Thirty-five days ago, I was seated nearly in the lap of TOC’s IT systems coordinator, whose computer for some reason loaded Next’s then-kinda-buggy website when mine would not. I bought a ticket, for four, under my name, to Next. Within days of that purchase I realized I had grossly underestimated how challenging it would be to trade my ticket for someone else’s—an attempt to conceal my identity. Days before my reservation, negotiations collapsed when the trading party decided that the sacrifice of taking my 6pm reservation was not worth the possibility (proffered with shame, but proffered nonetheless, by Yours Truly) that a sort of entry-level VIP treatment might be extended. And so, 14 days ago, I ate at Next as myself.
“Next is Alinea.” “Next is not Alinea.” This seems to me a pretty useless and static framework for analyzing two dynamic restaurants. And either way, the assumption is that Alinea is something perfect, a restaurant where each course is earth-shatteringly creative and tastes better than even the best Edzo’s burger. Alinea is an exceptional and memorable restaurant, but it’s not untouchable. Except, as far as I’m concerned, for the servers, whose unstuffiness is probably the only thing that could make the critical weight the food is burdened with bearable. In this sense, Next is Alinea: Done.
In every other sense, what “is” Next? Let’s begin with a story. As my meal was winding down, I spotted a friend across the room. I meandered over as his group was beginning their meal, and he asked what the highlights of mine had been. “I really liked the sole,” I said. And I did really like the sole, a course, like the others, designed to make the diner feel indulged: It’s a plate of sauce, really, punctuated by a bite of crayfish meat, butter-soft sole and a mushroom whose gracious spiciness stands out among the lushness of the meal.
“Did you have the lamb?” the friend asked; he’d read about it in Phil Vettel’s review. I knew, though few other readers of that review would, that this was a Kitchen Table dish, out of reach to those who either (a) didn’t elect to reserve the more expensive, six-person table or (b) are not VIP. Though I was dining under my own name, I hadn’t expected to receive it. I did.
“Yeah, it was all right,” I said. “I liked the duck better.”
I said this because to dine at Next at all is to experience a certain amount of privilege. This is not because the meal is prohibitively expensive—considering the chef, I felt I was practically stealing the food with my $65-per-person seats (the cheapest offered), not to mention the generosity of the $48 per person wine pairings. Rather, it’s because of how hard it is to get tickets and the resulting self-satisfaction and cultural capital that one accrues (or believes, with varying levels of distortion, he or she accrues) by having dined there.
For me, that sense of privilege comes with a good ache of guilt. I find it honestly painful to recommend Next—and particularly its grand Paris 1906 menu—so enthusiastically when the demand for the experience is so high and the seats available to so few. (To be clear, this is not something I blame the restaurant for.) And so as the privilege multiplied—the lamb course, the Sauternes sorbet, who knows what else—so did the guilt, and that’s why when my poor layman friend asked about the lamb, I didn’t tell him what a beautiful dish it had been, the tender, faintly grassy, perfectly cooked and seasoned slices of lamb in sauces of pleasing viscosity and commanding richness. If Next’s ticket system gives you the impression that this restaurant is more democratic than any other, you are not paying attention.
However: Everyone gets the chicken. It’s shaped like a diamond and served with two pork-wrapped circles of cooked cucumber. If you turn the plate 90 degrees from how the server sets it down, it looks like a happy face. If you turn the plate 90 degrees from how the server sets it down, the server will immediately turn it back. This was just about the only exciting part of this dish.
No matter. It all begins with a gougère with creamy Comté cheese inside: This is quite something. Then custard-filled eggshells: This is excess. Anchovy-draped quail eggs that burst in your mouth: This is balance. The slice of brioche pocketing foie gras: This is, if I dare say, a bit dry. Turtle consommé paired with strange, sherrylike wine: academic. Duck and potato gratin: wildly good.
To dine at Next is not to experience a meal that reaches some objective standard of “greatness.” But it is a rare—and rarefied—opportunity to submit oneself (and this is what you do at Next, where you do not order a dish, select a wine or otherwise make anything that resembles a choice) to a very specific vision—Grant Achatz’s vision—of what great dining might look like.
That said, I cannot help but feel the desserts at Next are a bit of a missed opportunity. There is something truly lovely about the Sauternes sorbet: It is as refreshing a palate cleanser as it is an elegant, serious dessert, and I love the way it transforms itself quickly back into a glass of wine. The bombe, however, fell flat: The flavor of the ice cream was tepid, especially compared to the intensely alcoholic-tasting cherries. In a minefield of mignardises, exceptional salted caramels and vivid beet gelées were planted alongside forgettable anise shortbread cubes and candied-almond clusters. But even had the dessert taken my breath away, I wouldn’t have been whisked to 1906 Paris; such is not my constitution. That night, I stayed in 2011 Chicago, and I felt no city in no other year could be luckier.