Last year at this time my wife and I were just coming back from our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, happy newlyweds and even more ecstatic that wedding planning was finally over. There was much we wanted to accomplish in our first year of marriage and much has happened over the last 12 months that have made us stronger and inspired us along the way. This blog is one of those things that has opened a new creative outlet for Jenna and I, a product of our travels and love of food, and our desire to tell a story.
Next Restaurant, a creation of acclaimed Chicago chef and gastronomy master Grant Achatz, tells a story. Every three months Achatz and Executive Chef Dave Beran create and serve a new menu representing a time and a place in the world, inspired by the history of regional cuisine. These multi-course meals with wine pairings or non-alcoholic cocktail creations take inspiration from a region, often replicating or re-imaging dishes rich with history, culture and meaning. Next’s first menu was Paris 1906, which was so critically acclaimed that the restaurant became an instant success and exclusive destination for foodies, socialites and the rich and famous. The reviews and demand catapulted Achatz’s fame (if he wasn’t already a culinary star). The unique, very limited ticketing system designed for Next made the restaurant in high demand, but also turned off some foodies due to the limited available tickets, the procedure for selling tickets (including season tickets) and the varying and expensive per person price.
Despite the downsides, the idea of enjoying a meal that represents a time and place in the world was very intriguing to Jenna and I. We are not the ultra fine dining types and only have had a handful of those experiences combined (me=none). Alinea was never really on our radar because of the price point, but we certainly considered it for special occasions. Indeed, we really wanted to try out this concept and see what all the fuss was about.
Anyway, back to Next. Reverse to a couple of months ago when and I was strategizing about how to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. I had ideas about San Francisco or New Orleans, or even back to Puerto Rico, from which we just explored in April. With a trip to Europe in the planning stages and the agreement that this was our gift to each other, I still wanted to have a very special dinner to celebrate this milestone. I think it’s important to celebrate every year but being the first anniversary is really special. Carefully, watching Next’s facebook page for available tickets I found that their El Bulli menu was ending and the following menu would be Sicily! With Italian being one of Jenna’s favorite cuisines I knew this was meant to be. With a little help securing tickets we were on our way to a memorable anniversary.
We arrived at Next, which is adjacent to The Aviary and separated by a door that also leads to the restroom and a secret basement bar called “The Office” which is invite only. The 25 or so tables and the decor are very intimate and well designed, very inviting for a great evening and a unique and delicious dining experience. We arrived a bit early but were seated immediately.
When we sat down we were greeted by a brown envelope when turned over revealed a wax seal with Next pressed within. We immediately felt that we were opening something very secret and important. I looked around to see if anyone had the same thing or if it was just for us…silly, I know. Anyway, we opened the envelope and what was inside appears in the picture above; a quote from Goethe and a welcome note with signatures from the chefs. I particularly liked the message under the quote which was intended to set the tone for the dinner and what Achatz and Beran were trying to accomplish: “The best food of Sicily is found in the homes and in the hearts of its people. Welcome.”
Achatz and Beran ditched their gastronomy techniques for the first time at Next for the Sicily menu, opting instead to use traditional cooking techniques used in Sicilian homes. This resonated with us; the symbolism of this menu, the style of the food, and the way it was prepared connected us to the feelings we get making meals at home, learning the stories behind the recipes and creating narratives on our own that we can share with our kids.
In order to really serve an authentic Sicilian meal capturing and highlighting the right notes, Achatz and Beran went to Sicily to study home-style cooking and came away with some great knowledge, as it definitely translated in the food we ate. Out of the 13 courses served, everything tasted like it was straight from a Sicilian mother’s kitchen. Rustic and fresh, oozing with layers of flavor but with great balance. The wine pairings for each course helped too. As you can see from the menu in the picture below, we had quite the feast. The servers even offered us doggie bags but we powered through like the eating champs we are and savored and swooned over each forkful. From the al dente perfection of the bucatini with an unreal butter soft fish roe, to the delectable gemelli pasta with fried sardine, or the flaky and buttery soft swordfish, to my favorite dish of the night…the large portioned and unbelievably tender pork shoulder. There was not a miss on the menu and we stumbled out full, sauced, and deeply satisfied.
Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures of the food. I know I promised in my last post but Jenna nor I could bring ourselves to be those people taking pictures. For this meal, and for this occasion, to celebrate our love and our first year of marriage, it was more important to enjoy each bite, each sip of wine, and our company, rather than focus on pictures of what we are eating. Below you’ll find the menu that we received on the way out and I highly suggest looking at photos online of what we ate. And, if you get a chance, just one, take it and try Next for a special occasion. You won’t regret it.