the area.

If you start south of Fullerton on Clark Street and work your way north (switching over to Broadway once you hit Diversey), you can come up with a pretty solid list of places to eat. Riccardo (I prefer Enoteca of Trattoria), Eleven City Diner, del Seoul, Lito’s Empanadas, Senza, Crisp, Pastoral/Bar Pastoral, Flub-a-Dubs…you can really do a lot worse. What was missing though was a nicer sit down place with “grown up” food, but nothing too serious, stuffy, or expensive. Chilam Balam is probably the closest thing we have, but they don’t take reservations and that usually keeps me away from nicer places.

Ceres Table has stepped in to fill that void. We made a last minute reservation for Friday night and had a great meal, sharing a bunch of charcuterie, crudi, pasta, and cheese. We also wanted pizza but unfortunately the oven wasn’t working.

The beef tartare is a wonderful version, the meat well diced and with an excellent mustard to mix in. Amberjack crudo was made with high quality fish, but could have used a touch of acidity (maybe lightly pickle the cucumbers that it came with). Arancine were fried perfectly and had just a little bit of melty taleggio in the interior. Spaghetti nero had a nice kick to it and the bites of cuttelfish mixed in were well cooked (neither chewy or mushy). Instead of dessert we finished with some cheese: crescenza stracchino (closer to butter than cheese, which isn’t a bad thing), taleggio, and pecorino sardo.

I never went to the original Ceres Table location. But given our dinner last night and the fact that this location is within walking distance from our place, I think we’ll be going to this location often. It’s a great menu for either nibbling or a proper meal, and both the wine and cocktail lists have a lot of interesting options.

Welcome Ceres Table. I think you’ll be here a while.

Cicchetti – Blending into a Crowded Field

We had tickets last night to Buyer and Cellar at the Broadway Playhouse, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out Cicchetti, which is just a short walk away.

I arrived early and had a drink at the bar, a good Manhattan with one of those giant ice cubes that make you feel like you’re drinking a Serious Cocktail. They had bowls of cold, somewhat limp potato chips sitting on the bar for snacking.

The space is sort of interesting. It’s loft-like without actually being a loft. But then the room oddly opens up to the Soprafina next door. Now, I have no issues with Soprafina. They’re a minor part of my office lunch rotation. But it’s a little strange to be enjoying a “nicer” meal while a doctor in scrubs is enjoying his panini about 10 feet away.

The appetizers were the weakest part of the meal. We had the cobia crudo and the aged hangar steak carpaccio. Both dishes were victims of flawed concepts. The cobia was served on rice crackers in a pool of harissa. The first bite was a nice mix of textures and flavors (particularly the smokiness of the harissa) but over time the rice cracker became soggy from both the fish and the sauce. By the end of the dish the textures had become pretty unappealing. The carpaccio had a funk to it that has no place in a good steak carpaccio. I don’t know if it was the aging, the cut, the cauliflower served on top, or a combination of the three, but it was a disappointing take on what is usually a lay-up of a dish.

Main courses were more successful. I had the squid ink orecchiette with lamb soppressata. The pasta was decently made (though probably a little too flat) and was well cooked. The hunks of lamb soppressata packed a good amount of heat. There were also Brussels sprouts involved, diced and maybe fried, adding some crunch. I enjoyed the dish, and Marissa enjoyed her saffron risotto with a fried egg.

Dessert was my favorite course. I had the Reverse Affogato, coffee gelato with vanila milk and donuts. My one criticism is that there were too many donuts, which is probably the worst bit of restaurant criticism ever written. The point is, you should plan on sharing at least the donut portion of the dish.

Cicchetti has been pretty well reviewed from what I’ve seen. But the problem is that we have so many Italian restaurants opening now (roughly 7 each day*) that it’s hard for any of them to stand out. And I don’t think Cicchetti really stands out. Marissa commented on the way to the show that we could have gone to Bar Toma (which I don’t really like) and have had a comparable meal. I’m sure Cicchetti will do well given it’s location, but it’s not a restaurant I see myself having any desire to go back to.

 

 

 

* Figure may not be accurate

Odds and Ends – 3/12/14

I’ve been in the midst of a pretty great stretch of eating. Here are some expanded thoughts on a few things that I’ve tweeted recently…

Perennial Virant – I gave this place a lot of grief when they opened for a completely confusing menu format and food that just wasn’t all that interesting. But since then, Perennial continues to get better and better. My last few meals there have been nearly flawless in terms of both food and service. We went most recently on a snowy night (weird, right?) and I was ecstatic to hear that they were serving cassoulet as a special. Given Paul Virant’s cooking style I figured this dish would be a slam dunk and I was right. Perfectly cooked beans, smokey sausage and tasso ham. Warm, rich, comforting…everything a good cassoulet should be.

