Shortly after we finished Next: Chinese Modern, a friend texted to ask if he should take his wife, who prefers traditional Chinese cuisine.
My answer? No way.
The current menu, which started in May and runs all summer, is as far from traditional Chinese cuisine as you can imagine. There are coconuts. There's green curry. There's a fortune cookie the size of a small cat. The introductory letter on the table explains: "How do we encompass the cuisine of a country with 1.4 billion people and a 4,000-year history in a single menu? We didn't even try." The first thing our server told us is that they're "purposefully breaking traditions."
So if you don't want that, don't get tickets. But if you want dumplings made from scallops and pork mousse, milk punch mixed with jasmine tea, and beef and broccoli served in both liquid and solid states, go. Go now, because this menu is delicious. It's easily my favorite of the four I've experienced (the Hunt, Bocuse d'Or and Chicago Steak are the other three).
Dave Beran and co. have broken away from the tone of the past couple menus (Bocuse d'Or and Chicago Steak), which were a little more staid than I expect from Next. At Chinese Modern, there's a clear sense of whimsy and fun, in dishes like that aforementioned coconut, filled with crab, coconut ice, mushrooms, potatoes and basil, among other ingredients; in the "Pulling Threads" dish, in which you dunk caramel-coated sweetbreads, taro and plantains into icy passionfruit vinegar until they harden; in the take-out bag of squab pieces, battered and spiced with szechuan pepper and sumac; and in the dim sum course, which includes a scallop-wrapped dumpling, a pork mousse–wrapped soup dumpling and congee with pork floss—each bite is so perfect, I wouldn't have said no to Next: Dim Sum. The connections to the traditional dishes and ingredients are clear, but the tweaks and innovations make sense.
While the jasmine tea added an unexpected note to the milk punch, and I will never turn down a good glass of Riesling, it was the nonalcoholic drink pairings that really shone. An Arnold Palmer made with water chestnut and mint tea cut the spiciness of the monkfish, served in a chile-laced broth, while the Suan Mei Tang, a smoky plum drink, was made with Lapsang Souchong tea and was perfect for the multidish duck course.
A few dishes weren't great—the pressed okra was flat in flavor and cold, even though the server told us it was supposed to be lukewarm, and I found the beef broth with the beef and broccoli too rich to drink the whole thing, but overall, the 17-dish progression was one surprising, smart bite after another.
The introductory note also mentions how China itself is "moving respectfully away from tradition," and Next wanted to do the same thing. Never has breaking the rules tasted so good.