Tuesday, April 9, 2013

One Night in Chicago - "The Hunt" Dinner at Next Restaurant and Drinks at the Aviary

My interest in wine has grown over the years as I taste and enjoy new wines and as I learn more about the vast number of wines across the world, and the process that transforms grapes into something to be experienced and savored.  More so than just learning and trying more wine, my love for wine has been accentuated by food and wine pairings I've been lucky enough to enjoy.  I've worked on my cooking skills over the years so my wife and I can enjoy food and wine pairings more often, but one of my favorite experiences is a well thought out and executed restaurant dinner with wine pairings.  

One of my bucket list restaurants that I have now checked off the list is Next Restaurant in Chicago. If you have not heard of Next Restaurant before - you should get familiar with it, and do whatever it takes to experience it. Next Restaurant is literally the "next" restaurant by Chef Grant Achatz.  The Chef's first restaurant is called Alinea (the word for the punctuation symbol for a new paragraph: ), also in Chicago.  I was lucky enough to go to Alinea for my Birthday last year - and it was the meal of a lifetime.

You may have heard Chef Achatz in the news back in 2007.  At the time Achatz had been named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine, received the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year award, and Alinea had been open since 2005. In an unimaginably devastating event for anyone, but especially a chef, Chef Achatz was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer.  Doctor's recommended removal of three-fourths of his tongue, but Chef Achatz instead opted for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. After give grueling months of treatment, Chef Achatz was declared cancer free. 

Chef Achatz's memoir, written with his business partner Nick Kokonas is called Life, on the Line - a title cleverly combining the life of cooking in a restaurant "on the line", and the life threatening illness that he faced. A fantastic book that not only chronicles his bout with cancer, but delves into the creative process that brought about the fantastic Alinea restaurant as well as Next. One of the more memorable parts of the book was a young cook finding money to travel to internationally famous five star restaurants in Europe hoping to experience the best the restaurant world has to offer - but being thoroughly underwhelmed.  The chef then describes a chance meal at a local family restaurant during this trip to Europe, where he experienced one of the best meals he'd ever ate.  I loved the message from this story that good food is about great ingredients, great technique, and love of cooking - not pomp and circumstance.

Having had the meal of a lifetime at Alinea, and being thoroughly touched by the Life, on the Line memoir - I was energized to do whatever it took to get tickets to Next - yep that's right - tickets!  One of the goals of Next was to provide a more affordable dining experience, so it uses a tickets instead of reservations - sort of like a concert. 

Here is how it is explained on the Next Restaurant Website:
 "Unlike an a la carte restaurant with many walk-in customers and dozens of menu items, Next is creating a truly unique dining experience and doing so at an amazing price. By eliminating no-shows, requiring pre-payment, and varying the price by time and day we are able to create a predictable and steady flow of patrons allowing us to offer a great deal more than would otherwise be possible at these prices."

The other amazing aspect of the restaurant is that there is only one tasting menu offered, but the entire concept of the menu changes three times per year.  For the 2013 the menus will be:
  • January thru April - The Hunt
  • May thru August - Vegan
  • September thru December -  a Bocuse D'or Competition Menu
Our dinner at Next was incredible - impressive and did not disappoint in any way.  I am not going to go course by course and describe everything we had, but will instead share a bit about the things we enjoyed most - and some of the biggest surprises.  If you get the chance to enjoy the Hunt before the end of April I cannot recommend it enough.

The Hype we Watched Daily Before our Trip

Our Arrival

We had been to the Meat Packing District neighborhood of Chicago back in 2007 to have dinner at Moto restaurant.  At the time I believe Moto was about the only restaurant in the area - but now it includes iNG, a new restaurant from our friends at Moto, plus Next and the Aviary (the kicked up cocktail bar partner to Next).  Upon our arrival at Next (a little trouble finding as the signage is minimal, and we actually went to the Aviary first...oops!!!) we were a little early but a great table was available anyway. In a nice touch I hadn't seen before, the host asked how we arrived (by taxi), so they could have a taxi ready for us when we were done.  We checked our jackets and headed on in to a lively dining room where people were clearly having a good time. In contrast, when we visited Alinea it was a bit stuffier, so we had to work a bit to liven things up. Here at Next, the good times were already rolling, so we just joined in.

We were seated a great corner table that had a table runner made of some sort of animal skin, along with  a wax and feather sealed invitation to introduce us to the Hunt.

Our Welcome Invitation to The Hunt

Meat Your Next Course

One of my favorite things in the whole wide world is to visit a nice restaurant for a great meal served with a nicely paired beverage (adult whenever feasible).  When a restaurant delivers this with a sprinkle of humor as one of the ingredients, it is in my mind the best thing ever.  One of the early courses of our dinner was a selection of meats from hunted animals including rabbit paté, elk jerky, boar sausage, deer heart tartare, and a blood sausage - each served up on a cross section of an animal's horn, placed upon a section of a tree branch.  The name of the course was - Charcu-Tree - I love it!!!  The humor continued with the beverage pairing - instead of wine the course was paired with an Armagnac served in a miniature flask.

