Tag Archives: Next

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.

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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.

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.

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.