Monday, October 3, 2011

Next Restaurant: Taste of Thailand 2032

Dinner at Grant Achatz's new restaurant, Next, is the hottest ticket in town. Making reservations is unlike any other restaurant. Reservations are made in the form of prepaid tickets, which are only released by the restaurant. They have to be purchased via their website or via email when same night tickets become available via Facebook. The prices for dinner vary between $65 to $110 depending on the time of the day, day of the week, or $165, if you elect the kitchen table for 6. Beverage pairing options range from $0 to $70. Due to my lack of alcohol tolerance, I opted for the non-alcoholic beverage pairing, and of course, I ordered the alcoholic pairing for A.

Last Wednesday, I was finally able to secure a table for four last night. We invited our food loving friends to complete our table. I watched what I ate all day long to ensure that I could eat all the courses AND zip up my  new form fitting, Black Halo dress!

When we pulled up to Next, it was very inconspicuous the way it was hidden behind its landscaping on the sidewalk. We were promptly seated a little before our reservation time, which was really nice. At our table were beautifully printed brochures with literature about the inspiration for our dinner. They were tucked inside a "randomly" folded Thai newspaper. Our server, unfolded the newspaper to open it up for a "tablecloth," and proceeded to set our table with pink napkins and black plastic forks to mimic the "street food" atmosphere one would expect in Thailand 2032. I learned that in Thailand, the napkins are dyed pink because they are made with recycled paper, and the dye hides the impurities.

Street Food Course Starting from the bamboo steamer are steamed bao (not to be mistaken for xiao long bao or soup dumplings), which were recommended to be eaten first since they were freshly steamed and temperature sensitive. When it comes to bao, I usually prefer the baked kind over the steamed kind because the dough can be tricky. Of course, the dough here was perfectly fluffy and delicate without being too heavy. The buns were filled with green curry and beech mushrooms. Clockwise, the next item was Issan sausage (fermented Northern Thai) topped with galangal, chile and peanut relish. This little bit was packed with flavor. Below them are the crispy, salty prawn fritters garnished with lime zest. The flavor of the dried prawn (hai mai) was definitely muted by the lime zest and probably to be a little on the conservative side. In the middle of the bottom row, are roasted little bananas that were delicate, soft, and sweet while nicely contrasted by their fried garlic and pickled shallot topping. Finally, a small raw shrimp topped with garlic and chile to be eaten in one quick bite with the mint leaf. The mint leaf served as both a vessel and an agent to mellow the heat of the chile. The sausage and roasted banana bites were our favorite of this course. The beverage pairing for this course was served in a plastic cup. We enjoyed a juice made with guava, mango and papaya, while A's drink included the addition of Batavia Aarack and Szigeti Sekt.

For the rest of our meal, our table was set with a red colored runner to honor the Thai god of the sun, who is honored each Sunday. Her color is red.

Salad and Soup course
I failed to have my camera ready when our next course
arrived in the form of a salad bowl with button mushrooms, an heirloom tomato, shallots and pork belly. As the server described this course, he poured the hot and sour broth over the salad, which was now a tom yam gai soup. Only instead of the typical shrimp, this soup had pork belly! The broth was rich, deep, and nicely spiced. We had a very interesting drink made with chrysanthemum, lemongrass and lychee (and gin).

Rice course
This next course was an opportunity for us to familiarize ourselves with the available condiments. Hot jasmine rice was delivered in bamboo canisters. We were given nam prik pao, which is a Thai Chili Jam commonly used as a condiment. Below that is a duck egg salad with green mango and white relish. I loved this relish - it is unlike any other egg salad that we know. To the far left is pickled mango and watermelon rind to soothe any lingering heat in our mouths. Placed in the middle of our table were two more relishes: a green chile with garlic and shallot dubbed as "Ricky Martin" because it was described as being "hot all the way" and a fermented, tamarind fish sauce, the "James Brown," which arrived with a cover to control its funkiness. When we added a small spoonful of these last two sauces to whatever we were eating, it really brought out the tastes to another level.

Fish course
Beautifully prepared catfish that was tender and fresh; served in a caramel sauce with shaved celery and coriander root. A very delicate dish that was further enhanced with the addition of various relishes. I had a carrot, orange and ginger juice while A had a glass of Bizkaiko Txakolina.

Beef course
: Braised beef cheeks were served in a curry of peanut, nutmeg, coconut and lemongrass that requires a 2.5 day process from start to end. This dish was phenomenal in every way. A butter knife was brought to our table to help us separate the dining portions, but our server jokingly recommended that we use the handle instead. It was so tender, I used my spoon. The meat just fell apart, and the curry sauce was so amazing with all the spices and heat element. I loved spooning it over my beef and rice. I enjoyed a sparkling punch of hibiscus, mangosteen and Thai pepper, while A enjoyed the Horizon Ale from Half Acre, which was a custom made brew made for Next.

Before our desserts arrived, we are given an elixir made of watermelon consomme and lemongrass. It's to be drank as a shot, and it is a cool and refreshing treat after the savory courses.
Dessert A tray of whole coconuts arrives at our table on a bed of 800 degree lava rocks that heats up the coconut shavings on the tray such that the aroma permeates the air around us. It is a delicious smell. We each grab a coconut and split it open to reveal our dessert on one half. The empty half is soon filled with coconut sorbet. The dessert had something like 13 components: corn pudding, coconut ice, candied lime, licorice tapioca pearls, sugared egg strands cooked in saffron and star anise syrup. It was the most interesting dessert we had ever enjoyed. I loved my corn and pineapple juice, while my dining companions loved the sweet Moscato from Planeta.
Fruit course A single rose sprayed with rose water is brought to our table, where we are each asked to take a whiff of it and allow memories come to mind. We are then given dragon fruit halves which have been drizzled with a citrusy rose water. Based on the looks of the interior, I was expecting it be pudding like, but it was very much like its kiwi relative. To round out our beverage pairing, I had a cucumber, vichy catalan while the others had a smooth blended island rum by Banks.
Tea To complete the street food experience, our meal ended with bags of Thai iced tea.
As we neared the end of our meal, I asked one of our servers if we could get a tour of the kitchen. The general manager graciously obliged. I sipped on our bags of ice tea as he explained that each course had its own station. The back wall was lined with glass jars of the various ingredients used to create our meal. My friend asked about the licorice used in our coconut dessert. One of the chefs broke off a piece of licorice root, which was black, very hard, and beautifully fragrant. They use very high quality licorice to avoid overwhelming the dish. The sous chef graciously spoke about the creative process. It was such a lovely way to end an amazingly memorable meal. Thank you to the wonderfully, talented and professional staff at Next.

Some detailed course descriptions taken from Chicago Reader

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