December 21, 2011
Before we get to the real reason for this blog post – the pictures from dinner at Next: Childhood – here are a few pieces of news from last week’s Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago:
1) It was fun
2) The Hilton bar has been remodeled, I think for the better (and not just because the new color scheme matches our house).
3) “Foundry” won the 2011 CBDNA Young Band Composition Contest. Here’s a video – with the focus on the critical percussion section – from an incredible middle school band:
But enough about work. Let’s talk about food.
Two years ago, I had dinner at Alinea, which remains the most fun and exciting meal I’ve ever had. (It was blogged in detail.) This year, the chef at Alinea, Grant Achatz, opened a new restaurant, Next, also in Chicago. Next has an usual hook: each menu is thought of as a “show,” and each “show” has a theme which changes every several months. Like a Broadway show, you buy tickets for your dinner, and the tickets are all-inclusive – roughly $200 per person, but including food, wine pairings, and gratuity. $200 is a lot for a dinner, even with wine and tip included, but it’s not as bad if you think of what it would cost to see a Broadway show and get dinner beforehand. (It’s also a relative bargain compared to the cost of dinner at Alinea, which runs three times that.) Tickets for a dinner at Next are hard to secure, with the entire run of seats for a given “show” — all three months or so worth — go on sale, exclusively on the restaurant’s website, late one night, with little notice anywhere except via the restaurant’s Facebook page, and all tickets are gone by the next morning. Somehow, Jake Wallace – longtime friend and writer of my best program notes – secured four tickets.
The “show” that Next was running last week was called “Childhood,” and as Achatz says in the note you receive when you sit down – a note printed in the color and font from an Apple IIe – they could have called the menu “Michigan, 1985.” This would be a three hour trip back in time to revisit the foods of Achatz’s Midwestern childhood in the mid-80s, but as interpreted today by a kid who grew up to be one of the greatest chefs in the world.
Our first course was “a gift from all of us at Next.” What better way to start a meal during the holiday season than with a present?
Beneath the wrapping paper was a box, and inside the box was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sort of. “Eat it all in one bite,” we were warned, and for good reason. Inside this little fried ball of yum was warm, gooey, delicious peanut butter. The box contained all sorts of crunchy goodness, including little red solidified hints of jelly. We had no utensils (this would be a running theme of the evening), so the only good way to eat those crispy sweet bits was to try to pour them from the box directly into your mouth. I think we were all covered in crumbs by the time we were done, but it was worth it.
Course #2: chicken noodle soup, but with no noodles — “a noodle of chicken.” That little noodle-looking thing at the bottom is, in fact, a noodle made of chicken.
The broth was insanely good, like the most deliciously concentrated liquid chicken ever. (It reminded me, in a good way, of the story my dad once told me about the time he tasted dry cat food. “It’s like a million fish exploding in your mouth,” he said. This was like that, only, you know, not nasty.) It probably didn’t hurt that I’d been avoiding most meat for the past 9 months or so, so any meat tastes good at this point, but this was exceptional. The noodle-of-chicken was an amazing texture, and the vegetables… Lordy McFly, the vegetables. Carrots of various colors (there’s a red carrot?!), and then, the onions, which were the size of pearl onions, but they were sweet like Vidalias, but they were red. No idea what they were, but I could live on just the broth and onions, even if it meant I’d forever reek of leek.
Course #3: Fish ‘n’ chips, “drawn by a child.” Deconstructed, moving clockwise from top left: the sun is Meyer lemon, the fisherman is reduced malt vinegar, the ground is beer batter and caviar, the foam is tartar sauce, the net is potato with a piece of walleye caught inside (underneath the net, and out of view), over a cucumber sea. (Thank you, Jake, for taking notes.)
This angle lets you see the walleye. This was not only fun, but delicious, with sashimi-quality fish, and incredible sauces (although it was kind of sad to mess up the drawing in order to eat it).
A detail of the beer batter and caviar “ground.”
Like I said, it was delicious. What I didn’t mention is that cucumber is one of my Most Hated Foods.
