In the ever-changing food industry, there are almost no restaurants that face the challenges that Next takes on every few months. Restaurants may change up dishes on their menus every now and then but very rarely do we see a complete overhaul as frequently as they do at Next. It’s a wonderful concept that really allows Dave Beran and his staff to showcase their culinary creativity, and encourages diners to keep coming back to try something new each time. And come back they do. More than a year since it’s opened, tickets to Next are still some of the hottest around town and with such hype comes great expectations. Unfortunately, sometimes you can end up with a good meal that still falls short of its potential.
Having had the pleasure of dining at every menu so far, I was really excited to see what was in store for us. Coming off a fascinating elBulli run that had the team at Next recreating dishes from the famous Spanish restaurant, Sicily was a chance for them to go back to doing their own thing with their own sense of style. Beran and Grant Achatz actually flew out to Italy to do some research and the menu is the brainchild of their efforts. For this outing, the theme was a more rustic, family-style meal and that was evident from the moment we sat down. We were given hand-written letters in sealed envelopes that explained what was to come.
Our opening few courses were passed antipasti bites, which included caponata that was scooped up by some tasty panelle, arancini, and some roasted artichokes. The arancini, fried balls of saffron risotto, were my favorite. They were stuffed with lamb’s tongue and served with a burnt tomato sauce that hit the spot. I’m actually salivating just thinking about it. The blackened roasted artichokes were charred to a crisp and a bit more interesting to eat since we had to unleash our inner savages and use our hands for the most part because the spoons just weren’t cutting it. It was a nice little exercise and the starters were enjoyable, albeit lacking that big wow that’s been in previous meals.
The pasta dishes followed, starting with bucatini topped with pieces of bottarga (sun-dried fish roe flakes). I would’ve been happily satisfied with just this one pasta dish alone had it not been proceeded by something even better. The gemelli con sarde was a savory and sweet surprise—twisted pasta with pine nuts and a piece of sardine draped on top. I’ve never been a big sardines fan, nor do I really enjoy any kind of sweetness mixed with savory flavors, but this dish was a true standout and my favorite of the evening.
The big hitters were up next: a swordfish fillet over mint-basil pesto was large enough for the table to share. The fish was moist, fresh as could be and the sauce gave it that extra something that separated it from anything you might find at another restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough, the fish was followed by an even bigger piece of braised pork shoulder smothered in a tomato sauce. The pork was tender and flavorful but sadly I was reaching my breaking point and had slowed down considerably. And while it was good, it was missing that little oomph of comparable dishes like the pressed duck on the Paris menu. Accompanying the main courses were vegetables—zucchini and asparagus with saffron-tomato-chili vinaigrette—that were great compliments to the rich and hearty plates. Capping it all off was a granita di arrance rosse, a blood orange treat similar to Italian ice that was light and refreshing after several heavy dishes.
As we all sat there full from the meal, one of the servers presented us with a whole marzipan cassata cake which was then taken away so that it could be cut into slices. In its place came a tray full of sweets: sesame-honey cookies, strawberry-filled fried ravioli and mini-cannoli. The cookie was decent and I felt like I’d had it many times in my life, while the ravioli and cannoli were more delectable. They were good enough to give me the second wind I needed to plow through the very sweet slice of cake that was eventually brought to us and end the night on a sugar high.
Looking back, I now realize that it’s very difficult to objectively review a meal at Next because it will always be compared to the menus that came before it. On its own merits, Sicily was a fine family feast that most people would not be disappointed with, myself included. It’s only when you judge it against past efforts do you start to feel let down. It’s no secret that The Taste Buds have an affinity for Next (we’ve written about it three times now) but out of the five menus Beran and his staff have created, I’d rank Sicily fourth. That’s not a true indication of its quality and it’s probably not fair to evaluate Next this way, but that’s the fate they’ve resigned themselves to with this concept. The potential was there for a meal that could’ve been extraordinary given the theme, and in the end it was still a great experience with only a few minor nitpicks. It’s just that the bar has now been raised with each iteration expected to top the previous. If you can go in with an open mind, there’s no doubt you’ll have a fantastic time. I just hope I can take that approach on my next trip in September for the Kyoto menu.