Ooh, I’m way behind. I blame the airlines. And Design Star on HGTV. And my cousin George, who was in town for all of six days and managed to completely redecorate my apartment, rearrange my kitchen cabinets, and fix anything and everything that has bugged me since I moved into this damn place nearly exactly a year ago. (Who knew the top rack of my dishwasher was adjustable?) Exhausting, all of it.
I tried to entertain George food-wise, but here’s what I learned: he’s a picky eater. He likes Red Bull. And cookies. And pretzels. And could happily survive on all that for breakfast and lunch. I think he also likes Chinese food, but I denied him his second take-out in the hopes I could convince him to go to Ruxbin. Denied. More in a bit.
Paris Club, River North: I made reservations ages in advance at Paris Club, and the charcuterie — for two — was pretty damn amazing. However, it should have been labeled “For two very large Americans” or “For four plus-sized French people” because it was really way too much food even for our table of four to do justice to. Our server was fantastic: I spilled a glass of wine all over myself (Long Island girl, talking with her hands) and he brought me a replacement glass, no problem.The atmosphere at Paris Club is very lively, but in a “What? What did you say??” kind of way. Finally to the food…my ahi tuna main dish was pretty disappointing. Too salty.
I’ve been thinking about salt lately and have to list it out as one of the main differences between eating in the US vs. eating in the UK. Everything in the US is sooo disgustingly salty. And we wonder why we have high blood pressure. (I’d also say it’s because we don’t walk enough.)
Randomly…I went to use the ladies’ room at Paris Club on the main floor and there were six girls in line. For one toilet. Good times. About 10 minutes in, a staff member told us that there were more loos downstairs, but by that point I was next. I ended up using the men’s room, and you know what that’s like. The Verdict: Out. There are things I want to like, but that salty main dish was just too much. Oh, and my cousin George would like you to know that he and my friend Matt were two of the only men in the dining room at 8 pm on a Friday night. Odd.
Gilt Bar, River North: I went to Gilt Bar nearly exactly a year ago when I first arrived back in Chicago, but for some reason never wrote about it. Although I would like it better if I could see my hand in front of my face while I’m eating (flashlight, anyone?), I do love the food here. My truffle pasta was the dish that kept getting passed around the table. I also really like the music at Gilt Bar; they played The XX, only one of my fave albums of 2010. (OK, OK it came out in 2009 but still.) Great cocktail bar downstairs…all very chill and mellow.
Feast, Bucktown: I asked my cousin what he likes to eat for breakfast. He says — and I quote –“I’m not really a breakfast person.” You can guess where this is going. Every morning, I would wake up, make breakfast for myself, eat it, and then he would say, “What are we doing for breakfast?” Ahem. As we were up abysmally early on Saturday, so I thought we’d try for The Bongo Room. Let me point out two things. It was Saturday — not Sunday — and we arrived at 9:15 am. 9:15! They had been open 15 minutes!! And told us that we’d have to wait 30 to 45 minutes for a table. 30 to 45 minutes! So we went to Feast instead and had some pretty luscious peach and blueberry challah French toast. This place totally needs a lick of paint and our table was too wobbly for its own good, but those are minor quibbles in the face of a breakfast this nice.
The Boundary, Wicker Park: George wanted to eat outside, so I pulled up along Division and suggested Prasino. He ix-nayed it because it “looked too healthy” so instead we made our way to The Boundary, where we watched the cars go by as we snacked on some burgers and tomato soup. Everything was fine here. PS Did you know there are no parking meters on the main stretch of Division? (OK, not meters but that green machine ticket-y thing. You know what I’m talking about.)
Pizza Metro II: I wanted to go to Ruxbin. George wanted Chinese. We compromised on pizza because I wanted a salad. Hah! This place is more a take-out place than anything else. We brought home our 1/2 potato (him) and 1/2 pepperoni (me) pizza, along with my salad, and enjoyed it in front of HGTV. George said, “Yeah, this wasn’t really that great.” I would concur. Fine, nothing special. Could have used a better more bubbly crust.
I have more coming up…Blue 13, GT Fish & Oyster, Prasino, and um I decided to go to London for the weekend last week so there’s that too. Brace yourselves.
Christina & Kent are having twins on Thursday. And Kent has two broken elbows. Cracks me up every time I think about it. Yes, I’m a bad friend. Worst part? Kent broke his own elbows! Riding his bike into work one morning. But he’s feeling better and as they’re relishing these last few days of freedom, we met up for a leisurely dinner at Aquitaine, the restaurant that will forever be know after this as The Sweat Locker.
