Next: Kyoto

Another year, another trip to Chicago for the Midwest Band (and orchestra – but whatevs) Clinic, and another visit to a spectacular Grant Achatz restaurant.  Back in 2009, it was Alinea (blogged here — and still, as the title says, The Best Meal I’ve Ever Had).  Last year, it was Achatz’s (then) newest restaurant, Next. The idea was that Next would completely change its identity several times per year, so on one visit the restaurant might be based on Achatz’s childhood in the 1980’s (the theme for Next: Childhood — blogged here), or another it might be a Japanese restaurant — specifically, Japanese kaiseki, a multi-course, elaborate meal, served famously in Kyoto.  (Back in 2007, AEJ and I stayed at Tawaraya, a 300 year old ryokan (an inn) in Kyoto, where we were served a kaiseki meal in our room.  You can read about that experience here — the “real deal” version of what inspired this year’s restaurant: Next: Kyoto.)

We were greeted with a centerpiece of hay, and a little rolled scroll.  Travis Cross read it to us, using his most exaggerated fake Japanese accent. (Hahaha, just kidding, right, Travis?) Part of the scroll read : “This season we seek to honor Kaiseki because it shares the same goal that we celebrate here at Next: an evolved dining experience that takes guests on a journey.”

First up, we were served a tea made from charred corn husks. (You can see one of the husks on the plate.)

It looked simple, but it was amazing. I love corn, and the taste of slightly charred corn is a delicious thing — and this was that flavor as a warm, soothing tea.

For our next course, we were going to need some extra aromatic stimulation. Achatz does things like this regularly (pillows filled with scented air, or the smell of burning leaves tucked under your dish), and it’s always effective. So this time: the hay in our centerpiece was set aflame.

The burning hay aroma was to accompany this: chestnut tofu, apple, and white miso.

We went from a tiny dish to this massive platter. (Okay, not “Olive Garden massive,” but it was pretty big.) There was shrimp, all parts — the legs, the tail, and the head — along with a type of roe (fish eggs — but I can’t recall what fish), and other assorted small goodies. The dish was called “Japanese forest.”

Yeah. All parts of the shrimp. Hello, Mr. Shrimp Head.

I would totally eat that if I weren’t busy taking pictures. I swear. You go first, Jake Wallace.

Yeah. It’s all you. My hands are full with this camera.

You too, Steve Bryant! Is it as good as it looks?

Look! Food without eyes! I’ll have one of those, please. This is duck prosciutto wrapped around what we think was daikon.

Sashimi course number one with shiso and tamari, but all I see is edible gold, baby! To quote David Cross, “Tasteless, odorless gold. To EAT! And I thought, wow man, if that isn’t the ultimate ‘FU*K YOU!’ to poor people, then I don’t know what is.”

I haven’t mentioned the drink pairings. For just about every course, there was either a wine, a beer, or a sake.

Here is sashimi course number two: abalone (sliced and fanned in back) with cucumber, radish, and red sea grapes.

Here’s the same dish from another angle, just because it’s so beautiful. I mean, look at that shell! So shiny! (It’s no edible gold, though…)

Next was soup with anago (salt-water eel), maple dashi (to make it smoky), and shimeji mushroom. I’ll admit to not liking the eel very much. I like the eel sushi that’s covered in sauce and toasted. This was a bit fishy for me.

Next was a custard: matsutake chawanmushi, with the aroma of warm pine needles (placed on the table and heated with hot stones). The picture is not pretty, but here it is…

This looked like tofu at first, but it’s buri: yellowtail trout, flash-fried and served with wasabi leaf and cured yolk.

(hiccup) MUR SAKI, PLEEZ! (I actually thought, when taking this picture, that the camera was straight.)

Edible chrysanthemum, eggplant, and shiso leaf.

Rice with waygu beef, crumbled egg whites, and pickle.

And dessert: “first snowfall,” with persimmon, skin from the process of tofu-making, and maple leaves, all covered with a dusting of maple powder. It certainly looked beautiful, but it wasn’t the most delicious part of the evening.

Seriously? More sake? You realize I weigh, like, 124 pounds, right?

Here are some of Travis Cross’s drink selections. Much prettier.

Next up: a bitter tea with warabi mochi covered in toasted soy.

Sort of surprisingly, that was it. It took nearly three hours and was a lot of fun, but the ending felt a little anti-climactic. Nothing witty, nothing on fire, nothing showy at all. In fact, to me, that final desert wasn’t even very tasty (the tea’s first name, after all, is “bitter”), and the mochi was kind of hard to eat (a little too big for a single bite, but very hard to split in two with only chopsticks). “Daring,” maybe, but not “yummy.”

We all had a blast, but — and not being one to admit a fondness for humans in general, I can’t believe I’m saying this — the company was more fun than the food. Turns out that maybe that’s what makes a meal great. (Well, that and edible gold.)


Kevin Howlett says

"Please, I hope I am free someday!"

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.