L2O – We haven’t been to L20 in forever but we decided to go to do a joint birthday dinner for me and my wife. The menu format has changed a bit since my last visit. Gone are the a la carte options (except caviar service). Now there is a choice of a four course prix fixe (with two choices for each course) or a longer tasting menu. We did the prix fixe, which also includes an amuse, a pre-dessert, and mignardises, so it does turn out to be a nice amount of food. Everything we had was fantastic, and the attention to detail that’s almost always been the hallmark of L2O was well in evidence. I hate whipping out my phone to take a picture at a place like L2O, but my first course was so stunningly gorgeous I had to get a (mostly terrible) shot

Image

 

This is a “salade” composed of brioche, foie gras, truffles, cured tuna, and haricot vert. Not only was this dish beyond intricate, but more importantly it was delicious. This theme carried through the rest of the meal.

The Publican – Here’s another place I haven’t been to forever. I grabbed a quick meal here with a friend last night before the Bulls game. What I like about The Publican is that when they nail a dish it can turn into something truly special. Unfortunately the current menu is a little longer than I’ve seen in the past so picking the “right” dishes can be crapshoot. Kanpachi crudo wasn’t as good as other raw fish preps that I’ve had here. The Little Gem salad with pig ears was as good as ever. There were three new dishes though that really stood out. First was a warm truffle salami that was served in a balsamic reduction. The second was a tripe amatriciana that was meant to be spread on some pieces of grilled ciabatta. Third was a chicken liver rigatoni. All three of these dishes demand your attention. They’re all beautifully balanced, taking competing flavors and putting them together perfectly. The balsamic working perfectly with the savory elements of the salami…the tripe a perfect mix of sweet, sour, spicy, and tripe-y…the pasta evoking every chopped liver I ate growing up, right down to the threads of onion mixed in. Go eat all of these. As soon as you can.

Next: Chicago Steak – Um, Yeah

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.

Other issues

  • 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.

Tanta

Tanta opened in River North to much fanfare in August. A few years ago I ate at Gaston Acurio’s place in San Francisco (La Mar), which I really enjoyed so I was looking forward to checking out Tanta. It’s been crazy busy and hard to get into on Friday/Saturday nights, so we decided to check it out with some friends last night (a Sunday).

Even on a Sunday the place was pretty busy. I don’t know why but I was expecting the restaurant to be much larger than it actually is. It’s a nice size space, not like the other cavernous trendy feed halls in the area.

We got the usual “have you dined with us before” from our server, but for once I was actually thankful for the menu run-down that followed. Tanta’s menu is divided up into a bunch of sections so it was actually pretty helpful to hear what each one was all about and to hear about a few dishes from each one. It helped that our server was deeply familiar with the menu and wasn’t just pushing what he was told at that night’s pre-shift meeting.

We decided to start with one dish from each of the five sections of the menu that are intended to be appetizers:

Tiraditos (crudo, more or less) – criollo (mahi mahi with aji amarillo)
Niguiris (Peruvian version of nigiri) – anticucho (more mahi mahi)
Cebiche – criollo (mahi mahi, squid, and shrimp)
Anticuchos (skewers) – pulpo (octopus with chimichuri and fried garlic)
Causita (served on top of mashed potatoes) – clasica (crab with avocado and egg)

All were delicious with the exception of the causita with tasted a little bit like tuna salad on top of mashed potatoes. The fish used in the raw dishes was fresh and high quality, The octopus in the anticuchos was cooked perfectly, not rubbery at all. The nice part though was that dishes were brought out one at a time and actually in a thoughtful order. Given a similarly structured menu it seems like most restaurants in town these days would have sent out everything at once (completely overwhelming the table) or in whatever order the kitchen felt like sending them out.

For my main course I went with the half chicken. The place is Peruvian, how could I not try the chicken? This was some fantastic chicken. White and dark meat, both moist. Skin perfectly seasoned and textured. And the chicken comes with a ridiculous amount of other stuff: rice, beans, salad, fried potatoes, and three sauces (which were good but completely unnecessary). At $19 this might be one of the better bargains for a meal in River North. Our table also ordered the pork fried rice to share and it was also great, but in a trashy sort of way. Lots of sauce and scrambled eggs, with the whole thing still cooking at the table. If you go with a group I would recommend getting it but be prepared for a “hate eating” experience.

Tanta could have easily fallen into the trap of being all style and no substance given the area but that is definitely not the case. This is a serious restaurant putting out great examples of higher end Peruvian food. 

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.