Thursday, January 19, 2012

My "Next" Kitchen Purchase - A Blowtorch

While I know the purpose of this blog is not to review restaurants or tell you about meals I ate, I had a dining experience so mind-blowing recently that I just HAVE to share here. I had the privilege (and luck) of getting a ticket to the restaurant Next. For those of you who don't live in Chicago or read food blogs, Next is a new restaurant concept from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, the managing partners of Alinea. Alinea, currently ranked the best restaurant in North America and sixth in the world, is known for its creative presentation and deconstruction of classic flavors and is touted as breaking the way for the next modern food movement. While Alinea is still young and hot, mad culinary genius Achatz and his business partner Kokonas brainstormed a new dining concept, which became Next.

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.

What "Childhood" means is artfully prepared comfort food evoking the nostalgia Generation Y remembers from childhood meals. But I'm not just talking about dressed up versions like we often see at restaurants, such as mac 'n cheese with gourmet cheeses and add-ins. Rather, these courses were deconstructed, disguised, clever, and playful, appealling to adult wonder and naivete as a means of pulling out our inner child. Presentations often conjured specific scenes, and servingware gimmickry portrayed eating through the eyes of a child. The only not so "Childhood" thing about the experience was the option to add pairings (unless you were a nugget lush), which we heard were a must. We were given the option between domestic pairings or international; we chose domestic to keep the theme of an American meal.

Let's jump into the real thing -  a course-by-course description:

1.  PB&J

We were not told this course was PB&J; rather, we were presented with a "present," a small wrapped box, because "everyone likes to open presents." We were instructed to open (do not shake), place the item in our mouths, close our eyes, and figure out what the flavors remind us of. Colleen and I carefully unwrapped to find a small fried-looking ball sitting on a bed of chopped peanuts. We placed the ball in our mouths, closed our eyes, and bit into it. The tempura-like shell instantly gave way to a hot stream of sweet, fruity jelly, followed by quite possibly my most favorite salty flavor ever - peanut butter. The actual composition was liquefied roasted peanuts and pomegranate jelly, and the entire bite was so delicious that Colleen and I instantly lamented we didn't have a bowl full of those crispy, sweet-and-salty balls. The liquor pairing, which had a cherry flavor, complemented the sweet/salty combination nicely. There's no way they'd start the meal with the best course, so we knew great things were coming our way.

2.  Chicken "Noodle" Soup
This next dish was unimpressive upon arrival: a huge bowl containing only celery, carrots, shallots, herbs, and noodles. Then, the server came and explained this was chicken "noodle" soup, complete with noodles made of chicken and a chicken-butter mousse to stir around in the chicken broth that he poured into each of our bowls. We took our oversized spoons and ladled in. The depth of the broth was unlike anything I've ever had, and the melted-in mousse created a silken texture that made me wonder why I've never added butter to soup before (um, because it makes you fat...?). The noodles, though composed of chicken, amazingly had the same consistency as the slippery noodles found in a can of Campbell's. And here was the first example of clever servingware: the oversized bowl and spoon made you suddenly feel little again, and apparently slurping was encouraged, although I didn't do it - just tipped my bowl to get the last of that amazing broth (I'm sure my etiquette-minded mother is gasping right now). Now Colleen and I said that we wanted a basket full of PB&J balls AND large bowls of the chicken noodle soup.

With the delicious broth.

3.  Fish 'n Chips

The next course played to several aspects of childhood: stick figure drawings and playing with your food. Titled "Fish 'n Chips," the plate comes out depicting a drawing of a stick figure fishing under a sunny sky. Every component of this plate makes up what we know as fish 'n chips. The stick figure was drawn with balsamic reduction. He is standing on a beach of a crumbly mixture that is beer batter chips and herbs over top tartar sauce, with some malt vinegar sea foam splashing his feet. From a sea of pickled cucumbers, the fisherman catches a tender piece of walleye covered in a fried russet potato "net." A meyer lemon coulis sun shines overhead. We were instructed to taste all the individual elements, then put them together as we liked - to "play with our food." To recreate how I would actually eat the fish in fish 'n chips, my favorite bites were typically a touch of lemon coulis (squeezed lemon), a scraping of tartar sauce and crumbs (tartar sauce and the fried coating of the fish), a cucumber (the relish in tartar sauce), and a piece of fish (...the fish). For "chips" I liked the malt vinegar foam with a bit of the potato net. I didn't really understand where the balsamic fit in, but I ate it anyway. While it was really delicious and extremely creative, I think the dish suffered a bit at the whimsy of it all, as it was overall difficult to eat. But if my biggest complaint is that I found it hard to keep the desired components on my fork all at once, I'll shut up now.

