Sometimes the fates conspire to create a perfect evening. Sometimes you are the beneficiary of the fates. This is the story of the fates smiling on me. Planning a trip to Chicago a few months ago, the highlight seemed to be a dinner scheduled at Alinea – only the top restaurant in the U.S.! Of course, I also got tickets to a comedy show at Second City, made some other restaurant reservations and had plans to take a couple of architecture tours, but the salivary glands were insisting that Alinea would be the star. A mere three-day trip, with plans to fit as much deliciousness into the extended weekend as our time, stomachs and budgets would allow.
Alinea’s noted Chef, Grant Achatz, recently opened a second restaurant, called “Next.” Next revises its menu and theme every three months. The first theme was Paris, 1906-Escoffier at the Ritz. The tickets sold out quickly and they couldn’t accommodate gluten-free diners, so I didn’t give it much thought after first reading about it. Though I did enjoy living vicariously through the pictures various friends and web sites posted of the menu. What I didn’t realize though was that the new Thai menu/theme for Next was gluten-free friendly and would launch the week of our Chicago trip. Ahh, the fates.
Three days before departure to Chicago, I read that tickets were going on sale for the new Tour of Thailand at Next Restaurant. (aside: tickets you ask? Yes. Check out this brilliant move by Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas – they sell “seats” for dinner that includes tax and gratuity upfront, it eliminates a lot of the economic risks associated with running a restaurant – they have cash in hand, three months before some diners arrive) I was lucky enough to get tickets for a table for four on our first night in Chicago. My foodie travel friend, Gareth, and I would dine with my Mom and my Stepdad, Victor. I was on cloud nine, the food gods were smiling down upon us.
Now, on to the food the fates favored us with! (There was only one small item they couldn’t make gluten-free and only one substitution.) There I was, eating at Next, and enjoying the same meal as the rest of the table, a rare treat! The fates were gluten-free that night!
The meal commenced with a tray of traditional Thai “street food,” served on top of a Thai newspaper and paired with a guava, mango, papaya juice. (aside: Next’s Tour of Thailand iteration offers fruit juice pairings that are as creative and interesting as the food and truly highlight the cuisine)
My personal favorite was the roasted banana with fried garlic, pickled shallot and cilantro blooms:
Though the sheer joy of eating of a gluten-free steamed bun with beech mushroom and green curry can’t be discounted.
Rounding out the first bites were: fermented sausage with peanut, galangal, grilled scallion; sweet shrimp with raw garlic, mint and bird chilis; and a prawn cake (the only thing I couldn’t eat) with white pepper, coriander and lime zest.
After the street food, our table was transformed for the restaurant-style Thai experience.
The next course was a hot and sour broth with pork belly, tomato and kaffir lime, paired with a chrysanthemum, lemongrass and lychee juice. The juice brought out the spiciness of the soup. And pork belly? ‘nuff said.
Not a single drop of the soup escaped our palates and then we were served rice and a set of traditional Thai “condiments” that we will use for the rest of the meal. Salted duck egg relish with green mango and white radish, a sauce made with chili, shallots and garlic, and a mixture of pickled fruits and vegetables with basil.
They left us alone to experience these flavors on their own before bringing the next course. While they are traditionally used as condiments, we savored them with just rice. Our servers brought two sets of these treats and replenished them throughout the rest of the meal.
Our first main course was wild catfish braised in caramel sauce with celery and coriander root. This was the dish I was least excited about when I saw it on the menu before dinner because I didn’t think I liked catfish and I couldn’t get my mind around caramel sauce on fish. Well, I soon discovered that catfish is delicious, at least in the hands of chefs Achatz and Beran. The caramel sauce wasn’t at all cloying and was even more delightful with the carrot, ginger and orange juice pairing. At our table, we finished every piece and were clashing spoons in an effort to grab the last drops of the sauce.
Braised beef cheek with a curry of peanut, nutmeg, coconut and lemongrass, made my Mom nervous. She is decidedly uninterested in food, an unadventurous eater, and doesn’t really understand my obsession. However, even she loved the rich final savory course. In fact, the meal overall might have converted her, though at a minimum she is more sympathetic to my food appreciation.
The hibiscus, mangosteen and thai pepper juice that accompanied the beef cheek made Gareth almost regret opting for the alcohol pairings. We all had a shooter of watermelon and lemongrass before moving to dessert.
Then a plate of coconuts arrived at our table. Huh?
It turned out to be a playful, creative and in the end functional presentation of a complex dessert. A magical mixture of coconut, corn, egg noodles, licorice and tapioca were in the bottom half of the shell. Then a serving of coconut sorbet was spooned into the top half of the shell. Our last juice pairing was a corn and pineapple juice.
The simple dessert that followed was half of a dragon fruit adorned with only a simple sweet rose water and served with an actual rose for us to sniff to enhance the flavor.
To close the meal, we were given a rooibos iced tea “to-go.” The bag and straw facilitates easy consumption in Thailand where people need a way to drink their tea while riding scooters and motor bikes.
After dinner, we were given a fascinating tour of the kitchen. We were standing next to the expediter, the person in charge of making sure every table gets each course without waiting for too long. We were able to see our table’s ticket that documented when we received each course and noted when any of us got up from the table! This sort of precision and attention to detail appealed especially to my math-teacher Mom.
Every person we interacted with at Next was an absolute delight. We so thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience, even my Mom asked if she could join us for another food adventure in the future!
The miracle of the evening though didn’t end at Next. Gareth and I continued on to The Aviary, the new cocktail bar from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. More to come…
Address: Next Restaurant, 953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607Tweet Pin It
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