I This was our second time at NEXT. It was even better than the last. This time we found the nondescript door on our first try. This time we wore jeans . This time we were greeted by name and the adorable hostess, Ashley, led us to a table in the opposite corner from where we sat last time. We figured we would give you a different view of the dining room, she explained. Which prompted a tacit glance from my husband, as if to say: wow, they are good.
This time, we didn’t even try to play it cool…what’s the point?
We know how hard every patron in the restaurant worked to land a golden ticket.
II Our meal began with a wrapped gift. A present! The only instructions: do not shake the package & consume the contents in one closed-mouth bite. Inside: PB&J. Roasted peanuts, freeze dried pomegranate powder, tempura. An explosion. And with that taste, our joyful journey began!
It was, in a word, WONDERFUL (as in, full of wonder)
III The success of this menu, for me at least, was that it felt so deeply personal. Emotional touchstones were established through the food, service and servicewear Like the soup…(!) We were served soup in a bowl so big that those childhood feelings of being out of proportion with the world came flooding back. As I settled into my chair, I half expected my toes to not quite reach the floor. The ways they played with scale in the service pieces was positively brilliant. I peered wide-eyed over the side of the bowl, much in the same way 10 -year-old Emily would have and recognized the familiar garnishes of celery crescents and carrot “sticks” as something my mom could have made but but, there was a twist! The noodles were made of chicken. Read that again. Chicken Noodle, Soup (literally) It radiated warmth.
And then came Autumn, a “Walk in the Woods.” This course had a quiet intensity that made for one of the most visceral experiences of the night A vegetarian dish of miatake, polenta and broccoli served on a clear pane balanced over a hollowed out log, filled with burning embers. Smoke drifted out from the open ends of the log As the hay burned, the aromas changed, from hints of burning leaves to wafts of apples, cinnamon, orange peels.
The course evoked long forgotten memories of my family’s fall trips to Brown County. I remember playing hide and seek along the hiking trails with my sister and the way dad would lift us up so we could see over the counter at the small-town fudge shop. He always let us pick out a treat - Candy Apples for me.
Before Wednesday night, I hadn’t thought about those images in probably 20 years.
IV I was surprised the alcohol pairing were, for the most part, wines. I guess I had visions of jungle juice served in brightly colored plastic cups But my disappointment was fleeting- the wine pairings were spot on. And anything but stuffy… (They encouraged double-fisting at one point in the meal! Who am I to argue!) Domestic Pours from famliy owned vineyards. The sommelier spun tales of wines named after the maker’s children and wineries so scrappy, that the tasting room is wherever the owner decided to pour you a glass. I have said this before, but I firmly believe Achatz’s sommeliers are the best raconteurs in the city.
V Whoever was responsible for the evening’s playlist deserves a kiss on the face. Melodies of A-team & Fraggle Rock poked through the conversations Earning an approving nod from my music snob husband and inspiring smiles throughout the dining room.
VI The narrative of this menu was exceptional. There was mac n cheese, naturally. The creative team agreed this was a must-have course. But when planning the dish, there was no clear consensus on the accouterments to serve…everyone had their own favorite toppings: tomato, apple, that delicious crusty layer that bakes on top And so, they served the dish with a carousel of accompaniments ranging from powdered hot dog to ham-for-adults (in the form of a prosciutto/spinach wheel) lining the perimeter of the bowl.
There were also the stuffed brussel sprouts, served with an intentional cast-asideness, a nod to the scrunched-nose relationship that most of us had with that vegetable during our childhood. The flavor profile, however, would make even the most sprout-averse patrons wish for seconds. I went nuts over the pork belly sprout.
VII There were lunch boxes. Get out! Simon was visibly pleased to get the Knight Rider lunchbox…I was served Pigs in Space, which was alright but I was secretly hoping for the Cabbage Patch Kids box. Inside: a pound puppy thermos filled with spiked juice, a fresh apple fruit roll-up and a Truffle Oreo that I can’t stop thinking about. TRUFFLE OREOS, people! I have read that some diners find hand written notes in their lunch box. Our boxes did not include one. Mom must have forgotten :)
VIII I was leveled by the desserts! There was a campfire on our table…flaming logs of sweet potato that caramelized with the familiarity of a torched marshmallow (just the way I like them!) And then, cider donuts & foie gras frosting. Served with the beater, still on the plate. Licking the “foie-sting” off the beater was my favorite moment of the night. which is no surprise, I suppose, given that the happiest memories of my life are those I spent in the kitchen with my mom as she baked her famous chocolate chip cookies.
IX Thank you to Chef Dave & Chef Achatz
the ever-warm, Will Douillet & the entire Next team for sharing their childhood
…and inspiring us to reconnect with our own.
X Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be. - Shel Silverstein
Last night I went on a date Portishead at the Aragon. Simon got the tickets months ago, back before hazel could even lift her wobbly little melon head. We have been looking forward to it since. Funny how a “night out” becomes a much bigger deal when it requires some actual pre-planning (huge thanks to uncle Henry for volunteering his babysitting skills in exchange for an oven pizza! we owe you one dude.)
I rushed home from work, went through Z’s nightly ritual and after putting her down, I slipped into skinny jeans,a sleeveless black tank and the pair of leopard print flats I found on the clearance rack at Marshalls last winter but had yet to actually wear. I ran the straightener through my hair. Reapplied some eyeliner & gloss and just like that, I was ready to roll. Simon told me I looked pretty. Mission accomplished.
We were in the mood for a couple of beers, so we opted for a taxi. Our driver was sort of crazy. The backseat seat-belts came in handy. On the upside, Mr. Speedster got us to venue in no time flat Giving us ample time to track down $7 miller lites (wha?) served in plastic cups and stake out a spot with a clear sight line to the stage. We talked and talked as we waited for the main act to come on. There was so much to discuss… most notably Hazel’s second tooth that just came in and the mega-news that in January NEXT will be “covering” el Bulli. (chef achatz is a p.i.m.p.!)
Afterwards, we jumped on the red line to North/Clybourne Destination: Burger Bar. but the kitchen was closed (making us wonder if “Bar” would be a more appropriate name for the place) So we strolled… Past a pop-up memorial for Steve Jobs And through the streets of Old Town, soaking up the last few hours of Chicago’s Indian summer
We walked (blocks or miles, I can’t be sure) until the neon green wall of Elly’s diner caught our eye. We went in and ordered some din & 2 slices of your “Pie of the Day” please. Don’t tell us the flavor…just bring it out. Think of it as a pastry grab-bag. Or something.
For a few hours last night I got to be a girlfriend out on a pretty great date with my baby daddy.