The attention to the Next restaurant opening has been written about in volumes! Chef Achatz has been heaped upon with praise from all comers. There have been some naysayers and all I can say is life isn't fair. This isn't modern day little league where everyone gets a trophy. Next can't possibly give everyone on the planet a reservation or be affordable to all.
But the one thing that has shocked me a month in to the opening is the lack of content on the kitchen table experience. It seems to have been the forgotten gem. Personally, I've not sought it out so I could enjoy the "surprises." Yet, how has no one posted a video on the table side service or waxed poetic on the view and added courses! I am freely admitting writing this post makes me nervous.
On the day of our reservation, I think I checked the receipt email 4 times to double check May 4th at 6:30pm! No one called to confirm and I was thinking - I really hope I didn't screw this up. Will I end up having to buy my friends dinner somewhere else for being a moron? I knew I was lucky to even have A table let alone the kitchen table. I just didn't want the bubble of anticipation to burst.
I arrived first and was greeted warmly and asked if we'd like to head to the table and wait. There isn't much of a waiting area and who doesn't want to spy the kitchen at the start of service? The kitchen table is set up at the front corner of the kitchen with floor to ceiling glass separating you from the army of white coats and service staff. It's not loud considering the proximity to the kitchen and service station. You are able witness the pace of movement, the ebb and flow as the night progresses. I could hear the occasional call back from the chefs which only added to the atmosphere. The military like unison - 2 - 4. All of the chaos controlled, yet calm like the eye of a hurricane.
Our journey began about 6:40pm and I was loving the Champagne - Vincent Carre Brut, predominantly chardonnay and typical of the 1906 time period. Our Hors d'Oeuvres came on platters, meant to be eaten with our fingers. My personal favorites were the brioche and foie gras, the rillete and the truffled egg cup.
The first "surprise" of the night was Osetra Caviar from Uruguay. When the mother of pearl spoons went down for each of us my eyes lit up and my brain was processing - caviar, CAVIAR! I have no idea what the table conversation was. The blinis were elegant and the heaping bowl of caviar which at first looked daunting never stood a chance to not be finished. A second plate of blinis came for each of us, heaven! I honestly could have been kicked out at this point and been fine with my night.
We all agreed we could have enjoyed living as wealthy Parisians in 1906 if this is how meals began whether it was served or on a buffet. Hello, time machine I have a stop to make!
Following the Turtle consommé, the next new item was the Puree of Palestine. Traditionally, the sunchokes were cooked in a veal stock and the soup was finished with a roux. Thanks to modern technology the veal stock was no longer needed thanks to the blender. The chef mentioned they had tried it the traditional way but the veal flavor was overpowering. Set in the center was a hazelnut mousse with a garnish of hazelnut and shaved sunchoke. This soup was rich and full of such clean flavor. You would have sworn the puree was cream based. The crunch of the garnish added an amazing texture. I want sunchoke and hazelnut soup every day.
The next two courses also offered on the 6 course menu were classic! Sole and crayfish couldn't have had any more butter. The elegance of this dish is in the details. Each plate has a fluted mushroom turned upside down that if you don't look you'll miss. As a former cook, the work that goes in to this is exacting. The chicken dish plated in a classical style. The cucumber, salt pork was peppery in a good way. The chicken can only be described as perfection.
Our next course was lamb saddle with potato, ragout of tongue, sweet breads and onion rings! The sauce had a tomato finish. I've butchered that horribly but you get the gist. Chef mentioned later in the evening how these ingredients were literally a day or two from the farm. A great bite has texture, with flavor notes high and low. The meaty tongue with the saddle and the potato was so good. SO GOOD! We joked about having a card that allows you seconds for just one course. I may have thrown it down on this one.
The "main attraction" we all know has been the duck. To have it served table side is like Bruce Springstein pulling you on stage, a la Courtney Cox, and getting to dance with the boss. My honest thought was WTF no one has filmed this? Who are the 40 lucky souls before me who have not committed this to the human experience? Sinners! The duck is presented and you can see by the picture it's been rendered PERFECTLY. Chef Dave butchered the elements to be served and then got to work on the remainder of the duck for the press. The restaurant actually has two of them one for the tableside, sexy in silver. The second is larger and fits about 10 ducks at a time. Note: you can see the whole video online and I'll post it separately.
The duck breast with the blood sauce is probably one of the best things I have ever eaten. And then I grabbed a piece of the duck confit and just sighed with happiness. The potato dauphinoise only added to the classical nature of the experience. We joked the crust was shaved unicorn horn because that's what Escoffier would have done if he could.
At this point, we were all FULL and content. I love to eat and I was a little nervous about how am I going to finish this menu. I actually excused myself to the bathroom partly for the walk and the Rocky moment of splashing some water on my face - let's do this.
The Salade Irma was a welcome respite. Light, crisp, vegetal yet sooooo complex with some ridiculous number of ingredients like 32, more details that must be appreciated. I felt lighter and ready for the home stretch of desserts.
Our first dessert was another added bonus of being the first to see the sorbet done table side. I could spy from my vantage point the liquid nitrogen being used throughout the night but to witness it first hand was very cool. Creamy and soft the sorbet melted on the palate with each bite. Quickly melting it was becoming a wine again meant to be drunk on the finish. Note: you can see this video online and I'll post it separately, as well.
The Bombe Ceylan flavors all married well with the chocolate, cheery, rum. This combination isn't going to shock you but it's the execution of how the puzzle is put together. It may look old school because it is. I would eat the "ruined/mistakes" any day outside the backdoor.
Our final "surprise" came as Sous Chef Renee put down a little platter of cherries, and chocolate only to mention it briefly and tease us with, "this course is time sensitive." What? Why? Anticipation building, I saw some servers with plates I had not yet seen go to anyone throughout the night and thought - hmm what are those I hope we - SOUFFLE! Chocolate soufflé, sauce, and vanilla ice cream! It may sound like a 4yr olds treat but it's the best damn treat I've ever had. Gone in less than 60 seconds.
I've neglected to mention the wines and I apologize. We went with the "premium" pairing, go big or go home! The white Burgundy was tremendous and the reds each had an earthy, rich, animalistic character. Each pairing was flawless and played hand in hand with its course.
Our night which began at 6:40pm came to a close about 11pm.Even though I was full and happy, a touch of sadness approached knowing the night was coming to an end. I just wanted one more bite! Another sip of wine! Paris 1906 is a pleasant memory and I have to thank the kitchen and service teams for providing it. Chef Achatz inspired genius will only make this restaurant better with each new menu. Having heard a few ideas, I'm ready to pay for my season pass now, TODAY!
If I never get to do this again, I'll enjoy the memories for a very long time.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner.