Next: Childhood

(This is a review of the Childhood menu from this past winter)

Perhaps the most difficult ticket to come by in the country, Next is the latest venture by Grant Achatz. The restaurant changes its theme every 3 months, and the Childhood iteration lasted from late fall to early winter. The Childhood concept is really the perfect metaphor for Next’s reservation process; after being lucky enough to secure tickets I felt as though I had un-wrapped the golden ticket from a candy bar. The price for our tickets was only $80 each—quite expensive by most standards, but an absolute bargain given the quality of most of the ingredients and the nine course menu. The price point corresponds to the time of the reservation, and the price escalates until the 8:00 seating, which is $170, and works its way back down to $80 for the final seating of the night at 10:30. The number of courses remains the same regardless of the seating time, and I note this because it seems to me that the more pricey seatings help cover the costs of the more inexpensive tables. I don’t see how the restaurant makes a profit on the $80 seatings, especially given that my companion and I opted for no beverage pairings.

Finding Next was difficult as it is almost completely unmarked, with only a small, faded glowing sign bearing its name. It certainly makes no effort to assimilate within the West End neighborhood. The lack of signage metaphorizes the restaurant’s lack of a stable identity—given that every three months Next morphs into a new restaurant, how do you represent it with a sign or insignia? Shortly before arriving at Next we passed The Publican (one of Paul Kahan’s three ventures), and the contrast between The Publican’s jubilant communality and Next’s nondescript appearance is quite striking. Nevertheless, we arrived undeterred and upon entering I presented our ticket to the hostess, who led us to a wonderful two-top near the center of the surprisingly small dining room.

Shortly after being seated, we were greeted by one of a number of servers. Given that there is a set menu with allergies noted with the reservation, there are no captains but instead only food runners (there is a manager/sommelier, however.) After having our decision for no beverage pairings confirmed and stating that we had no applicable allergies, we were presented with the first course. Titled PB&J, it would arrive gift-wrapped in a small box, with the instruction to down it in one bite and not to shake it. The server also indicated that this course was meant to capture the sense of surprise characteristic of childhood. I found this description to be unnecessary and somewhat disingenuous, since Next marketed itself quite transparently and publicly revealed their menu through social media over a month prior. While one could argue that I made a conscious decision to look at the menu release prior to experiencing the menu in person, it was the restaurant’s decision to release the menu beforehand and they had to expect that diners would read and view the menu items online. Furthermore, such a description implies that surprise is absent in the realm of fine dining, which is simply untrue. Most fine dining experiences are filled with nuggets of surprise, such as the amuse bouche trio I enjoyed at Everest or the foie gras truffle amuse at Ria. Surprise also relates to the unusual, daring flavor pairings exhibited by fine dining restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s or Hugo’s. Given that I was previously familiar with every menu item, there was actually significantly less surprise in my experience at Next than at most of my experiences dining out. Indeed, the PB&J arrived precisely as described in their menu release (and described in numerous blogs and reviews): a tempura crisp filled with liquefied peanut butter and pomegranate jelly. I greatly admired this course for its elevation of a food item not generally associated with fine dining. The concept was successful for two interrelated reasons: it tasted excellent, and the quality of ingredients was superb. I feel as though elevating ‘childhood’ food items works if the ingredients and textures are on the level of fine-dining, and the use of liquid peanut butter and pomegranate jelly certainly sufficed. That said, I do feel that the element of surprise could be enhanced by altering the ingredients; for example, perhaps the type of jelly should alternate every night. However, given the excellent taste and the fact that the bite was really sized as a palate cleanser and not a proper course, I was very satisfied with the opening bite.

After our first courses were cleared, the table was crumbed by one of the servers, a young woman perhaps no older than me. The vast majority of servers were quite young, and while I suppose this held some corollary with the childhood menu theme, it was very unusual for a fine dining restaurant. Nevertheless, the service was meticulous and thorough, on a par with other fine dining establishments. It was necessary to crumb the table in between each courses given the messiness of the courses (many of which involved crumbs and spillage of ingredients.) While the untidiness might irritate some diners, I found it perfectly acceptable given that the staff rose to the crumbing challenge.

Our second course was a chicken soup with shallots, carrots, celery leaves, a hot piece of butter and chicken in the shape of a noodle. The broth was poured tableside and the butter dissolved in the liquid. I delighted in the manner in which the dish literally assumed shape in front of me, with the mass of butter dissolving upon contact with the hot broth. We both greatly enjoyed this course, no surprise given that I love soups in general. I admire the manner in which Next mediates the childhood theme of the courses with providing a course progression that mirrors that of an extended tasting menu. If the PB&J constituted a canapé, the soup represented a proper first course. Not all rules are meant to be broken, apparently…

The third course of the evening would represent a fish item with which I was largely unfamiliar: titled Fish-N-Chips, the dish would feature a raw, roughly 2 ounce piece of Walleye Pike, at the center of a plating preparation that was described on the menu as “drawn by a child.” The pike was enclosed by malt vinegar foam, with cucumber slices representing waves of water, potato sticks serving as the net, meyer lemon representing the sun, a stick figure drawn from balsamic vinegar coulis and crushed tempura emblematic of the sandy shore. Similar to a number of courses throughout the evening, I was completely unaware of how to consume the dish, and surrendered myself to the fact that there truly were no wrong answers. I actually indulged my indecision regarding the consumption of the dishes throughout the dinner, and the different taste combinations associated with explorations in combining the various ingredients constituted perhaps the greatest element of surprise of the meal.

With the fish dish consumed, course four represented perhaps the most iconic dish of childhood, Mac and Cheese. I was ambivalent about this dish as I generally don’t consume mac and cheese, but I found the dish’s inclusion in the menu justified by the use of high quality ingredients. I was fortunate in that the cheese used was Manchego, which happens to be my favorite cheese. Accompanying the noodles and sauce were an array of items paired with mac and cheese in varying parts of the country, including hot dog, blue cheese, bread crumbs, and diced apples. Upon delivery, the server stated that he was “always a hot dog person”—an innocuous statement, but clearly staged in its use of the first person singular.

After a modest wait of roughly 10 minutes, we were presented with a dish that we smelled before even seeing it. Incredibly pungent with the scent of burning hay, the dish was titled “Autumn Scene: a walk through a Michigan forest,” and was culled from Achatz’s walks through the forest as a child. The plating of the dish was very Alinea-esque in its sculptural emphasis (served on a log) and collage of ingredients. On top of the log but underneath a glass plate on top of which rested the edible components of the dish were leaves, hay, and dehydrated fruits. Resting atop the glass plate were a mushroom puree, blue corn polenta, maitake and matsutake mushrooms, swiss chard, broccoli, carrots, berries and fried leeks.

While waiting for course six, my companion went to the bathroom, at which point I listened to the neighboring table receive one of their non-alcoholic beverage pairings. The server delivered lemonade, describing it as a “kids’ drink that I think has the potential to be an adult drink.” Similar to the description of the hot dog, I did find the use of the “I” voice to be somewhat phony since I have no doubt that he had been told to use this line. This delivery demonstrates Next’s attempt to stage spontaneity, and while I admire the attempt I do feel as though this is an impossible feat given Next’s transparent marketing through social media.

Course six would arrive as the final savory course and arguably the best dish of the night. Titled “Hamburger,” what arrived was in fact a piece of sous-vide short rib with caramelized onions, fried mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, an almost liquid bun with sesame seeds, dried cornichons (pickles), and mayonnaise. I was somewhat defensive regarding the attempt to elevate a fast-food staple given that I am passionate about fast food. However, this dish was out of the ordinary to the extent that it clearly made no attempt to supplant the fast food burger. Rarely a fan of short rib as I find it too fatty and akin to pot roast and other ‘poverty meats’ in texture I was fonder of the accompaniments than the meat itself. Given the multitude of sauces (and the bun itself, which was closer to a sauce in texture than an actual bun) I feel as though Achatz designed the dish partly in order to expose the way in which fast food items are ordered largely for their sauces—as in the legacy of the Big Mac ‘super sauce,’ or Arbys’ famous sauces, for example. In addition to fast food, sauces are especially prevalent in the realm of fine dining, and I also admired this course (as well as many of the others) for exposing how through their shared emphasis on sauce fast food and fine dining are perhaps not as dissimilar as one would believe.

The seventh course represented something of a mystery to me; it was perhaps a vehicle for the prop more than an attempt to provide a coherent food item. This was a shame since after 6 courses we both agreed that the meal was one of the best we had ever consumed. For the 7th course, we were each presented with vintage Star Trek lunch boxes filled with a nutella snack pack, wagyu jerky, apple-brandy fruit leather, a truffled oreo, homemade funyun and a mixed berry drink spiked with Cabernet. This course did not work for me since it was an excessively aggressive mix of savory with sweet. The wagyu jerky simply should not have been consumed alongside the sweet nutella pudding and the oreo, and the course lacked any sort of consistency. This was the first course that really did not belong on a tasting menu—eating salts and sweets in quick succession works when one is in elementary school and attempting to eat quickly so as to begin running around on the playground. However, dining in a restaurant means a heightened analysis of the food itself, which exposed the lack of harmony between the ingredients.

Most likely representing a palate cleanser through its placement as the 7th course, the next dessert was presented as “Foie’Sting and Donuts,” consisting of two apple cider-flavored donut holes paired with a beater dunked in foie gras-flavored frosting. While this dish clearly referenced licking cookie dough off a beater (a practice common in childhood) I felt that this dish was a play on the coffee and donuts dessert course at French Laundry, where Achatz worked in the past. In this manner, the menu at Next is not only a remembrance of childhood food experiences but also a veiled commentary on past dishes associated with Achatz’s background in fine dining. Instructed to dip one’s hands in the frosting, we were presented with moist towels for drying our hands, a service that perhaps would have been appreciated following the messy PB&J course.

