It was a question I answered numerous times this week as I mentioned to friends and colleagues that I was having dinner at Next, where the current menu is Bocuse d’Or. Unlike the restaurant's past menus—Paris 1906, Vegan, Tour of Thailand—there’s a lot you need to know to understand the Bocuse d’Or concept.
Next realizes this—Bocuse d’Or, as the printed explanation on the table will tell you, is a contest held “in a raucous stadium filled with spectators” in which 24 teams from around the world are “allotted a window of just 5 hours and 35 minutes in which they must present a plated fish course and a meat platter to a panel of 24 international judges.” There’s an explicit tie to Next in this theme as well—Grant Achatz has been an American coach for the past two seasons, and he and chef Dave Beran went to Lyon earlier this year to support the American team. The menu also nods to Paul Bocuse, the French chef for whom the contest is named, and since participating teams showcase ingredients and techniques used in their home countries during the competition, dishes at Next use Midwestern ingredients.
So to recap: some dishes are inspired by Bocuse, some by the rules of the competition and some just by the Midwest. Because of this, the Bocuse d’Or theme doesn't take you on a journey the way The Hunt did, and it isn't focused around a certain year or place, like Paris 1906. Instead it's more of a meditation on Midwestern food, what it is now and what it can be. Over 4 hours and 45 minutes, we received a parade of 15 dishes inspired by France and the Midwest. Some were transcendent, some good and some I couldn’t finish.
Upon arrival, a veal terrine has already been set on the table. It’s served with bread, a lightly dressed frisee salad and jars of whole grain mustard and sweet cipollini marmalade. It’s a rustic-refined start, which I tried (and failed) not to completely devour, given the sheer quantity of food I knew was coming. The only thing there’s more of on the table is plates—on one occasion a stack of four gold-rimmed plates held a single bite. Presentation is important at Next, and the arrangement on each plate is never anything but beautiful.
The menu opens with the hors d’oeuvres section, five courses that include a gorgeous spoonful of osetra caviar, nestled inside a crisp with pine nuts; salty ham mousse encased in madeira aspic, a dish directly inspired by Bocuse; and one of my favorite dishes of the night, a lovely little prawn soufflé, buttery and laced with Old Bay. It’s a nod to another region of American cuisine—the coastal South—and it was among the simpler dishes of the night.
That was followed by one of the most complex dishes, cauliflower custard, the showstopper in terms of presentation. The server plucked the pink and white rose from the vase on our table, stuck the bloom in liquid nitrogen and added the shattered petals to the dish, which also had fine shavings of foie gras, a curl of white chocolate and verjus rouge. There’s a lot going on here in terms of textures and flavors, and for my table, it was too much—while we liked the individual components, together the combination of foie gras, deeply flavored cauliflower custard, white chocolate and rose petals was strange (our server admitted it was a divisive dish) and we left most of it uneaten.
For each iteration of Next, the neutral dining room is transformed to match the menu and theme—for "The Hunt," the only other Next menu I’ve eaten, there were animal skins laid across the table and flickering gold candelabras brought out midway through the meal to evoke a post-hunt meal in a baroque lodge. For Bocuse d’Or, flags from each of the competing countries hang from the ceiling and televisions placed around the dining room show scenes from the last competition. While the flags add some color to the very simple dining room, the TVs are an unwelcome distraction—the sound goes in and out, so the noise in the dining room alternates between play-by-play and silence.
Then, twice during the evening, the lights flare, the sound is cranked up and there’s a mini parade as servers carry giant platters with beautifully plated dishes through the dining room. You’re encouraged to cheer and take pictures and the parade is supposed to mimic the “raucous stadium” at Bocuse d’Or, but it does not. The diners gawk silently and there’s no real spectacle to the parade. Hand out New Year’s Eve–style noisemakers! Do more than have two servers carry the tray! Something! It’s a fun idea, but the parades are more of an awkward interlude than anything else.
During the Bocuse d’Or competition, chefs are required to make a plated fish course and a meat platter. The two fish courses had varying degrees of success—first up was a circle of ivory char, served with coddled eggs, celeriac, green blueberries, pieces of kimchi-flavored faux eggshell made with edible clay, gold leaf and other ingredients. If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is. While the char was delicious, the plate was too busy to feel like a cohesive dish and the fish got lost in it all. [In our slideshow above, taken a week before my visit, the dish is made with trout served with the head and bones.] Despite the tiny bones in my poached salmon, I preferred this dish, which had brown butter sauce blanketing the fish and which was served with charred vegetables placed over a hollowed-out log.
The remainder of the savory courses were a deeply flavored mushroom consommé topped with a flaky pastry shell; beef ribeye encircled with herbed sausage and served with decadent bone marrow mashed potatoes in an homage to steakhouses; and a lovely smoked pheasant course served in an edible, tipped over flower pot with a piece of soft pheasant breast, probably my favorite dish of the night. The latter two courses felt firmly Midwestern, and seemed like they perfectly encapsulated what Next was striving for here—expected ingredients in unexpected ways.
The meal nears the finish line with two very high notes—a cheese course, with the cheese shaved tableside and served with cashew butter and pear, and a wholly American dessert of an apple pie ice cream bombe with cinnamon meringue and a smear of marshmallow. However, the second dessert, a cube of butternut squash with pecan oatmeal cookies, was less exciting than the whismical egg cream that was served with it. The other drink pairings are spot-on—a tiny sazerac, poured tableside and presented with an atomizer filled with absinthe to customize to your taste, and a raspberry jammy Wild Hog pinot noir paired with the mushroom consommé and pheasant.
Since I’ve only attended one other Next dinner, offering a full comparison to the others is impossible. But while each element of the Hunt felt like it contributed to the overall theme, as the progression from foraging to preservation and so on was clear, with Bocuse d’Or, if you served the menu in a room without televisions, I’d never guess the theme. The manifestations of the theme around the dining room could have been taken further (or, in the case of TVs, muted entirely), but while Bocuse d'Or may not be transporting, it’s delicious.
RECOMMENDED: Complete coverage of all of Next restaurant's menus