I was lucky, very lucky to get a second kitchen table for the Thai menu. Much has been written already about the Thai menu and I’ve wanted to let it sink in before going off and writing about my experience. First, the view and the “show” are still awesome and I think it always will be when it comes to the kitchen table. I went with a good group and one was a dear chef friend. We both realized early on at dinner that the intensity of cooking at this level is a young man’s game. It’s nice to think I could long ago throw down and put up awesome food but now I’m an old man just enjoying the fruits of other young cooks labors.
I’ve never been to Thailand and I know the Americanized version of many foods is never like the authentic, eat it in country dish. The menu wasn’t as luxurious as Paris: 1906 nor did I expect it to be. The Escoffier menu was so focused and refined. I believe it’s because they had time to do every dish many, many times. With the change to Thai you’re converting an entire menu and usually a new menu takes six weeks to really hit all the gears. Problem is at 6 weeks, you’re already half done and looking at another completely new lineup of dishes.
I look at Thai as the sophomore album from a band that had nearly every song on their first album go number #1. HUGE expectations set by the masses but also themselves due to their own success. The meal could be very good but you’re comparing it against a culture and a previous Platinum level experience. Any second menu would be a hard expectation to meet let alone blow past.
The opening canapés of street food were enjoyable. The savory, salt, acidic bites woke up the palate and introduced some diners to new flavors. The roasted banana was a luxurious start and the fried, salty shrimp was one I really enjoyed as well. I know many have argued this “isn’t real” street food from Thailand. I’ll have to defer but it was a whimsical start. If they would have presented bugs on a stick, I’m not so sure I would have been as excited.
The kitchen table yakatori course was very cool. The grill with hot binchotan provided a unique way to enjoy a bite of strawberry, chicken heart and baby octopus. As one friend put it, “The chicken was a runner.” The lean, lacquered bite brought a little glimpse into what depth you might normally find.
The next couple courses of the soup with pork belly, rice with relishes and sides plus the Pad Thai were excellent. The table side feature this menu was the papaya salad cut by Chef Beran. I appreciated the explanation of how they found the best way to cut the fruit, mash the nuts and put the salad together. Served in a crab shell body it grew on you with each bite. The flavors coming at you with each fork full marrying well on the palate. I think it will be hard to order this in the city anywhere else again.
The catfish that was sous vide could have been John Dory or Sole. The fish was very tender; this bottom feeder was elevated to a regal status. The caramel sauce was tremendous and I was only sad that there was one filet per person! My favorite course came from the Beef Cheek in Panang Curry. I love panang anywhere but this version was spot on. The rich beef went very well and I was again only upset when the dish was empty and there was no more to be had.
At this point in our meal, I realized last time I was so full from the duck and duck confit during Paris. I was upset with myself for not pacing better and realizing there was more to come. I didn’t have that feeling this go round. The lighter Thai menu wasn’t nearly as filling even though I was full.
The desserts were unique and for a non-coconut fan enjoyably light. The corn and everything else with the young coconut sorbet were cultural and excellent. The dragon fruit may have been a bit perfumy for some and I liked the light fruit finish. Makes my inner fat guy think perhaps a fruit dessert isn’t so bad every once in a while.
As we sipped on our bagged tea, we all agreed the dinner was very good and something we’d all been happy to experience. I got a couple comments of, “If you get this table again, we’re in!” I’m excited and curious to see how the third menu based on Childhood will be developed and received. We all have a personal connection with that time of life and it wasn’t a time where I was a discerning food snob. Someone brought up it may be curious to see how Next compares to a Heston Blumenthal menu since he uses that time as inspiration for some of his dishes.
Regardless of what others say, I’ll be glued to multiple internet portals trying to grab another kitchen table in a few weeks. Some have said the process is elitist or everyone should get a chance. The way I look at it is that a great rock band happens to live in my home town. I’ll get to see them play in a special venue every few months. If they decide to be a little country or R&B perhaps even rockabilly, I’ll sit back and smile enjoying their interpretation and judging only for myself, if I’m lucky.
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.