The Charcu-Tree and a Flask

What's Up Doc?

I know vegetables are good for me, and I do eat them as much as I can. However if you told me that a dish consisting only of a cellar aged carrot, onion, carrot greens and a carrot juice sauce, served on a plate with a vacant spot just calling out for a big 'ole New York Strip - was so incredibly flavorful and delicious I would never have believed it.  The intensity of flavor coaxed out of Bugs Bunny's favorite snack by burying them in saw dust to dry slightly and sweeten, and then roasting them - truly remarkable. 
Cellar Aged Carrots & Onions

This dish was served with a dry Tokaji (pronounced toe-kye) from Hungary, best know for very sweet dessert wine of the same name.  It was a 2010 Kiralyudvar Furmint Sec Tokaji - and went very nicely with the sweetness and intensity of the carrots.

2010 Kiralyudvar Furmint Sec Tokaji

Squab - Squab (any Two and a Half Men Fans - the Charlie Sheen era??)

The humor included in the design of The Hunt continued when the next course included candelabras brought to each table, and the dinnerware switched from rustic to elegant gold rimmed dishes.  This treatment was given to a course that featured basically an entire squab. The leg (food attached), breast, and head (beak attached) with breadcrumb adorned brain, plus the carcass of the bird served on a separate plate for us to share. A very elegant presentation for the course where you needed to get messiest - using your fingers to get to all of the delicious morsels.

Pressed Squab Leg, Breast, and Brain

The Rest of the Bird

The Aftermath - Nothing Goes to Waste!

The squab course was paired with the highlight of the wine pairing - a 2009 Pierre Damoy Gevrey-Chambertin Burgundy!  Delicious, fruity, and earthy it paired exquisitely with the squab.  Another awesome feature of this meal was that partial bottles were left at your table if you wanted to enjoy some more of the wine with your meal - in contrast to many dinners where you get just a few ounces in your glass. Needless to say, this bottle went back empty!

2009 Pierre Damoy Gevrey-Chambertin Burgundy

Since the candelabra was out - might as well take an elegant portrait of the wife!  The pose ended up looking a bit like a watch advertisement - but I still like it! 

Stylin' at Next - What Time is it By the Way??

Say What?
As we switched over to the dessert courses, the first was served on nothing by a half of a bone - looking just like bone marrow. It was however a not too sweet Creme Brûlée, and it was fantastic. This course was served with the sweet version of Tokaji - a 2005 Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos.

Marrow Brûlée

Inventive to the Last Drop
You know it is a good dinner when even the coffee is memorable.  This baby was served with steamed buttermilk. A first for me, and Starbucks should add this as an option immediately!!! 

Coffee with Steamed Buttermilk

The Night Keeps Going at the Aviary

One small downside of the Next concept, there is no facility for anything after dinner. You get the menu and you are done.  My wife had mentioned being interested to come back and visiting the Aviary - the Grant Achatz cocktail bar next door to Next.  Two minutes later our waiter appeared to tell us they had a table waiting for us at the Aviary - we were led through a side door that connects to the Aviary to a cozy spot for two.  The excellent service we experienced at Next continued at the Aviary as I had to ask the server for my jacket so I could get my reading glasses. Instead of bringing the jacket, my glasses were promptly brought to me. Not a big deal I guess, but the little things are the one that make the difference between a great dinner, and a fantastically awesome dinner.

The Aviary combines the creativeness of Next to cocktails. They even have a cocktail tasting menu designed as a nod to The Hunt menu.  There were tons of drinks available, but my wife and I both opted for a three course Prix Fixe cocktail menu.  The pictures from this part of the night were not very successful, but I did get a couple to come out.

First Course:

  • My Drink: Yuzu, with cardamom, mint, winter citrus, scotch. Nice and acidic, a great "starter".
  • My Wife's Drink: Pear Shrub, with apple cider vinegar, thyme, aquavit. Served in a small bottle inside a brown paper bag - awesome!

Second Course:

  • My Drink:  Infernal Imagery, with barolo, maurin quina, rhum. Delivered in a closed small wood chest, which held smoke that was flavoring the drink.  I felt very Pirate!
  • My Wife's Drink: Margarita, with cranberry ice cubes, cider, winter spice, tequila.

Infernal Imagery and Margarita

Third Course:

  • My Drink: Root Beer, with sassafras caramel, angostura, fernet, rum. Simply wonderful!
  • My Wife's Drink: Hot Chocolate, with malt, banana, cinnamon, bourbon. 

Root Beer and Hot Chocolate

Go Here!!!
Overall I loved everything about Next and the Aviary, and I know we will be going back. We may skip the upcoming Vegan menu (though I am intrigued how much I would enjoy a meat free dinner prepared by such expert hands), but I will be trying to get tickets for one of the upcoming menus for sure!

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