I was debating how to do this, how to tell you about the El Bulli kitchen table menu at Next which I enjoyed (understatement) on Friday night. I mean, sure, I took a lot of pictures. (They are all over here on my Facebook fan page.) I even shot some video, and thanks to Roam & Home’s suggestion, I even pepped the videos up a bit using the 8mm app on the iPhone. (See Maytag Blue Egg, Mint Pond, and the literal goodbye of the Marshmallow Gloves, all over on YouTube.) I had to remove the sound from the videos because in one, I’m singing Tainted Love (best song ever), and in another, I sound like I’m missing a few points off my IQ when I ask where the cheese is. (The egg is MADE of cheese. ) I blame the cava. And the wine. And the sake. And the cider. And, uh, the sherry and the beer.
I had favorite dishes, like the black sesame spongecake with miso, eaten with your hands. You can make this yourself in the microwave, our tremendously awesome server Bobby told us. (My friend Shinny has been making cake in her rice cooker a lot lately. I like these non-traditional baking methods.) Always a sucker for unagi, I loved the nasturtium with eel, bone marrow and cucumber. I don’t know if it’s the sourcing or the preparation, but this was the best bit of eel I’ve ever had.
I loved the surprise of the carrot foam. It was like eating nothing, but eating something that was very, well, something. I wanted to bathe in the liquid from the suquet of prawns; we were licking it off the plate with our fingers before they took the plates away. And I wanted to — get this — try to reproduce the potato tortilla at home, so comforting and silky it was. A mouth feel like no other.
I loved the fun of the spice quiz and the spooky but whimsical goodbye of the marshmallow gloves. I loved that Next lets you buy the beer from the meal — a special brew from Half Acre flavored with beets and oranges — so I bought two bottles at the end for $15 each. (See the reviews on Beer Advocate.)
I also loved that I was invited to the kitchen table by Karen of Roam & Home, someone I’d never met before but whose aesthetic I’ve always very much admired. (I am borrowing her idea of posting the menu. I was going to post all the photos, but there are too many. An album on Facebook is easier.) I am forever grateful to you, Karen. And to Bob too. Hi Bob!!
Being low on cash at the end of the night (five hours after we began) and feeling in the mood for another special treat, I ordered myself an Uber cab – they charge my credit card directly for everything and no cash changes hands — and I headed home in that dark silence of classical music and leather.
The music here is a bit more intense than my Uber “cab,” but here’s the official Next video for El Bulli if you are interested:
I’m feeling very with it these days. Although I may be lagging on the blogging front, I’m not lagging so much on the dining front — when I’m in town, that is. Here’s where I’ve been eating.
Tavernita and it’s little neighbor, Pinxtos, 151 W Erie. Tavernita is one of those huge, sceney River North spaces. I would not attempt a place like this on a weekend, so my friend Eileen and I dropped in here min-week. Our servers were many AND overbearing. Can you just let a girl eat, please? But the food was GREAT. I especially liked the escalavida (eggplant, red peppers, hazelnut romesco, goat cheese) and “greg’s meatballs” (wagyu beef pork and more hazelnut romesco.) Not a place to take your parents unless they are the hip and happening sort, but fun nonetheless. I also really like the bar, particularly if you can get a stool. The Verdict: Fun. Good fun. And good food.
Publican Quality Meats, 825 W Fulton Market. Dropped in for lunch one weekend afternoon and had a GREAT sandwich. I opted for “Better than a Gyro” which boasted braised pork belly, raita, escalivada, pea shoots, and calabrian chili orange vinagrette on griddled flatbread. The only let down were the homemade potato chips served with, which were oddly tasteless. Service is hip and sweet. And the price is right. (The $10 sandwich.) More of a butchershop and cafe really–definitely not a place to linger–but still cool. Ask for a tour of the prep are and meat locker downstairs. The Verdict: Great for lunch.
Blackbird, 619 W Randolph Street. My colleague and I were invited to a special networking dinner here and I was really excited about things because I think the last time I was at Blackbird was like 2006? But oh so bitterly disappointed. (Bad of me, as a guest, to complain.) Portions were eensy-weensey (and you know I’m a fan of normal sized portions) and nothing really clicked. I still want to find out what was in the butternut squash soup because it reeked of alcohol, which wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the menu. The Verdict: If you don’t go out to eat a lot, you’ll be fine here.
Zocalo, 358 W Ontario. My friend Christina and I dropped in here one weekend and were pleasantly surprised. Firstly, I loved the decor–all Mexican art and flowers and Frida Kahlo. Secondly, our server was awesome; I was mesmerized by his deep, deep voice. Thirdly, the food was pretty darn good. I wasn’t too experimental–I just had mixed tacos–but they were pretty awesome tacos. Also enough food for three people, but the price was right. The Verdict: Fun. I’d go back here, especially for one of their private rooms.
Sultan’s Market, 2057 W North Avenue. I woke up one morning, dreaming of falafel. So I went to Sultan’s, a Middle Eastern deli in Chicago’s Bucktown. And it was fine. Huge portions. It was dark though, and not in a good way. Needs an interior decorator. And a scrub brush. Too much going on. The Verdict: Meh.
Coming up…too many places to mention, really. Plus, I go back to Brazil.
Childhood was tough. I mean, both at the time back in the 1980s AND last night.
When they put that deconstructed hamburger in front of me, I got a little ill. And the truffled Oreo? I can still smell it on me. The “foei”sting sounded like a great idea on paper, but once I got to the end of the meal, the idea of eating foei-anything with donuts had my stomach doing flips. Everything seemed too salty or too sweet — except for the salad, which I definitely would not have eaten as a child.
Damn if I didn’t feel reprimanded more than once at the dinner table too. At the end of the meal, I picked up the small glass that came with our ueber sweet hot chocolate and tried to guess what it was. Our server — who hadn’t finished serving our table and hadn’t had a chance to give his spiel yet — looked over at me and announced, “That’s my job.” I guess you could tell from the look on my face that I wasn’t too thrilled with not being allowed to just smell my drink before the spiel, because the whole episode got us the shortest description of the hot chocolate and side drink ever before our handsome server fled. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe I was just cranky.
Another moment early on, I was accidentally delivered a glass of wine, when I had gone for the non-alcoholic pairings. (Yes. That’s not a lie.) The wine had already been poured, It was in front of me. I told the server that I had ordered the non-alcoholic pairings, but that I did sort of want one glass, and maybe he could just leave that one as long as it was already poured? He swooped back down to the table, announced “No” quite loudly, grabbed the glass of wine, and fled. I know; I didn’t order the wine in the first place. But the vehemence of his response and the quickness with which the wine disappeared was just so odd.
Ah, and at one point, we sat there for no joke 20+ minutes between courses, with no food. (Before the mac & cheese.) An odd phenomenon for a room and a staff that has been so well-tuned on my three previous visits. (There also was more than one moment where the staff would arrive with our dishes, hover behind our table, and then return to the kitchen for some reason or another. There was one pickle episode in particular.)
And all I wanted to know was how much our food tickets cost so I could tell my friend David how much he owed, but just like Thailand, this seemed to take a Ph.D. in calculus to figure out. (When you buy your Next tickets, your receipt only states the total. If, like me, you have been clicking on time slots unsuccessfully for 20+ minutes, you quickly forget how much your tickets were. If my tickets were $814.70 in total, how much did my friend David owe, who had the wine pairings? I purchased two wine pairings and two non-alcoholic pairings.)
I know I know…whine whine whine. Who am I? NOBODY. You’ll do well to remember that. For me, Childhood was a bit too deconstructed. Maybe I prefer to remember it intact. Maybe I want a real Oreo and not a truffled one. Maybe I never ate beef jerky as a child. (I didn’t. Only people who shopped at gas stations ate jerky.) And maybe I’ve ALWAYS hated fruit roll-ups. (I have.) Everyone’s childhood is different, I think.
I am writing this from bed right now where I really do want to yell, “Mom, I don’t feel good!” and have her bring me some ginger ale and my Richie Rich comic books. As a child, I wasn’t really allowed to eat sweet things. And now my stomach is churning. Maybe I’m some point, I’ll camp out on the couch to watch an all day Little House on the Prairie marathon. I always wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder.
P.S. Lest you think I am a terrible person, I did like the fish-n-chips and the mac & cheese.
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
But here’s the problem. I’m tired. And full. And need a nap. A long one. Big time. #Jetslag. So you will have to wait for the rest of my thoughts and photos later today. (It is, after all, after midnight as I write this.) I have, however, started uploading photos to my Facebook fan page over here for those of you who are wondering why I’m banging on about grammar when I should be talking about THE DUCK.
The Background: I want so bad to love The Publican. Firstly, my friend Dave raves about it. Secondly, it bills itself as a beer-focused restaurant with a menu inspired by simple farmhouse fare. For someone like me, there’s not much not to like about that statement.
And I think I do like The Publican. Really, I do think I like it. But it’s one of those restaurants that I’ll need a second go at before I can say for sure. This was mainly because on the night that I was visiting, there was a group of radiologists standing in the middle of the restaurant. I suppose this is where The Publican hosts their groups. It was distracting. And loud. And there were a lot of them. Maybe I’m just getting old. Can’t I just eat in peace?
We started out with an order of highly addictive spicy pork rinds. The consistency was less rind than Muncho. (For my non-US readers, Muncho is a brand of American potato chip, known for it’s lightness and un-potato-ness.) I had to wonder what these were made of…the pork flavoring was there but it wasn’t very forward. They were a tiny bit spicy, but not overly so. They were, more generally, puffy party snacks. We cleared them out in minutes.
Next came the trio of hams, which was delightful enough but I always wish that they’d leave me some signs because I can never remember which is what. One of the hams had a bit of smokiness to it. That was my preference.
Fried clams turned into my favorite dish of the night. Probably because of the dried lemon slices. And the artichokes. I’m wondering now if this was a special because I don’t see it on the online menu. (Perhaps their menu changes daily. Not sure.) A very light dish, for something that had been thrown in the deep fryer.
Our server heartily recommended the bollito misto, but for me, there was just too much going on in this dish. Turkey. Sausage. Pork. Veal maybe even? I’ve since researched bollito misto and understand it to be exactly this…a mash-up of different meats simmered and served together. It’s just not for me.
The pork shank–what little I had of it–was lovely. The pork itself was nice and crusty and crisp on the outside, yet supremely tender inside once we dug in. One of my colleagues has a love of all things pork and unfortunately for me, the rest of this dish disappeared before I had a chance to investigate it thoroughly.
The Verdict: Like I said, I want to like The Publican. The room puts me off a little bit though, based on my one experience. And it’s hard for me to give a verdict when I feel like all I had were some pork crisps, some fried clams, and some ham. (I just couldn’t get into the bollito misto and only had a small bite of the pork shank.) Everything I had was nice enough. Really must go back for second visit to determine for sure. So on the fence!