Trio, the iconic Evanston restaurant that launched the careers of Grant Achatz, Curtis Duffy (Grace), Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (who opened Tru), among others, closed in 2006, more than three years before I ever set foot in Chicago. By the time I moved here in 2010, I’d heard and read a lot about Trio and its influence on the food scene, which is why Next: Trio seemed like a particularly interesting retrospective—anyone who missed the original restaurant could travel back in time and dine there. And anyone who went to Trio could relive a menu they ate 10 years ago.
And wasn’t this—transporting diners to a particular time and place—the original idea of Next? Paris 1906 did that, but more recent themes, like Chicago Steak, have been more about the concept and less about the place and time.
Trio is all about the time—it’s essentially the menu that Achatz served to future business partner Nick Kokonas on January 20, 2004, and it resulted in the pair teaming up to open Alinea the next year. Some of the dishes, like black truffle explosion, a ravioli with romaine and liquid black truffle that bursts in your mouth (or in my case, all over the table), have gone on to appear at Alinea. There are some additions and subtractions to that original menu, and Next chef Dave Beran said they planned 30 total dishes, knowing they’d have to swap some out. Last week I was served 21 dishes, but some, like the plate of perfect, ripe heirloom tomatoes and a squishy mozzarella balloon filled with tomato water foam, will soon be out of season. Beran said it’ll be replaced with a chestnut dish later in the menu’s run. Some dishes were tweaked with contemporary techniques, but what was so striking from this menu was just how ahead of the curve Trio was back in 2004.
Next: Trio is my fifth Next dinner (I’ve also done the Hunt, Bocuse d’Or, Chicago Steak and Chinese Modern), and the food at this one has been my favorite. There’s more whimsy and fun than Chicago Steak, more delicious dishes than Bocuse d’Or. When I went to Next last week, it was the earliest I'd visited in a theme's run, and it felt the most polished. I assumed that was because all these dishes had already been perfected at Trio, but Beran said that some original recipes weren’t written down in entirety, and there weren’t many photos, since in 2004, people weren’t obsessively Instagramming every single dish they eat.
The black truffle explosion and tomato and mozzarella dish were both great, but my favorite dishes included the crab and coconut with ten garnishes, in which there’s sweet crabmeat topped with a big orb of coconut milk. You scoop up a bit of each along with a different garnish, like lime, avocado or a cashew. I also loved the transparency of manchego, a thin sheet of cheese with olives, anchovies and roasted peppers suspended in it.
While the food was terrific, I wished Next had done a bit more to really explain what was going on at Trio in 2004, beyond playing a soundtrack of Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and Beck’s Sea Change. Anyone going to this dinner is going to know that it’s based on a 2004 menu, but I’d love more details from servers about what was going on at Trio that year. Who else was in the kitchen? How did Achatz come up with these dishes? Why was this menu so important? It’s be easy to eat this dinner and not realize that it’s a special menu, much like the Bocuse d’Or dinner could have been any fine dining tasting menu.
If you’re considering buying tickets, it’s worth noting that Next: Trio is an incredibly expensive dinner—my tab for dinner plus wine pairings for two people was more than $1,000. When Julia Kramer attended Paris 1906 in 2011, she spent $65 a person for dinner and $48 a person for wine pairings. Next is getting much, much more expensive, and tickets no longer sell out like they once did. Anyone can log into Next’s reservation system right now and find tickets for September and October, but far from anyone can drop the kind of money it takes to dine there.