February 22, 2012
Frozen spheres of cheese. Ham-wrapped baguettes containing exactly nothing. An air-filled foam of carrot that still manages to taste like the most intense carrot you've ever eaten.
Part museum exhibit, part history retrospective, Next's latest menu, El Bulli, is a culinary retrospective focused on its namesake, the most famous restaurant in the world, its dishes re-created, and in some instances reinterpreted, by Grant Achatz, Dave Beran and the rest of Next's kitchen-wizard team.
Considering that Next made its debut in 2011 by re-creating the work of circa-1906 Escoffier, perhaps taking on Escoffier's modern equivalent, Ferran Adria, is a logical step. But El Bulli was regarded by many as the finest restaurant in the world; setting aside the skill and scholarship required to capture that dining experience, consider the ambition, the nerve, the confidence it takes just to make the attempt.
Very few of the people who make their way to Next will have also dined at Spain'sEl Bulli (which closed in 2011), myself included, which renders moot the question of whether Next's menu tastes just like El Bulli's. The question, rather, is how well Next continues the conversation El Bulli started, challenging diners' assumptions and raising food to the level of conceptual art.
There are 29 courses, though many of these are single-bite experiences, stretched out over some four hours of dining, and each of Next's tables is seated once, which partly explains the just-under-$500 tariff. Each dish comes from the El Bulli playbook; indeed, the menu lists each dish's catalog number on the El Bulli website, and the year in which the dish appeared.
Tables at El Bulli were graced, always, by a single red rose; in a nod to that tradition, each table at Next sits under a single rose, hung upside-down by wires so thin the roses appear to be suspended midair, a sort of Valentine's-Day-at-Hogwarts effect.
The visual surprises continue from there. After a rather straightforward flash-frozen caipirinha opener (the dish a nod to Adria's pioneering work in the use of liquid nitrogen), made vividly memorable by a burst of concentrated tarragon, a trio of courses hit the table, including cold trout roe improbably captured in a hot tempura-fried cocoon, and the "air baguette," a long baguette-shaped cracker, hollow on the inside but wrapped in carpaccio-thin slices of Iberico ham.
One course appears to be a green egg yolk (I might have paired it with the ham and started a Seussian theme), but instead is a barely jelled mix of fine olive oils, to be taken in a single, oysterlike slurp. This dish was born from pharmaceutical technology, which explains why it's delivered on a medicinal-dosage spoon.
Audience participation is sometimes required. Spanish cava accompanies at least eight courses, but at various times guests are given vials of Pineau des Charentes (a French aperitif) and Farigoule (a thyme-flavored liqueur) and, even zanier, eye-dropper bottles of orange bitters, to mix into the sparkling wine. A remarkable cauliflower couscous dish comes with a "sauce" of solidified aromatics and directions for mixing. A spice plate arrives in quiz form, a clock-face array of spices (a few grains of each) that guests are invited to identify from a list of possibilities. (When the humbling answer key arrives, it might be best not to look.)
The carrot air — incredibly light, astoundingly intense — is served in a curved glass bowl that originated in El Bulli itself, though Beran said that Next bought them from an Austrian collector. Next has but 19 of these dishes to handle 62 diners, so the dishes are washed and polished frequently. ("I live in fear," Beran says, "that one will get chipped.")
Among the heavier dishes (heavy being a relative term here), three dazzlers are the eel topped with bone marrow, served on an edible nasturtium leaf; coconut-filled cuttlefish "ravioli" over crisp, crunchy mung beans; and paper-thin mushroom carpaccio with tiny pieces of rabbit kidney.
For all the sleight-of-hand and perception challenges, the menu progresses rather traditionally: Cocktail, snacks, light dishes, heavier dishes, cheese, dessert. Of course, the cheese course is a frozen, party-balloon-sized sphere of Maytag blue cheese, and desserts include a composition of chocolate in five distinct textures and "doughnuts" that are molded freeze-dried coconut rounds dipped in bitter dark chocolate, one of many burst-in-your-mouth experiences.
The finale consists of inflated latex gloves atop curved-bottom bowls, the white hands waving goodbye as the bowls wobble. Inside exactly one of these contraptions are a few passion fruit marshmallows — a little sweet at the evening's conclusion, and one final surprise on a menu with an endless supply of them.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
953 W. Fulton Market; nextrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Price: Approximately $485 includingbeverages, tax and gratuity
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Prepaid tickets available online only
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valetparking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.