Because Aquitaine was HOT. It was okay at first, with a cook trickle of air conditioning making it up to our table at the front of the restaurant on occasion. But around the time our starters arrived, a table of four arrived and asked that the restaurant open the doors to the street. The staff (and I believe the chef herself) had already starting opening the doors when they turned and asked us, “You don’t mind if we open these, do you? It should cool things down a bit.” Well, firstly…we did mind. But the horse was already out of the barn. Secondly, anyone who has studied anything remotely related to science will know that when it is 95 degrees outside and you open a window, it will become warmer inside.
Christina and I split an extremely generous “petit” tart to start. I’m afraid to ask what the grande looks like, because this was the size of a baby’s head. Made of portabella mushroom, sundried tomato, and goat cheese, it was badly in need of seasoning. Better was the mustard porkchop. That was some porky pig because this too was a very generous serving. (At $24, I’m glad it was.) I did not do this dish justice, even though it was a pretty excellent juicy pork chop and I am a fan of all things mustard. The seasonal vegetables seemed a bit catering college to me, but really they were fine. We were all so hot though that we asked for the check as soon as my plate was cleared and headed across the street to Dairy Queen to cool down.
The Verdict: The Sweat Locker — I mean Aquitaine — is probably that sort of restaurant that lots of locals like. So if you live in the neighborhood, maybe you should go there. When it’s not too hot outside.
The Background: Much like I was set up on “friend dates” when I first moved to London, I’ve found that repatriation comes with its own set of friend dates. My friend Anna (who lives in London) has a friend Christa (who lives in France). I’ve met Christa a few times, and she’s every bit as awesome as her name, even if it is spelled with a CH. Christa, knowing my love of all things food, introduced me to Hope (who lives in Chicago) over Facebook a few months ago. And so Hope and I met up at Bistronomic on a chilly night in March, where funnily enough, the neighborhood was crawling with Brits due to some sort of even at the Bentley showroom. (American men more often than not wear t-shirts under their dress shirts. British men rarely do. Fact.)
The Entrance: I’m given a seat at the bar while I wait for Hope and I try valiantly to catch the eye of the bartender. She is not of the multi-functioning sort because really, she avoids any and all eye contact with anyone until she finishes making the one drink she’s working on. Then she looks up, takes another order, and then proceeds to look down forever while cutting up this and adding that. Finally it’s my turn and I opt for a Kir Royale, which arrives a little on the sweet side, but there are worse things.
Hope arrives and we peruse the menu while we try to make ourselves heard over the din. That’s one thing I still can’t used to about popular American restaurants. They are so LOUD. And I don’t think it’s only because we’re loud people. I think our ceilings are higher, we use fewer tablecloths, and we are short on soft furnishings.
Up came our homemade country pate, which I thought was very nice and would have made a lovely lunch. Thick and meaty with some good spices in there. One complaint…someone had a heavy hand with the black pepper.
The beet salad lacked a little on the presentation side, but I again thought it would make a nice lunch. There were supposed to be yellow beets in here, but you could barely recognize them, so covered they were in red. Loved the hazelnut vinaigrette. This dish gave me ideas for things to cook for myself. That’s a good thing. I believe Hope felt it was all a little pedestrian, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth and will wait for her thoughts, which I have solicited via Facebook.
Oxtail ravioli just looked so…messy. It was nice, but the oxtail was lost here amongst all the celery root puree. This could have been bolder.
And here’s where we messed up, and where you could tell we were American and not raised in close proximity to a French-speaking country. We ordered the house tartine. And out this came. An open-faced sandwich. So not what we were expecting, but after much Google-ing, it’s exactly what we should have been expecting. Lunch food, again.
The Service: A bit absent-minded. He totally forgot my glass of wine. So he said he’d comp it. I ordered a second glass at some point. When we got the bill, he had comped both glasses. Who am I to complain?
The Verdict: I would go back here for lunch. Dinner is just too dark and loud and the menu seems better suited to lunch. (That being said, we didn’t hit the large plates, which are more dinner-like.)
I’m not much of a restaurant blogger. I am not going to wax philosophical about the food at Next or post twenty-million photos. I will leave that to the rest of the lot. (That being said, you can see my pix over here on Facebook. Become a fan while you’re at it.)
I thought instead I’d try to write about the things no one tells you about Next. (Or at least…the things no one has told you until now.)
In no particular order really, but roughly in service order with some background thrown in first for good measure…
Some people want to know how I got a table. Here’s all I can tell you. When I knew I was leaving London for good after six-plus years, I signed up for any and all Chicago food-related newsletters. At some point last summer, I got something that told me to sign up for Next’s mailing list. My guess is that I did this in July or August, so relatively early on, and according to Next’s Facebook page — where, by the way, they’re doing an awesome job of responding to the madness — that put me within the first 6,000 sign-ups. I actually entered the Web site on Wednesday afternoon around 4 pm with the intention of booking a table in early May, but when I saw April 8th was available too, I jumped on both. (Yes. I have another table next month. And no, you can’t have it! I also have an Alinea booking this month. Do you hate me?)