The centerpiece of the dessert menu, course 8 was impressively presented on a slate topped with sweet potatoes that were lit on fire. In addition to the slate, we were each given a plate with apples, oatmeal, rum ice cream, and marshmallow. After the fire was extinguished, we divided the sweet potatoes and mixed them with the other ingredients. Neither of us was fond of the burnt sweet potato, especially since two nights prior we had enjoyed a delicious sweet potato dessert at Boka (it was not lit on fire.) This dish reminded me of the cuisine at TRU—a course that I admired in concept but disagreeable in taste. Although taste is arbitrary, I do find it difficult to believe that one could find value in burnt sweet potato—it not only did not taste good but also smelled rotten and looked unappealing (after the fire was finished, of course.) Additionally, while I enjoyed the ice cream and apple crisp-like accompaniments, I found the combination incoherent and more like three separate desserts.

The final course was listed on the menu listed simply as “Hot Cocoa.” Unfortunately, it really tasted no different from Swiss Miss. It’s interesting to me that restaurants go to painstaking lengths in devising the main dishes, yet the final taste—usually mignardises but in this case hot cocoa—are so often generic. Upon completion of the meal, we were graciously presented with a tour of the kitchen—a very nice gesture. I always find value in contrasts—I find that they reward complex analysis in texts, and the kitchen tour was no exception. I enjoyed the way the childhood theme of the menu was counteracted by the seriousness and precision exhibited by the small army of cooks.

Overall, I was satisfied with the experience. We both agreed that the first 6 courses were superior to the dessert courses, perhaps due to the fact that the savory dishes (with the exception of the Autumn Scene course) represented iconic childhood dishes while the desserts were more improvised. I feel as though the Childhood menu commentates more on fine dining than on childhood, perhaps due to the fact that I was fortunate enough to be raised on less generic food than Kraft mac and cheese or pb&j sandwiches. Through the emphasis on surprise, the meal ascribed value and relevance to food items associated with childhood. I particularly enjoyed the project of staging a tasting menu (thereby operating from the vantage point of fine dining) filled with food items associated with childhood. The menu mediates, and almost synthesizes, two apparently irreconcilable fields of cuisine. I do believe that the courses referenced not only childhood staples but also items from The French Laundry, such as the PB&J (similar to the gruyere puffs at TFL) or the donut dessert (similar to the donuts at TFL.) Given Achatz’s background as both child and fine dining chef, the menu therefore represents his biography told through food. As such, I do wonder whether the focus of reliving childish surprise is oversold, and feel that the experience is best framed as a synthesis between family and haute cuisine.

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10 thoughts on “Next: Childhood

  1. If I could work at any restaurant for one day it would be this one…Ahead of Alinea, it seems to raise the most questions beyond what is on the plate. How do you assume the role as a server (a traditionally informative and reliable source) when the object of focus changes so frequently. Of course many restaurants change menus frequently, but not as drastically as say, going from Tour of Thailand to Next. And I would love to know whether servers are actually given quotations to speak, because the serving vibe is scripted.

    • I agree, it would be very interesting to work there for a day and get a sense of just how scripted the experience is. You are right that Next is very discursive through constantly situating itself within a specific preexisting culinary theme–it therefore has the contradictory appeal of being original through an apparent lack of originality. Still, while Next is certainly unique, I think people tend to disregard the fact that all restaurants are shaped through interacting with other restaurants, cuisines, and culinary movements.

    • In addition to the front of the house, I also wonder how the kitchen adjusts to the drastic changes. I wonder what kind of training the cooks and sous-chefs would have to go through (and trained by who) in order to cook for the Thai and the upcoming Kyoto menus (which I imagine require different cooking techniques from what they’ve learned from Kendall or CIA).

      • That’s certainly a valid point. I think that by limiting themselves to a set menu the kitchen is able to really hone and perfect their execution. But since I’ve only been to the Childhood menu, I can’t comment on the execution of the other ones.

  2. I agree that a culinary experience ultimately is best framed as a synthesis. But rather than between one’s family experience and haute cuisine, I prefer between family and dining in general, be it plebian fare, fast food, or haute cuisine.
    Well written and I find the correlations you draw fascinating.

  3. Before I had thought that the Childhood menu would be more personal to Achatz and the Midwest in general. But I guess with the exception of the Michigan forest course, most inspirations were pan-American. I wonder how much would a diner get out of the experience if he or she is a foreigner or immigrant who didn’t grow up with the same childhood classics.

  4. Personally, I feel that someone who didn’t grow up in the United States would still have a worthy experience, but it definitely wouldn’t evoke memories of their childhood. I think if you look at the cuisine at Next and Alinea, it’s pretty clear that Achatz is very interested in iconicity as it applies to food, and the Childhood menu was a monument to iconic American childhood staples.

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