You cannot make a reservation for Next. You cannot call Next. Instead, Next operates under a ticketing system not unlike the theater or a concert - you purchase a ticket for dinner at a certain date/time. Sounds easy enough. Except it's not. To receive notification of when tickets become available, you submit your email to their website. And the waitlist for those notifications is hundreds of thousands of people long (that's my estimate - I know that when I signed up initially about a month before it opened last April, I was 20,000-25,000th in line). Even if you get the email notification, you have to go to the site ASAP, as tickets sell out in seconds. So not easy at all - more like impossible.
Luckily, they also reserve some tables to post for same-day seating or random future dates on their Facebook page. This is also still a mad dash, as tons of people check constantly for this posting. However, my friend Colleen was lucky enough to be one of these winners, and invited me as her foodie friend that would be most appreciative and excited about the experience. So wise of her.
Next strives to be fine dining, but not stuffy. The concept is a three month-long menu that takes the diner to a specific place and time. Going along with the idea that the restaurant is more like a theater presentation, the place settings and table decor change for each menu, and the waitstaff plays along to round out the experience. The dining room is dimly lit, small (62 seats), and not notably decorated, which I believe allows the restaurant to adapt to each menu theme, as well as lets the food take a starring role. The first menu, "Paris 1906 - Escoffier at the Ritz," captured the cuisine of legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier at his restaurant in the Ritz Carlton Hotel (of which he was a founding partner) in Paris 1906. The second menu, "Tour of Thailand," took diners through Next's interpretations of everything from Thai street food to an upscale dinner (the specific time and place of this one is kind of lost on me). The current menu, which is in its final days, is titled "Childhood" and can be described as "Michigan 1985" (or even Midwest 1980s), capturing the youths of both Achatz and chef Dave Beran. After being seated, they handed us this pamphlet, which explained the chefs' inspiration:
|Outside of pamphlet.|
|Inside: Childhood explained.|
|With the delicious broth.|
Additionally, the wine pairing for the last two courses, a Pinot gris, was very crisp and refreshing - a nice start.
4. Mac & Cheese
|Before server lifted the cylinder.|
|Garnishes, clockwise from top: ham/arugula pinwheel, super-apple, hot dog rock, parmesan disc, tomato pulp, fried noodle, and fluff of grated parmesan.|
|Not my picture, but I wanted you to see the underside.|
The presentation of this dish was absolutely stunning. A hollowed log held earthy aromatics over 300-degree smoking rocks that gave off the aroma of a campfire. A glass plate over the smoking aromatics holds the dish, which literally looks like a forest landscape. In the pile are roasted mushrooms, a fried carrot "log," fried Swiss chard "leaves," fried leek "hay," a polenta "boulder" covered in powdered puffed black rice and mushroom powder "dirt," a powdery "rock" that tasted exactly like broccoli cheese soup, some berries I couldn't quite place, and an assortment of herbs, including sage and thyme. And I'm sure I forgot something, as it was a jumble that was impossible to sort through. This may have been my favorite dish. First, the smells hit you, and scenes of wandering through the forest come to mind. The earthly colors and variety of textures looked exactly like someone had scooped a handful of the forest floor and dropped it on the glass plate. I'm at a loss for words here - I don't know how else to describe it than you were eating what we normally associate with a smell - the musky, earthy, pungent smell of the woods. And let me tell you, if that's what the forest floor tastes like, I would happily be a deer, because it was phenomenal. The varying textures (touch) created a playground in the mouth, and, combined with the pungent flavors (taste), woodsy aromas (smell), the rich colors (sight), and the realistic snaps and stirring from assembling a bite (sound), provided an all-encompassing sensory experience that was downright mind-blowing. I happily scraped my plate for the fourth time that evening.
While this hardly looked like a hamburger upon first glance, the idea slowly materialized from the components. Red "ketchup" sauce smears, yellow mustard dashes, blobs of gelled mayonaise, crunchy bread crumbs, dehydrated pickles and mushrooms, carmelized onions, and fragments of a congealed sauce topped with sesame seeds that I realized were the "bun," all surrounded a hunk of short rib. The short rib had been seared on a griddle to give it a crisp exterior like a burger, but gave way to melt-in-your-mouth meat inside. While I wasn't a fan of the "bun" alone, on top of the short rib it tasted exactly like a bun with McDonald's special sauce. Add a little ketchup, mustard, and pickle, and suddenly I tasted a McDonald's burger. While not my favorite burger (read: this is no substitute for a real burger), it was amazing they could recreate that flavor. Adding some mushroom and onion jazzed the burger up a bit. I started to feel extremely full at this point, but of course I scraped my plate. And drank some wine - the hamburger was paired with a zinfadel, which is my favorite, and was by far the most full-bodied of the bunch, so I appreciated the progression.
7. School Lunch
|Inside my lunchbox.|
Though Colleen and I were both waning at this point after eight rich, substantial courses and what felt like bottomless wine pairings (seriously, full glasses for each course - they'd often leave the bottle on the table for refills, plus random liquor pairings as well - one could easily get bombed at this dinner), we perked up when the next – and last – course came out. The server laid a plate in the middle of the table containing a few dark logs and some dust, then took a blowtorch to it. He explained that our “campfire” was actually composed of sweet potato “logs” and powdered alcohol “dust” that contained campfire aroma, and sure enough, I felt transported back to a summer campfire with the aroma. Another server laid dishes in front of each of us and explained we were not having what one would expect from a campfire (s’mores/roasted marshmallows), but sweet potato pie, which was a big part of the chef’s childhood. Our individual plates contained apricot puree, pecan streusel, marshmallows, and bourbon ice cream; we were then supposed to take a sweet potato from the fire, mix it in with everything on our plate, and then drizzle the entire thing with a warm toffee sauce that the waiter described as a “river of deliciousness.”
|My pie components waiting for the sweet potato logs.|
The next day I surprisingly starving from what I am guessing was a stretched out stomach. All my food seemed incredibly boring. A "soup and sandwich" is really only that - soup and a sandwich? Where's my basket of fried PB&J balls?
While I have now returned to normal (I contentedly accepted pizza as just pizza today), I was trying to think of anything I could take away from them for my own desserts. Most of their innovation is from deconstruction and in-the-moment presentation, which wouldn't work for me. I can't imagine telling a client, "Now, when you go to serve this cake, light the cake on fire, then take this dust and throw it over top - it will turn into frosting!" This is mostly because I don't know how to make fairy frosting dust, but also because people buy from me because they don't want to do anything - they want something pretty and ready to go, or else they would make it themselves. So perhaps total deconstruction won't work, but I think it can work in a different way - deconstructing components to reconstruct in a different form. For example, Next served sweet potato pie as a campfire. I could serve sweet potato pie as a cupcake - pie crust base, a sweet potato cake, torched bourbon-marshmallow frosting, and streusel sprinkled over top. The possibilities for this are endless. Any ideas for your childhood favorites you'd like to see reconstructed?
Oh, I guess there was one thing I can take away directly to apply to my own desserts: I have to get a blowtorch.