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.
Upon presentation, I wasn't quite sure what this course was. A glass cylinder sat in the middle of the plate, circled by random bits of food. The server played along, asking us what we thought it was before lifting the cylinder to allow the contents to flood the plate. My suspicions were confirmed - mac & cheese! Noodles in a rich Wisconsin (I think?) cheddar sauce spread to the surrounding accoutrements, which were explained as covering the gamut of everyone's favorite mac 'n cheese mix-ins growing up. There was a prosciutto and arugula pinwheel, a mini "super-apple" cube, a "rock" that broke down into a powder that tasted like hot dogs, a disc of parmesan crumbs, a blob of tomato pulp, a fried, orange-y noodle, and a little fluff of finely grated parmesan. While I don't remember mixing anything into my mac 'n cheese growing up, I played along. The pinwheel was good but nothing to write home about. The apple provided a bit of tartness that paired nicely with the cheddar sauce. The hot dog rock was interesting - it tasted exactly like macaroni & cheese with hot dogs, which is not really my thing, but I still loved the ingenuity. The parmesan crumbs gave a good textural contrast, and the tomato pulp reminded me of a grilled cheese with tomatoes, which is always delicious. The fried noodle was meant to give the mac 'n cheese that Kraft orange-y color we grew up with, but I didn't like the texture of it with the other softer noodles, which were cooked to a perfect al dente (not reminiscent, and happily so, of the often over-boiled mac & cheese of my youth, the product of a nine year-old trying to make herself lunch). The parmesan fluff just made it extra cheesy. While the add-ins were fun, the perfectly cooked macaroni and rich, creamy sauce itself were the star, and Colleen and I added that to our previous list of things we could have eaten larger portions of.

For this course, they gave us TWO pairings. I preferred the Sangiovese to the Charbono, but couldn't finish either... I also still had half my Pinot gris and half my cherry liqueur sitting there. I realized I was getting waaaaay too into the food and forgetting about my pairings.

Garnishes, clockwise from top: ham/arugula pinwheel, super-apple, hot dog rock, parmesan disc, tomato pulp, fried noodle, and fluff of grated parmesan.

5. Autumn - "Winter Wonderland"
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.

6. Hamburger

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

My lunchbox.
This was arguably the most nostalgic course, as it came out in a lunchbox. Inside were several bites representative of a school-age child's packed lunch. From the exterior, everything looked conventional: an Oreo, a strip of beef jerky, a fruit roll-up, a puffed Funyun, a pudding cup, and a thermos.

Inside my lunchbox.

Beef jerky.
Fruit roll-up.
Pudding cup.

While the fruit roll-up and the Funyon were pretty standard, albeit less artificial-tasting versions, the rest were more unassuming. The Oreo was actually made from black truffles - the mushrooms, not the chocolate confections. The beefy jerky was tender Wagyu beef with hints of soy and spice. The pudding cup was actually layers of rich chocolate, banana, and hazelnut, and the thermos contained a delicious juice made from apple cider and fig, cherry, and bluberry juices. The lunchbox even contained a handwritten note:

My favorite item by far was the Oreo. I'm a sucker for anything truffle, but never before had I tried truffle in a sweet dish. It was outstanding. I didn't know how else to describe the flavor than if Oreos were harvested from the ground and not Nabisco factories. I also enjoyed the beef jerky, which started with a soy flavor and then gradually developed a spice so hot that you had to sip juice from your thermos. However, at this point I was getting so full that I could not quite finish the beef jerky or my juice.

8. "Foie"-sting

But now was not the time to be full, as the server came out bearing our first true dessert course. On the plate was a beater dipped in what looked like frosting, along with two donut balls on parchment paper, as if they were fresh-plucked from the bakery case. The server explained these as apple cider donut holes dusted in cinnamon and sugar. Standard. The frosting, though? “Foie”-sting – frosting made from whipped foie gras. As I think I’ve had foie gras once in my life, I was not sure what I expected this to taste like, so I picked up the beater and took a lick. WOW. Rich. Sweet. Creamy. Decadently fantastic. I dipped a donut in and took a bite. Unreal. My only criticism was that the donuts were not hot; while I am uncertain whether they were supposed to be, I believe it goes without saying that any donut served in a restaurant should be freshly fried (so I guess they really were reminiscent of the bakery case). Regardless, I wished I had more than two donut holes to dip into the foie-sting. I also wished I wasn’t getting so incredibly full, because I wanted to lick every last drop of the foie-sting off the plate and the beater, which was, by the way, so nostalgic (except I still do that...). But I just couldn’t do it. Oh, and they brought out an ice wine to complement the dessert courses, which felt like overkill since I was about to burst.

9. Campfire

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.
Colleen and I roasted our marshmallows just before the fire died, then started assembling our bites of sweet potato pie. Again, just incredible. The components alone were not much to write home about (except the toffee, which I could have drank out of the mini carafe), but together were delicious. The streusel added just a bit of crunch to the otherwise soft ingredients. The campfire aroma in the sweet potatoes gave the dish a little smoky depth. The ice cream, which was almost too bourbon-y on its own, came alive with the addition of the toffee. As we were struggling to finish this off, they brought out yet another course…

10. Hot Chocolate

While not actual food, it may as well have been, as this hot chocolate was made with 70% cacao chocolate and whole milk. It was just bitter enough to not be overly decadent after everything we had been through, but we both only managed a couple sips. They served it with a liqueur to spike it, but Colleen couldn’t do it at all and I only tried a splash so I could say I tried it. At this point my fluffy bed and some loose pajamas sounded really nice. Next was thinking the same thing – since everyone has reserved table times, no one is really allowed to linger, and they do that politely by calling you a cab. I put on my coat that now barely buttoned around my belly and wandered out, dazed by what a fabulous experience we had just had. They gave us the pamplet from the beginning, now containing the menu and pairings:

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.

No comments: