Farewell, 2012

As we start off the New Year and inch towards the first anniversary of The Taste Buds, I’d like to give one final sendoff to 2012—a year filled with countless culinary adventures. The latter half of the year saw a flurry of new restaurant openings, several of which I had the opportunity to try. Stephanie Izard’s long-awaited diner, Little Goat, finally debuted to much fanfare. Half café and half diner, the restaurant was as impressive as advertised. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner with enough options to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. On my visit, I tried the goat chili and fried chicken along with a smoked pork and toffee crunch milkshake. They were Izard’s refined spin on comfort food classics and for the most part, they succeeded (a little aggressive with the salt). I can’t wait to go back and try the rest of the menu. Elsewhere, Alpana Singh’s gorgeous Boarding House is also off to a hot start. The entire restaurant is housed in a multi-story building that includes a cellar. The interior is stunning, with enormous chandeliers made up of wine bottles and glasses hanging over the space. As for the food, the double bone-in pork chop and hazelnut-crusted short rib were both solid, tender entrees. And of course if you’re a wine lover you’ll feel right at home with the wine list selected by Singh, who’s a master sommelier.


Back in the West Loop, Thai Deng’s Embeya was another solid opening. The chef took his Vietnamese background and integrated it with French technique for a fresh take on Asian fusion. You can read Gary’s take of the pop-up preview dinner here, but as for me the garlic chicken was an unquestioned winner, which came as a pleasant surprise since I usually don’t have high expectations for chicken dishes. The dinosaur bones-sized tamarind ribs were just as good—juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender. If you can impress my mother with Asian cuisine, then I guess you’re doing something right.

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And as if the area wasn’t crowded enough with restaurants, Bill Kim’s bellyQ and the hot Latin American spot La Sirena Clandestina also found room for residency. BellyQ’s Korean barbecue wasn’t particularly memorable, but the huckleberry soft serve ice cream turned out to be one of my favorite desserts of the year. On the other hand, La Sirena Clanedstina turned out quality dish after dish with the standout being the whole red snapper. It was definitely an experience that ended up being worthy of the buzz.

Of course, no recap would be complete without the mention of brunch. Several new places offered a stellar brunch selection. Nearly everything from the Trenchermen was superb, starting with the decor and feel of being on a classic boat. The wooden space sits below ground level and screams vintage and vaguely steampunk. On my two visits, the food was excellent, from the pickled tots and pretzel cinnamon roll to the pad thai and ‘potato basket,’ shaved potato puree in a basket form with gravy, chorizo mole sausage and an egg on top. It’s a dish I would gladly eat for breakfast every day if I could. At the Carriage House, Mark Steuer brought the lowcountry cuisine of South Carolina to Chicago and the new brunch menu is full of what you’d expect. Johnnycakes, grits, cornbread and chicken and waffles were some of the items I tried, with the chicken and waffles being one of the best I’ve had. I eagerly anticipate returning soon so that I can try the lowcountry boil…

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Which brings me to my last spot, Next. It’s not a new restaurant in the traditional sense, but every time we go it’s a new experience. And with the very first post on The Taste Buds being our meal during the Childhood menu, I thought it was only fitting to end the year with Next as well. Coming off the somewhat disappointing Sicily menu, my expectations were a bit tempered this time around. Fortunately, Next delivered on all accounts this time with a meal that was wholly satisfying and thankfully not too heavy. Without going into a course-by-course description, the dishes were for the most part simple yet outstanding. A few of my favorites included a corn husk soup that incorporated elements of scent into the course; sashimi so good I’ll probably never have anything like it again on this side of the Pacific; a scenic ‘Japanese maple forest’ with several shrimp bites that were a real visual and flavorful treat; and a grilled ayu filet with the body fried to a crisp. In short, the meal was a display of what Next is capable of and one of the reasons we decided to renew our season tickets for 2013.

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With another year in the books (I’m starting to feel old), I look forward to whatever comes across my plate in 2013. Some stuff we’ve already got planned (I hear Gary’s visiting a certain Thomas Keller restaurant soon…) but a good majority of our outings will certainly be impromptu because hey, we enjoy eating and that’s what we do. And after writing this recap and looking back over a year’s worth of posts, it’s possible we might eat out a little TOO much. But probably not.


Next: Sicily, Hampered By Its Success

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.

A Culinary History Lesson: next elBulli

Weeks have gone by and I’m still in awe. Months of anticipation, weeks following a Facebook page (what an age we live in…), hours of waiting for a single email, for what? Five hours of absolute perfection? Yes.

It seemed like fate, getting season tickets that is, as we were sitting in the Gene Siskel Theater waiting for Cooking in Progress to start. Somehow, in the good graces of [insert ideological figure], we got the email to buy tickets. With a phone, yes a phone, we managed to miss half of the elBulli movie to score a four top for the year at Next. Fate. Destiny. Whatever you call it, it made watching that movie all the more better.

But what is one supposed to expect going to a restaurant paying homage to an innovator, an international culinary superstar, a 3-star Michelin restaurant acknowledged as the world’s greatest of all time? Huge shoes to fill…but hey, what Next is aiming for is not to replicate Ferran Adria and elBulli. Instead, Chef Achatz and Chef Beran put on a history lesson, with 29 carefully selected artifacts on display, a fantastic faculty of teachers, and yes, a quiz.

When experiencing Next elBulli, patrons are offered two 21+ drink options: strictly vino or a mixed bag of tricks. Having had the opportunity to taste what Next can do with beverages, our table opted for the eclectic option, which included wines, a chemistry set for a DIY stab at mixology, beers, and coffee (with a gelatinous shot). Pairings were phenomenal and plentiful. Rumor has it the non-alcohol pairings are awesome. I can attest to the magic of the mixologists and the NA drinks. Your taste buds will go crazy. (shameless name plug…)

But what about the food? Flavors are representative of Catalonia, with seafood and salt shining bright. But the beauty behind Chef Adria’s cuisine lies in the creation of the dish. The team at Next collaborated with elBulli, obtaining original recipes for this menu. What was originally planned as a celebrated regression of dishes wound up evolving into a highlight reel of innovative dishes that changed the international culinary scene.

The evening consists of 29 mostly single-bite dishes, though some were a little heavier than others. Next’s elBulli experience begins with a nitro caipirinha with tarragon concentrate, an edible cocktail served in a hollowed lime on a bed of salt.

Following the caipirinha is the hot/cold trout roe tempura, then a trio of courses, which include the coca of avocado pear, anchovies, and green onion, iberico “sandwich,” and the infamous spherical olives. The airiness of the sandwich bread in conjunction with the thinly sliced iberico ham was absolutely perfect. The spherical olives, if you’re unfamiliar, are created through reverse spherification, a molecular gastronomy technique, and are encapsulated in a very delicate casing. They should be taken in a single slurp, otherwise you’ll ruin a shirt.

The fun definitely didn’t end there, as courses like the golden egg, black sesame spongecake and miso, chicken liquid croquettes, and smoke foam followed. But what might have been the most intriguing and thought-provoking dish of the night was light as air: the carrot air with coconut milk. This is the dish that put Chef Adria on the international culinary map. It is time-sensitive, as the air turns to liquid after a few minutes. Served in curved bowls from elBulli by way of an Austrian collector, the air is interestingly flavorful. It has an intense carrot taste, but is complemented well by the coconut milk.

Among the larger dishes are the cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce, red mullet gaudi, and the civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly. The cous-cous was a hit at the table, and had us talking about the concept of a solid sauce. The red mullet gaudi, a small red fish, is eloquently served atop a hot waterbed reminiscent of the sea. Served with onions, red/green peppers, and tomato, the fish was so delicate and tasteful. The civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly was easily one of the surprise favorites, at least in my opinion. I haven’t had rabbit too many times, but this stew was very good. At first, I thought the apple jelly was out of place. But silly me, who am I to second guess the culinary genius of Chef Adria, or the Next team? The sweetness complemented the flavors of the civet very well.

As the menu progressed, naturally, Chef Albert Adria had to shine. The desserts presented in this menu held back no punches. Kicking off the end of this monumental meal was the idolized gorgonzola balloon, which was intense and impossible to finish. It’s just huge, and if you don’t eat it quick enough, it starts to melt. Following the giant cheese ball was a foie gras caramel custard, which was surprisingly very good. It was very sweet, with a subtle foie gras taste. And then there was the quiz…a gelatin-filled bowl with twelve unnamed spices. Your job, as part of the experience, is to identify the flavors in a clockwise fashion. Your prize? The satisfaction of having a good palate. How’d the four of us do? One perfect paper, though I mixed up two spices. Shucks.

What followed was a palate cleanser, then desserts so sweet your girlfriend would leave you. The mint pond (a thin sheet of ice), dusted with brown sugar, mint, and powdered green tea, was the perfect neutralizer, and required a little elbow grease to crack. Who would’ve thought eating ice could be so cool?

Chocolate reigned supreme as the evening came to an end. Chocolate in textures was so rich that it came with gold…paper. It was dense, creamy, and crunchy all in the same dessert. The chocolate donuts were actually freeze-dried coconut rounds dipped in a dark chocolate. These bad boys burst with flavor, literally. To conclude the evening, hands were waving farewell. And as a last surprise, under the hands were passionfruit marshmallows, a wonderful way to end the experience.

Was it worth it? Honestly, yes. It was worth the time, stress, money, everything. When will I ever be able to eat at elBulli? Never. But what Chef Achatz, Chef Beran, and the team at Next have done is the next best thing. With the blessing from the man himself, arguably the best new restaurant in the country has shown the evolution of modern cuisine. What’s even more impressive is that they’ll reconcept in a couple months. How many executive chefs/chef de cuisines can do that and maintain such a high standard? Very few. And that’s why I thank you for the experience, Chef Achatz and Chef Beran. See you guys soon.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.



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.