After Chicago Steak, the very traditional winter menu at Next, Dave Beran is throwing tradition out the window.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that we're predicting the future of Chinese cuisine or changing or elevating it, but it's moreso a case of us not wanting to be bound by tradition," he says of the new Chinese Modern menu. "I'm not Chinese, chef [Achatz] is not Chinese. We had 16 weeks to come up with a menu and to say we're doing something traditional and classic would be foolish. Instead, calling it 'modern' offered the freedom to look at as many different styles as we wanted."
We recently caught up with Beran (who just won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes) and wine director/GM John Schafer to talk about the new menu. Here are seven more things to know about Next: Chinese Modern.
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1. The menu fills a fine-dining Chinese gap.
"Nick [Kokonas] picked all the menus this year and he was really interested in Chinese for a couple reasons," Beran says. "First, we've had fun doing Asian menus so far—Kaiseki [Kyoto] was one of my favorites. And as we looked around the city, there aren't, as far as I know, any really fine-dining restaurants with a Chinese tasting menu. There's Shanghai Terrace and there are great restaurants in Chinatown, like Phoenix and Lao Szechuan, but none are fine dining, at least from my perspective. So it's something that's a lot of fun for us and there's no point of comparison."
2. The menu won't focus on one type of Chinese food.
"We're hitting six different styles of Chinese cuisine," Beran says. "There's Sichuan influence here, Muslim there. There's nothing that's truly wed to any particular style."
For instance, one of the dishes is a Muslim skate wing. "Normally, you see Muslim or cumin lamb, but you rarely find it with seafood," Beran explains. "So it's fun to serve it that way, and it's how we're departing from tradition."
3. There are 17 different bites spread out over 11 courses.
"Two times, we'll drop off three single bites," Beran says.
Courses include a play on ba si, a traditional dessert that translates to "pulling thread."
"It's fried potatoes and taro root tossed in caramel," Beran says. "It's served hot with ice water, so you pick it up and dip it in ice water and the sugar solidifies. It's like a hot, crunchy potato. We're doing sweet and sour sweetbreads like that."
Plus, they "played a lot with different kinds of wrappers."
"We're doing steamed buns, but there's no dough there," Beran says. "One is a liquid-filled pork mousse bite."
4. The research process included trips to New York and California, plus staging in Chicago.
"My sous chef is good friends with the owners of Phoenix, so we talked to them quite a bit," Beran says. "I ended up staging there a couple times."
Beran, who hasn't been to China, traveled to Flushing, New York, and San Gabriel Valley in California, two areas with rich Chinese heritage, to eat his way through Chinese restaurants.
5. But Beran didn't want to be "influenced" by what others are doing.
After traveling and staging, he "put the brakes on it."
"I wanted to come in with an understanding of product and flavors but not to be influenced," he says. "This was kind of our opportunity to see what we could do with it, not really knowing what you're supposed to do with it. It's not dissimilar to what we did with Vegan—we understood the product but didn't try to create fake meats or be comparable to other vegan restaurants. We made food."
6. The décor is classic.
"There's a golden waving cat and a piggy bank [in the entryway] and we have lots of Chinese lanterns in the dining room," Beran says. "All our tables are red aluminum, and it's the first time we've done a metal tabletop."
7. Drinks include a cider-beer mix and milk punch.
Schafer is mixing a fermented Asian pear cider from Virtue Cider with lager, which is a play on Snake Bites, a British drink.
"I love the combo of a really light beer and cider with a nice acidity," he says.
The meal begins with jasmine milk tea punch, which is different from the milk punch on the Office menu.
"The idea was to start with the traditional tea, but do a tea cocktail instead," Schafer says. "Robert Murphy, our nonalcoholic director, came up with a pretty amazing technique to make milk punch. He's against heating citrus, so you combine the ingredients and separate the solids out."
Plus, you can expect light Rieslings, German pinot noir and more.
"We stayed away from typical Chinese ingredients," Schafer says. "Much of what [the Chinese] drink is vodka, and we went away from that direction. We looked at the arc of the menu, which has lots of spice. We were pairing wine with Sichuan peppercorns, so we thought, What can we do to match the flavors of food without causing an electric storm in someone's mouth?"
The Chinese Modern menu runs through the end of August. Tickets are available here.