A Trip Down Memory Lane

If there’s one restaurant that could capture all the buzz and excitement going around the ever-growing Chicago culinary scene at the moment, Next would be at the top of the list. The brainchild of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, as well as chef Dave Beran (who can’t seem to stop winning awards), has become the talk of the town almost overnight and received more accolades in less than a year than most places could even dream of. With a continually-changing menu that has already served food from Paris in 1906 and Thailand, the latest concept brings us back to our childhood. If you’re like me, then you’re probably already scoffing at the idea of eating peanut butter & jelly and mac & cheese but bear with me and read on to see if it can live up to the hype.

Born from Achatz’s and Beran’s midwest experiences growing up in Michigan, the menu was a reflection of what they, and many American kids, ate when they were young. As someone who’s tried the previous two menus, I went into this one with some tempered expectations of sorts. I guess the staff at Next was aware of my apprehensiveness because upon seating we were all given little gift boxes, neatly wrapped and all. It opened to reveal our treat—a PB&J bite—and who doesn’t like a present? We were carefully instructed by the servers to place the whole bite into our mouths before biting down and squirting the tasty liquid out. Well … three quarters of my table managed to do so while one disregarded the warning (like a child!) and ended up with a messy water glass afterwards. Chicken soup was the second course, which our server succinctly described as “not your regular Progresso.” The broth immediately evoked images of cold winter evenings and sick days home from school, and the “noodles” in the bowl were noodles of chicken, adding a playful touch.

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Perhaps the most amusing dish was the fish & chips. Drawn onto the plate as if a child were given the terrifying free reigns in a kitchen, a fishing scene was produced from a filet of walleye, a fried potato net, cucumber salad waves, a shore of beer-batter crumbs, tartar sea foam and a Meyer lemon sun. I’m not the biggest seafood fan, but I must say the walleye was one of the best I’ve had.

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We followed that up with mac & cheese accompanied by a “merry-go-round” of garnishes including a ham pinwheel, a reconstituted hot dog and apple, as well as others. Once again, this was the finest macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had—rich, creamy and cooked perfectly al dente.

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The next course was just visually stunning. A walk through a Michigan “Winter Wonderland” brought us to a salad unlike any other. I’ll admit I wasn’t even sure what I was eating most of the time except for crispy greens and a mushroom but it was fantastic. It was expectedly earthy with a pleasant aroma and although it felt like you were eating a forrest, you just couldn’t stop. And trust me, I didn’t want to.

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Next up was a hamburger, whose quality was just a tad better than your average Big Mac. It was deconstructed with all your usual toppings strewn about the plate. As for the meat, short ribs served as a more-than-acceptable substitute for a beef patty.

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Now who doesn’t remember being sent off to school each day with a lunch box? Fond memories of opening it up and being excited or disappointed with your haul and then haggling with your friends to get rid of that apple your mom knows you hate in exchange for a real fruit—fruit roll-up. Fortunately, Next left the lame stuff at home and packed my (Alf!) box with chocolate pudding, wagyu jerky, a truffled Oreo, homemade funyun, apple-brandy fruit roll-up and mixed berry drink inside a Wizard of Oz thermos. I enjoyed them all but I think I liked the idea of a truffled Oreo more than the actual thing. There wasn’t anything wrong with it but something about the combination was just a little strange for my tastes. Nonetheless, they were delightful after-dinner treats and even came with notes from our “family.” Mine told me to stop painting the cat blue. Oops, sorry Grandma I’ll try to work on that.

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Between courses they brought our table special bubble gum floats because we’ve been repeat diners (or because we’re kind of a big deal). Big kudos to the staff for keeping close track of their customers. By this point I’m thoroughly full but there’s still more food to be had! I (not so) reluctantly trudge on toward cider doughnuts with a foie gras frosting (foie-sting). The frosting came with beaters, which we were told to lick, and lick we did. It was savory, both sweet and salty, and a foie gras that everyone at my table could agree they liked. Because maybe I’m an uncultured heathen but foie gras is not my favorite, or even top 100 favorite, thing in the world. But this foie-sting? Give me another beater please.

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For the grand finale, a small campfire was set up on the table and sweet potato logs were burned. The logs were then added into an assortment of things on our plates that comprised a sweet potato pie. It was another fun element added into the deconstruction of a classic dessert. And when you have an open fire with marshmallows around, what do you do? I think you already know the answer to that one. Capping it all off was a rich cup of hot cocoa that I could not finish, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because I was way beyond satiated at that point.

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In the end, all of my initial doubts were erased and from start to finish, this was my favorite of the three menus so far. They say it’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary and that was the case with these childhood dishes. I can’t wait to hopefully try what’s to come. Until we meet again, Next.

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