Mac and Cheese over “a merry-go-round of garnishes.” The accompaniments (clockwise) were ham and arugula (out of view, behind the glass), apple, reconstituted hot dog (weirdly good), parmesan, tomato, Kraft Mac & Cheese (you can spot that one, I assume), and manchego custard.
But how will I get to the macaroni and cheese? Ahhh…
Spectacular. The best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had. The accompaniments were a lot of fun (my favorite may have been the apple – or maybe the manchego custard), but the mac and cheese itself was insanely rich and creamy, and (unlike in childhood) cooked perfectly al dente.
This next one was beautiful. Achatz is a poet when it comes to the use of smell to evoke memory (he did it with burning campfire embers at Alinea), and he’s done it again with this dish: “Winter Wonderland – A walk through a Michigan forest.” Crispy greens and mushrooms over a hollowed log with smoking juniper. This vegetarian (and nearly vegan, other than one dollop of sauce hidden beneath) dish tasted like, well, earth – the way mushrooms taste of earth. It was crispy but with splashes of moist relief (I’m going to call my next middle school piece “Moist Relief”), and the smell… Oh the smell…
Here’s a shot of the fresh juniper that was beneath the glass plate. You can see the hot stones in the center, which heated the juniper to release the smell of winter. (It was like a Christmas tree on crack.)
Did I mention that all of these dishes came with wine pairings?
It was incredible, but it got to be a little much. Please don’t barf, Jake.
Next up: Hamburger. “McDonald’s, Burger King, White Castle… no?” Like the fish and chips, this was deconstructed with all of the elements you’d expect – onions, mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, a “special sauce.” The beef, rather than being of the questionable White Castle “slider” variety, was lovely short ribs.
And now: The Lunch Box.
We all got different vintage lunch boxes. Jake observed that we all got “manly” lunch boxes, while the table of women next to us got things like My Pretty Pony. I traded lunch boxes with Dae so that I could have this one.
Inside the lunch box… a note. Mine was from “Mom.”
What did mom pack? A Nutella “snack pack,” Wagyu “beef jerky” (where was this when I used to eat beef jerky on road trips?!), an apple-brandy “Fruit Roll-Up,” a truffled “Oreo,” a homemade “Funyun,” and inside our thermos, a mixed-berry drink.
Oh! And chocolate pudding!
Mixed-berry drink. (Sadly, non-alcoholic, although I’m pretty sure I was beyond shitfaced by this time. Note the gradually degrading focus of these pictures as the evening progressed.)
When drinking from a plastic thermos cup, it’s classy to point your pinky.
The magic… of Lassie (and West Point conductor, Dae Kim).
More dessert! This is “Foie-sting and donuts,” with the instruction to “lick it off the beater.” That’s right: no utensils provided. These were cider donuts with a beater covered with – get ready for it – foie gras frosting.
Seriously. Frosting, made from one of the richest (and normally savory) ingredients known to man: fois gras.
Now in the home stretch, we have Sweet Potato Pie: “a campfire on your table.” Those are sweet potatoes.
And THAT is the camp fire. The sweet potatoes just became campfire logs.
Here’s the sweet potato pie.
With the toasty, cozy fire in the background.
If you have a campfire, and you have marshmallows, there’s only one logical place to go with that…
Finally, hot cocoa with a side of cognac. The cocoa was great, but I was beyond full, so I drank little of it. The cognac was the only misstep of the night – harsh and kind of nasty after everything that had come before – but that’s easy to forgive.
Alinea is a more elegant dinner in many ways, but it’s not without humor. (AEJ and I laughed more about the food during that dinner than any other meal I can remember.) Next: Childhood, in no small reason due to the theme of “childhood,” was light (in tone, not much else – blargh) and fun throughout. I also think the food itself may have been more delicious than it was at Alinea, but maybe I just remember more about Alinea than the flavors themselves. (Go read my Alinea blog post if you never have.)
Thank you to Jake and Travis for making the dinner possible!