On Saturday night I had the best dining experience of my life at Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant in Chicago.
If you don’t know anything about Next, it is a restaurant in Chicago’s meatpacking district owned by the famous chef Grant Achatz (of the high-end molecular gastronomy restaurant Alinea). Next opened last year and won the James Beard for Best New Restaurant in the US. The restaurant has a prix fixe menu centred on a certain theme that changes every few months and you don’t make reservations to Next, you buy the nearly impossible-to-score tickets.
So let me back-track to May 31 when I noticed a facebook post from Next Restaurant:
It’s GO TIME.
In a flurry on excitement, I logged onto the Next website within seconds of this post and whipped out my credit card (highly unlike me if you know anything about my spending habits—or lack thereof). Even 2 minutes after the tickets went on sale, most of the tables at reasonable dining times were booked. After taking far too much time trying to decide which weekend my sister would most likely be in Illinois (so I could crash at her place) I settled on my birthday weekend (happy birthday to me!)at the only seating left: 10:30pm.
I’ve been spending the last 2 months explaining to everyone I know why they should be ridiculously excited for slash jealous of me for having these tickets.
So on Saturday night after an early pre-dinner in Geneva with Vicki, Matt and I got all dressed up and headed downtown Chicago for our late, late dinner.
Our table ended up being about half an hour late which was a blessing in disguise because the host ended up giving us wine pairings for free! (I was far too cheap to pay the $65pp for those) and the hostess used our waiting time to give us a tour of the kitchens of both Next and The Aviary—the bar next door whose huge kitchen was exclusively for making ridiculously awesome cocktails—where we caught glimpses of Grant Achatz and Dave Beren.
Next’s kitchen was SO clean and organized. It was pretty impressive too how calm it seemed to be in contrast to the more frantic pace of The Aviary kitchen next door. The hostess showed us the information that they track on each table’s ticket which was extensive given the fact that everyone is eating the same thing. In addition to the obvious, like food allergies, they also kept track of where the woman was seated, when someone left the table to use the washroom, every time a dish was served or cleared from the table, and even whether someone in the party was left-handed! The attention to detail the staff paid to the diners made for some of the best service I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant (granted, I’ve never eaten at such a renowned restaurant before).
Aside from the fact that the food was amazing and the service was impeccable I liked that the staff gave us information about everything that we were eating and all the wines that we were drinking. Most of all though, the whole staff and even the restaurant itself felt very unpretentious a fact that I found surprising given that the restaurant itself has an air of exclusivity.
The menu was 13 courses of deliciousness with 1 apertivo and 4 wines.
(For pictures of the dishes that are actually good, check out this flickr stream. Whose it is, I have no clue.)
Panelle: Fried chickpea flour crackers. These were tasty.
Arancine: Stuffed with deliciously tender lamb. I wasn’t a huge fan of the sauce though.
Caponata: Made with eggplant and celery and probably $30 worth of pine nuts. I <3 pine nuts.
Charred Artichoke – You just eat the soft and deliciously charred tasting insides. SO good.
Bucatini with Bottarga – I learned that night that I do not like bottarga.
Gemelli with Sardines – I do, however, love sardines. Matt doesn’t. He still thought this was the most delicious pasta ever. I could have stopped here, satisfied with probably one of the best pastas I’ve ever had (not counting my Nonna’s of course!). I was full…but there was so much more to come.
Swordfish with Roasted Garlic and Mint – I found the swordfish just slightly overcooked, but I loved the minty flavour.
A mix of boiled and fried chickpeas with a lemon dressing – probably my favourite dish of the night and the best chick peas I’ve ever had.
Roasted Pork Shoulder – I was stuffed at this point but had to eat a generous portion of the shining star of the evening– pork shoulder. This bad boy was the most tender piece of meat I’ve ever sunken my teeth into.
Zucchini and Zucchini Flowers in a Tomato Vinaigrette – Really flavourful. The fried zucchini flower was awesome.
Blood Orange Granita – this must have been made from really, really good blood oranges. A nice segue into desserts.
Cassata – it’s the official dessert of Sicily so it had to be featured on the menu. I loved this light and not too sweet cake (my birthday cake) a lot that I had no trouble clearing my dessert plate. The server brought it out to me with a little candle . . . a trick candle!
Cannoli, Ravioli Fritti, and Sesame Honey Cookies – the cherries in the cannoli really made them good, otherwise I have to say that I’ve had better. The other cookies weren’t bad but I was too caught up with my cassata to really pay much attention.
I’m so stoked that I got a chance to eat and drink at Next, and to tour their kitchens. It was a pretty memorable experience and an awesome birthday present. I’m contemplating attempting to snag tickets for the next theme, Kyoto, but maybe I should pace myself and save it for another special occasion.