Three years ago, I hit I-94 toward Chicago with my bestie Margie and the actual most interesting man in the world, our friend Jordan. We were on a mission: to figure out what Bitcoin was (or rather, Jordan explained to Marge & me what Bitcoin was all about) and to experience Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's be-all-end-all modern cuisine mecca. "Modern cuisine" or "molecular gastronomy" basically means there's a lot of science-y stuff going on in the kitchen and all the food looks like edible art. It's not up everyone's alley, and yes, a meal at Alinea is ridiculously expensive (and scoring a reservation there took some blood, sweat and tears). However, the three of us loved it! Jordan and Marge are, no contest, my most inquisitive friends. For four hours and 21-ish courses, we talked and laughed and ate lots of crazy, delicious food. It was so fun. We all left full and happy.
About a year ago, Jordan, Margie and I decided we should try to replicate that amazing Alinea meal with our significant others. NEXT, Achatz's latest restaurant, opened in 2011 to rave reviews. The concept is a little out there: Achatz, with executive chef Dave Beran, creates an entirely new restaurant every three months. The first menu was Paris: 1906, the second was Thailand. From decor to platters and utensils and menu, every single aspect of the restaurant changes four times a year. In lieu of reservations, diners must purchase tickets to the restaurant. The menu is set and the only decision you need to make once you get there is whether or not you want the regular or premium wine pairings (or non-alcoholic pairings). Think of it like a Broadway show-style approach to fine dining.
Not only were we able to pull off a table of six last November, but we had the best seats in the house-- the chef's table, complete with a floor-to-ceiling window into the kitchen. How cool is that? I was pretty pumped! Jordan & his lovely/smart/hilarious girlfriend Sasha flew from New York to Chicago just for the occasion, while Margie, her bf Keven, the beyonce & I drove 6 hours from Minneapolis. We even stopped for lunch at Taco Bell because how hilarious is that?! It was an adventure!
Of course, because I am codependent and am constantly overwhelmed with anxiety, I couldn't stop thinking about a few potentially uncomfortable things. First of all, I knew Marge and Jordan were all about this, but what about our significant others? What if they hated it? Or thought it was a waste of money? (#198)
Since we are on the subject of money, I am just going to go ahead and tell you how much we paid: about $300 per person... plus an extra $70-100 for drink pairings. Yes, I know. That is a lot of money. However, let me put this into perspective. NEXT is one of the best restaurants in the world and we essentially got to sit inside the kitchen, watching their team create our 15-course meal. This summer, Paul McCartney is playing Target Field. Seats hundreds of feet away from the stage cost $400. For that price, you and 50,000 strangers can listen to Sir Paul while only seeing him on a jumbotron. That doesn't even include food or drink (one beer = $9, and you know you're going to have a few of those). I do realize Paul McCartney is a Beatle and it'd be pretty cool to see him in concert, but tickets to Madonna/Elton John/Taylor Swift/Biebs arena shows fetch hundreds of dollars a pop... and often, these folks are lip synching. At NEXT, you get a front row seat, personal attention, a ton of amazing food and excellent wine... and you don't have a teenager scream-crying "I LOVE YOU JUSTIN!!!" in your ear. Something to think about.
Where was I? Oh, yes, so I was scared that my friends would regret dropping that kind of cash on a meal. I was afraid I'd regret spending that kind of money, too (#199). I was also a teensy bit nervous about the menu (#200). We were to have the Bocuse d'Or menu, which I knew was going to include a lot of rich, French food. I don't typically love French food, and I sometimes have issues with rich dishes. But I figured if Grant Achatz and Dave Beran couldn't make me believers, then I'd just have to fly to Lyon and have Paul Bocuse himself make me dinner.
Here's NEXT's "trailer" for the Bocuse d'Or menu... which may or may not give you an idea of what was to come. It's a little "conceptual" (?)
We arrived and were shown to our kick ass table in the back. The view:
There was certainly a wow factor, and I saw everyone in our group light up. Phew, they're onboard and I can relax!
Our waiter asked if we'd like sparkling or still water, then basically told us (in kind words) that everyone who dines at the chef's table must order the reserve wine pairings. This slightly annoyed me for two reasons 1) it was and extra 50 bucks a person (though I later did read on their website that it's just their policy; my fault for not seeing that ahead of time), and 2) in order for me to not crash and burn in a wine-laden meal, I can only have three glasses of wine, max. So basically, I was paying twice as much for wine that would mostly be poured down the drain. Bummer, but hey, this is a once in a lifetime thing. Bring it on, I guess.
#1: Terrine of Veal with frisee salad and cipollini marmalade // Pairing: sazerac
I didn't snap a photo of this first dish, but it was served family style in a fancy Le Creuset terrine. Our waiter said something along the lines of, "Pace yourself, there's a lot of food!" The waiter placed a thimble of sazerac in front of each of us, along with a fancy Frenchie perfume bottle filled with absinthe which we were to spritz our cocktail with. Our table erupted into laughter as we spritz our cares away. Fun!
#2: Ostera caviar with whipped beurre blanc and pine nut
I don't love caviar and beurre blanc sounds like a gut bomb, but this light two-biter offered perfect contrasts-- crunchy and soft, salty and rich. It was beautiful and delicious.
#3: Mousse of darden ham, and madeira aspic // Pairing: Domainw Maestracci E Prove, Corsica 2011
When I hear aspic, I think yuck. But this was pretty delicious, despite its gelatinous texture. I was happy there was a tiny salad served alongside. Our first three dishes were unbelievably rich and I needed some roughage.
Course #4: Souffle of prawns
Souffle = yet another type of food I'm meh about. I'd never in a million years order this in a restaurant, but this savory prawn souffle made me wish I could speak French.
#5: Custard of cauliflower with verjus rouge, rose, and foie gras // Pairing: Domaine Weinbach, Gewurztraminer, Alsace 2010
I don't even understand most of the the words in the name of this dish, but this pink cauliflower mess was my favorite dish of the evening. The silky-smooth pink cauliflower-foie gras concoction was rich and addictive, especially when you added a bite of cauliflower chip (that's those things sticking out like cream colored trees). I'd smear this stuff on crusty, French bread every day if I could. I tried to not finish the whole thing, but it was next to impossible.
I was loving this meal! Impeccable (but friendly and not at all stuffy!) service. Each bite of food was better than the next! The problem? After course number five, I was done eating. I was also done drinking. There were 10 more food courses ahead and five wine pairings. But I felt stuffed, nauseated and slothy-too-much-wine-drunk. Then, the next course arrived.
#6: Charred lettuce, bottarga, bonito, and peanut
My belly, full of fat and butter and whatever else is in French food, was so happy to see this "salad" appear. Finally, something light! Unfortunately, that orange-y bottarga/bonito/peanut combo was just another heaping tablespoon of rich, unctuous stuff. I took one bite and set my fork down.
#7: Ivory char with coddled eggs, celeriac, and cranberry // Pairing: Domaine de Marquiliani Rose de Sciaccarellu, Corsica 2012
I was feeling increasingly more ill, however, I couldn't help but wonder what that weird egg shell was all about (see the above photo). Our waiter assured us it was edible, so I picked it up. It felt like a brittle egg shell, but when I went to break it, the piece folded-- kind of like a stick of gum. I think I tried it. I don't remember it having a distinct flavor, but regardless, it was totally impressive. I had one tiny bite of this dish and, after tasting the wine, slid the glass in front of the beyonce (who enjoyed every last sip).
I'd crossed from the fun zone to a dark place. You know that moment when you're at a party, you've had maybe one drink too many and you "know" it's time to leave or go to bed? That's how I felt at this moment, except it could only be attributed to a lethal mix of alcohol and fat. Somehow, my brain remained 100 percent clear, but my body was done. I looked at my watch. We had, at minimum, an hour and a half left. The thought of being anywhere but a bed filled me with anxiety.
I excused myself and went to the bathroom, which THANK GOD, was a one-seater. I splashed my face with water an weighed my options: Can I physically stay in this restaurant for another 90 minutes or do I need to take a cab "home" (aka to our friends' house)? I wasn't sure, but as much as I wanted to leave, I couldn't believe I was actually considering it. Would I feel better if I threw up? Probably. But then I'd have to sit through the rest of dinner with that disgusting taste in my mouth, plus the added bonus that for the rest of dinner and my life I would know that I barfed at NEXT. Not appealing. I decided to just not eat or drink any more food and hope that I didn't pass out at the table while clutching my stomach.
#8: Quinault Rover salmon with beets, browned butter, and parsley
I returned to the table as the salmon and beets arrived. Presented on a charred log that was still smoking (!), I didn't even really need to take a bite to get the gist of what was going on. Smoke and beautiful presentation. As I stared at the mini smoking forest before me, I realized our group-- boisterous and giddy at the beginning of dinner-- had become mute. The guys were all still managing to dig into their food, but with much less enthusiasm. Marge was gazing off into the distance. Sasha was kind of just whispering to Jordan, but I have no idea what they were talking about. I could barely keep my eyes open and was trying not to face plant into my food. Literally, I had the head bobs.
#9: Consomme of roasted mushrooms - Paul Bocuse // Pairing: Matin Calme Mano a Mano, Roussillon 2011
You might see a brothy soup covered with some pastry cap. I see one of the most famous dishes of the 20th Century, created in 1975 by Chef Paul Bocuse (and still served at his restaurant in Lyon, I might add!). Anyhow, there is a whole elaborate story of how this dish came to be one of the food world's most celebrated, and here at NEXT, they probably made the perfect replica. I smelled it, but I did not eat it. The wine, again, went directly to the beyonce.
#10: Pheasant smoked in hay with grilled baby leek, caramelized onion, sauce blanquette
Didn't have one bite, but the beyonce said it was pretty good (though he, too, could barely eat this course).
#11: Ribeye of beef with boudin vert, roasted carrot, sauce bearnaise, and potato marrow // Pairing: Chateau Fourcas Hosten, Listrac 2003
Nope. Didn't even take a photo.
#12: tete de moine with chashews, pear, and milk skin // Pairing: Chateau de Montifaud Pineau des Charentes
Stared at this beautiful cheese terrarium for 15 minutes until some kind waiter finally ushered it away.
#13: Ice cream bombe in the style of apple pie // Pairing: Domaine de l'Alliance, Sauternse 2009
And this, FINALLY, was where things finally started turning around for me! After skipping seven courses and waiting nearly two hours, I could finally eat again. This was all the components of an apple pie, plated as a work of art. I ate half, and smugly set down my fork, feeling a slight victory over the French.
#14: A cube of squash with huckleberry, butter pecan ice cream, and pecan oatmeal cookie
Wait, there is a third dessert? Well, that's kind of overkill, but does mean that we are SO CLOSE to leaving! Yay! I took a few bites.
#15: Mignardises // Truffle of chocolate and hazelnut // Lime macaron // Bitter chocolate taffy
This tray of treats arrived and so did the bill for our wine pairings (we paid for the meal a month earlier when we bought the tickets). After we settled up, I would've sprinted to a cab had I been able to move that fast. The ride home felt like forever. I peeled off my tights and dress (in that order) and feel asleep.
The next morning, I woke up in a stupor. Not really hungover (I'd only had three of the seven pairings), but more like my insides were now completely sculpted in butter. I felt that way for three days.
The service at NEXT was impeccable and approachable. The people waiting on us were young, knowledgeable and not snooty in the least. And the food? Everything was absolutely delicious! (or at least all of the things I tried). The restaurant was beautiful, the dishes were gorgeous and watching the kitchen was so much fun.
However, the menu was relentless. No light courses to break up the heaviness. Every plate was butter/lard/fat served in sheep's clothing. I realize the portions are not designed to satisfy a 135-pound woman; the kitchen needs to ensure their hungriest patron (probably a large dude) will walk away satiated. But the fact of the matter is that plenty of people my size with my appetite eat here, and I only enjoyed 30 percent of my meal and wine. The remainder of the time was actually torturous, and of course what added insult to injury was the fact that I'd forked over a mortgage payment to feel that way.
I know this is First World Problems at its finest, but NEXT was sad experience for me (I don't think my dining partners felt as strongly... Jordan/Marge/Kev/Sasha/Josh, I am curious as to what you really thought). I left completely disappointed, sick and overwhelmed. I'd love to know how anyone leaves NEXT in one piece. It literally has taken me seven months to write about because I don't even like thinking about this dinner. I guess I am glad that I tried NEXT for the experience. I do wish I'd gone for one of their other menus (maybe the Vegan or Thailand menu would've suited me better). But when you get a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, you take it. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's terrible and sometimes it's just a lot more than you bargained for.