OK…now on to those observations…
There seems to be a lot of concern from front-of-house regarding how you arrived at the restaurant. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer this question. “Um…I walked? From The Publican? Where I had a Weissbier and some pork rinds before dinner with my photographer friend David?” (BTW, Dave is very very good if you ever want some photos taken of your kids, etc.) The front-of-house team commented that it can be very difficult to get a taxi home, but I knew we were next to Lumen, and the cool kids would be arriving as we were departing. This would make for many taxis. I was right.
The chef is Dave Beran. He’s on Twitter over here and Facebook over here. Is it me or does he seems to have gotten lost in all this ticketing excitement?
There’s A LOT of front-of-house. I lost track of how many people arrived at our table. Personally, I like to have just one or two servers. But I can understand that at this level, they’ve got different people expressing different things. (Expressing as in delivering. Not reciting poetry.)
Most tables seemed to get grougeres at the beginning of service. We did not. This didn’t bother me, but it bothered one of my dining companions A LOT. I rationalized this by assuming that because we were the second table seated last night, there was no reason to not just get started with service. They didn’t need to pace us out with cheese puffs. (My other theory is that maybe they knew about the pre-game pork rinds.)
Bottled sparkling water = Badoit. I always go with Badoit in France because it’s cheap. Not so here. Part of me would prefer that they make their own sparkling. I need to go back and figure out how much the water service was per person. Why do I think it was $22 per person? If so, that’s crazy pants for Badoit, no matter how unlimited it is. (Then again, I suppose it’s imported. Need to check the retail price.)
If you express enough curiosity, apparently they will bring out the contraption that cuts the tops off the eggs that arrive on your platter of deliciousness that arrives at the beginning of the meal. I missed this completely, but the rest of my table swears the table next to us got a demo of the thing. We asked a lot of questions about how this was done and the handsome gentleman with the dark hair — Yes, server crush. Is he single? — mentioned lasers and diamonds. (Although it may have been me that mentioned the lasers first.)
Staff are very concerned about crumbs. By the end, I was consciously trying really hard not to leave any crumbs behind because I didn’t want them to sweep the table again.
Service was a little quirky. They were either super official and recited their little bits very officially, or they were very jokey.
Suprêmes de Poisson is spelled incorrectly on their Web site. It’s Suprêmes de PoUisson. In case you’re French and/or speak French and are a little perturbed when chicken arrives instead of fish. (Fish will arrive too. But that’s a different dish and will arrive before the baby chicken.) Just for the record, I don’t speak French. I do, however, read “Menu-French.” Aside: A word to the wise if you ever visit Paris…don’t get distracted by Veau when you see Foie de Veau on a menu in France. Uggh. (You would have thought with my love of foie gras that I would have known this. But no. Learned the hard way on that one.)
Staff will bring you a new napkin — not just refold the old one — every time you leave the table. My friend Meredith has a small bladder. She got a little embarrassed about this and wondered if they were thinking, “Jeez, hasn’t that girl gone through enough napkins already?”
Meredith says the light fixtures remind her of shower heads. I can see why she’d say that. Looking up, I found the ironwork running across the ceiling to be a bit steampunk. I like steampunk.
The staff is aware of the silverware. I was not paying full attention (sorry — I really should get worked up for ADD) but at some point towards the end of service, a server politely inquired about a tiny spoon that one of my dining companions was holding on to.
There’s something really nice about not having to worry about a bill at the end of the evening. That being said, when you don’t have to worry about paying the bill at the end of the meal, one of your friends can easily forget to pay you the $188 bucks she owes you for dinner.
The table lighting is very intense. I was glad I had moisturized. I was also glad I was not dining with a member of the opposite sex, because he really would have been able to accurately guess my age. The lighting makes for very good photography though, so that’s nice.
It got really really warm in the restaurant by the end of our booking. I went to use the ladies’ around dessert and it was lovely to enter the cool, dark stairwell. Not so lovely to re-enter the stifling restaurant afterwards. The staff admitted it was a little warm and we felt a brief puff of A/C when they acted on our feedback, but it quickly dissipated.
These are amazing. Salted caramels. Eat them upside down to get the salt first.
Lastly…ask nicely and MAYBE you shall receive. (Luckily we asked before the spoon incident.) Thank you, Next. You’re lovely. I will happily volunteer to be your unpaid intern this week if you need help keeping up with the deluge of emails, etc. Because you’re worth it. xx