Monday, May 19, 2014

Road Trip: Next and The Aviary -- Chicago

Friends of ours have season tickets to Next, which is the second restaurant from Grant Achatz of Alinea (along with business partner Nick Kokonas). We were lucky enough to get invited to go with them recently to try the “Chicago Steak” menu (Next bases the menu around a specific theme and changes it several times a year). Honestly, this was the menu I was least excited about for the year food-wise, but was the only one we could do with our schedule. I don’t know I was just kind of wondering how good a steakhouse menu could be.

Well, as it turns out, it can be really, really good. This was no ordinary steakhouse experience, although they gave several nods to classic items. We were first served a perfectly balanced martini (shaken not stirred) with our crudité platter. So their version of crudité was vegetables that were tossed in a ranch seasoning and olive oil—giving you the flavor of ranch but not the creamy aspect. A fun take on it—There was kale, carrots, fennel, cauliflower, cucumbers, and breakfast radishes. It was interesting—and I preferred the kale above other things, but this was not my favorite of the courses.

The shrimp cocktail that came next was probably the most similar to the classic and also not the most exciting—one beautiful shrimp with a fermented tomato and horseradish cocktail sauce. Next was the course where everyone got to make a choice. It was a mussel dish, a clam dish or an oyster dish. I had the mussels with fried sweetbreads (“surf and turf”), which was really tasty, but a little sample of my friend’s oyster dish let me know hers was the best. The oysters were in a creamy sauce with bits of ham and with the most amazing wood-fired flavored broccolini. The clam dish hubby had was served with cold pasta and wasn’t my favorite. 

Next was their version of a steakhouse salad with watercress and a wonderful tangy dressing—I have never had so many chives in a salad, and never as one of the main greens. Interesting for sure. They were topped with pine nuts and bits of perfectly cooked frog’s legs—off the bone and the best I have ever had.

One of the most impressive dishes (and delicious too) was the “salmon coulibiac.” I loved that they presented this huge whole salmon wrapped in puff pastry first (surely a “stunt fish” but impressive nonetheless). We then were served a slice of the salmon—they had prepared it similar to a beef wellington except with a seafood angle. The amazing perfectly cooked salmon surrounded by a layer of pressed shrimp, a layer of herbs and a mushroom layer as well. I loved the little salad alongside—particularly the fried capers and large caper berry giving it some briny salt. There was a brown butter sauce as well. This was one of our favorites.

The food did not stop though—the lobster thermidor they brought out next was the pinnacle of richness. Chunks of lobster sat in a Sherry-based sauce--almost a soup with leeks and pieces of apples to give a little texture. The little piece of thyme focaccia was amazing that was served alongside. I was getting so full I had to decide how much I could eat at this point (and we hadn’t even had the steak yet!) so I judiciously picked out the lobster hunks and ate some of the bread and wished there was somewhere I could take a quick nap.

The steak course was great. The beautifully sliced dry-aged ribeye cooked perfectly medium rare was tender and flavorful. But the stars were everything that came with it. I just wished I had a back up stomach at this point. The “two jacket” potatoes were a favorite at the table. They were little half potatoes that were super crunchy and filled with bits of the insides of the potato that had also been fried in different ways. Pretty sure there was bone marrow involved as well. There was a dish of onion “paysan” which were creamed onions cooked in beef broth and crunchy topping. A trio of sauces was served for the steak; all were a play on traditional steak sauces. One with whole peppercorns, one was a take on A-1 and one a play on Béarnaise. The tangy Brussels sprouts salad was a nice break from all the rich, but was a little neglected at our table.

Seriously, I was ready to put my head down and surrender at this point, but the desserts started then. The first little palate cleanser was my favorite—it was a dollop of brown butter brioche ice cream and Champagne. Simply delicious (also, I need more brown butter brioche ice cream in my life). Then half of us received their version of a baked Alaska and half the crème brulee. I got the flaming baked Alaska and our waiter was very concerned about my hair going up in flames, which made me laugh. I preferred the crème brulee with the little brown sugary crunchy bits on top—the baked Alaska just too burnt tasting (maybe that was my fault for not blowing it out sooner).

Finally (for real—at this point I’m just taking a taste to be polite), we had a little chocolate mint parfait meant to be reminiscent of the little chocolate mints you might get with your bill at an old school steakhouse.

We had the drink pairings with the dinner and they were all done well. You definitely can’t call it a wine pairing though unless you get the premium one, some of the drinks are beer and some cocktails. (The beer though was pretty cool—it was called “The One Horned Winder and his Fanciful Flying Fresno” by Piperworks Brewing. It smelled just like passion fruit and was served with the lobster thermidor).

Ok, so yes we were full. But yes, we still were going next door to the Aviary, which is their molecular gastronomy cocktail bar for a drink. We were there dammit, and we were getting the full experience. This was fun. And funny. My drink was the best by far—it was called the Zombie panda and involved little frozen orbs of housemade raspberry liquor (the orbs were in a drink of lemon, lychee and pisco) that slowly melted and became the best slushy ever. One of my friends ordered a drink that came in a teacup and served with a smoking teapot of fragrant things. As it turns out, the teapot is only meant for smelling and not for refilling, as she found out when she started to refill and our rather eccentric waiter swooped in a snatched it away before she drank it. He brought her a new drink and as he sat it down with the slightly less smoking teapot this time, admonished her simply, “No drink!” It was funny. For my bourbon friends, they also offered a full flight of all the Pappy vintages for $160. I am glad we went to the Aviary because like Next it is an experience (they consider their drink-makers “cooks cooking with liquids”) For instance, the ice for the drinks is cut off of a large block by hand, by a person known as “the ice guy.” And in our case, the ice in our water was rather phallic in shape. It was crazily crystal clear though. Most “ice” here though is not made of water, but of some liquid that will enhance the drinks as they melt.

Ok, so you can’t get the Chicago steak menu at Next anymore, as it ended in April, but I write this experience anyway to let you know what it’s like and to let you know that even though I went in with somewhat low expectations, I came out dedicated to getting tickets to the next dinner—the theme of which is “Chinese Modern.” I can only imagine what they can do with that.  This meal was great, and now I want to try them all. My advice though—they definitely don’t skimp here, so if there’s something you think is just okay, go easy, a lot more is coming.

953 West Fulton
Chicago, IL 60607

Next on Urbanspoon

The Aviary
953 West Fulton
Chicago, IL 60607

The Aviary on Urbanspoon

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