A chef’s Next course promises a revelation
CHICAGO - The taxi driver drops you off in the middle of the meatpacking district, Fulton Market, a desolate stretch of warehouses and empty sidewalks on the edge of town. You double-check the address, not so keen on leaving the car, especially when you cannot seem to locate the restaurant sign. But then you notice a well-coiffed couple in good spirits exiting a door where a small logo reads, “Next.’’
The restaurant is smaller than expected, especially for one that has received a lot of fanfare. The room is narrow and long, with a sophisticated palette of silver and gray tables and banquettes, feeling like the dining car of a sleek train, say, the Orient Express. There is no menu, and you need not worry about the bill since you prepaid.
The server arrives with the first dish, a poached quail egg topped with a white anchovy and spiced with capers and tarragon, downed in one mouthwatering bite. Up next is a plate of hors d’oeuvres, including a dollop of foie gras in a mini-brioche, saddled with a slice of apricot and mustard seeds. We are told by our server, who appears to have the same knowledge as the food historian at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, that the next dish, potage à la tortue claire (turtle soup), “was used by the French to elongate the meal.’’
Even with the heady number of dishes, our meal at Next seemed to fly by. There was sole, flown in from Cape Cod, and a sublime lamb dish, created three ways, with loin, sweetbread, and tongue. The pièce de résistance, however, was recipe number 1476 from Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire’’: caneton rouennais à la presse, or sliced duck doused in a sauce created by using an antique duck press.
Acquiring that device was no easy feat for chef Grant Achatz. “I found it on Twitter, from a guy in Vermont,’’ he says as he shoves the duck carcass into the press to collect the blood that is quickly mixed with cognac and red wine to make the sauce. Soon after, he is out the door to take the helm of his other restaurant, Alinea.
Since his arrival in Chicago a decade ago, after a five-year stint at the legendary French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, Achatz, 37, has taken the Windy City by storm. He got his bearings first in Evanston, at the restaurant Trio, before opening Alinea in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in 2005 with his business partner, Nick Kokonas. As accolades accumulated, such as winning the best chef in the United States from the James Beard Foundation and Alinea being awarded the Michelin guide’s top rating (three stars), Achatz quickly joined the ranks of other legendary Chicago chefs such as Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless.
With the restaurant packed nightly and Achatz in his prime, everything was running smoothly. That all was shattered in 2007, when he was diagnosed with a late-stage oral cancer and told that he had to have his tongue removed. Fortunately, he found another oncologist who treated him with chemotherapy and radiation, leaving his tongue intact and pushing the cancer into remission. It also left him for a time without an ability to taste. This brush with mortality left Achatz shaken and wondering whether he could somehow push the limit of his talents.
That’s when he and Kokonas came up with the revolutionary idea that would become Next. Every three months, Achatz would create a menu that not only revolved around various types of cuisine, but also focused on a different time period. His first menu at Next would be “Paris 1906,’’ when Auguste Escoffier and Cesar Ritz opened the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
Achatz dove into food history, re-creating many of the recipes in “Le Guide Culinaire,’’ and attempting to use utensils from the time period, like the duck press. The sole might come from Cape Cod and the turtle in the consommé from Louisiana, but the recipe is the same. Achatz wants to pass along his education to the diner, though that’s not nearly as important to him as creating the spectacle.
“I want to transport you to that time period through food and ambience,’’ he says.
Even cleverer than the concept was the booking process Kokonas and Achatz would initiate. You must register through their website (more than 40,000 people have already registered). When a table comes up, you purchase a ticket for the prix-fixe menu, with an option for wine pairing. Depending on the hour at which you dine, the ticket can be anywhere from $100 to $200 a person, including tax and gratuities, all paid in advance.
Tickets are transferable and reservations are starting to be sold on Craigslist for upward of $1,200. The demand is that great.
“It’s the hottest ticket in town,’’ a concierge at the upscale Four Seasons Chicago says. “People wait months for that golden ticket,’’ she adds. Our server at Next says the best bet if you cannot snag a reservation in advance is to wait at the lounge next door, the Aviary, and inquire with the bartender whether, by luck, a party did not show up.
Achatz has already moved on from “Paris 1906’’ to Thai street food in the modern day and a menu that evokes childhood memories that launched last month. His memoir, co-written with Kokonas and titled “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Gotham Books) was published in March.
Yet something tells me a yet-to-be-written chapter of Achatz’s life will open when he shares his gifts beyond Chicago. Don’t be surprised to find Next in New York.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.