Given my past dining experiences at Next, I was really looking forward to trying the new menu on my upcoming visit to Chicago. The French Bistro was my introduction to the Next dining concept, and then I was luckily able to score tickets to the subsequent menu, Tapas. Both meals were excellent, but Tapas definitely had a slight edge because it incorporated a little bit more of the creative Achatz-esque elements. After hearing that the new menu would be themed as South America, I was intrigued, but once we got there, we were told that within the 3 month run for the South America menu, the Next team was planning on executing 3 different menus representing 3 different countries in South America. Since we were in the early days, we had Peru and after 6 weeks, they would move to Chile and then wrap up the run with Argentina. RFotographer and MSGreek joined Pdho and I on this meal and even though the food could have been better, the company was great.
Upon our arrival, we found a girl preparing a shaved ice-like concoction called a Raspadilla for all of us to enjoy as our hostess escorted us to our tables. It was definitely refreshing especially given the hot weather outside, but it wasn’t as sweet as I would have expected.
Nothing is as synonymous with Peruvian cuisine as ceviche so I was happy to see our meal start out with not one but four different preparations of ceviche using striped bass. Each ceviche was prepared to highlight a different marinating technique from a different period of time. Starting from the left, the pre-Spaniard technique is represented by fermented banana and passion fruit. Next to it was chocolate and fermented corn version, followed by a salt with aji chili, and the final one was the more classic post colonial version made with lemon, orange oil and olive. The first and last ones were probably my favorite. The classic lemon, orange oil and olive preparation worked very well and the banana and passion fruit was a fruity and refreshing twist.
The Mackerel was a more modern take on ceviche using rice soy, mirin and sake. It was placed on a bed of crushed peanuts and braised kombu seaweed and served with a prickly pear puree and some specks of snow made from lemon and sake. Not only was the mackerel surprisingly free from its characteristically overpowering fishiness, but the mix of ingredients lent a combination of textures and flavors which made it quite interesting. I liked this dish.
The Corn Nuts along with the queso fresco salad made for an interesting course in the meal as it came down from a basket that until that point in the dinner was hanging above us as decoration. Admittedly, the corn nuts weren’t spectacular but I found myself noshing on them throughout the meal.
The beans and queso fresco salad was a hearty intermezzo but in spite of the myriad of ingredients in the mini mason jar, it didn’t have any distinctive flavors and ultimately didn’t taste very memorable.
The Coffee-rubbed beef hearts were finished off with some olives and carrots. I did not care for this dish very much. The olive taste was strong and did little to masky the “gaminess” of the beef hearts. This was one dish that did not get cleaned off by the table.
These Ricotta Peppers were stuffed with charred maitake mushrooms and pork belly. The picture doesn’t do this particular dish justice. It’s hard to distinguish any of the ingredients, but I liked the little kick from the peppers with the succulent pork belly.
The empanada was good and the sprinkling of powdered sugar on half of it gave it a nice sweetness to complement the savory filling. I don’t think it was that much better than other empanadas that I have had, but the bone marrow mayonnaise added a slightly richer twist.
Like the ceviche, this dish represented four takes on a deconstructed shrimp escabeche. Each one laid on a glass plate with coordinating alpaca wool yarn underneath it to represent the color of the key ingredient highlighted in each escabeche. The pictures don’t really do this dish justice in terms of capturing the beautiful presentation. A deep-fried, pickled shrimp was presented four different ways starting with the white yarn which represented lime-flavored heart of palm strands, next up was the orange strings of sweet-potato with a sweet-potato puree, then there was a puree of aji panca pepper topped with egg-yolk crumbles and last up was the black olive-flavored cream made to look like “noodles”. They were all quite different highlighting markedly flavor profiles.
When the waiter encouraged us to tear open the package that was placed in front of us to release a mini cloud of smoke, I was reminded by the interactive frivolity that I usually associate with Alinea. What appeared inside of the charred paper wrapping was steamed sturgeon infused with tomato and chili and served in a light tomato broth with smoked eggplant. This was fantastic and in terms of flavor, this dish was the most on point of the evening. There was a simplicity in the broth and purity of flavor in the fish that really hit the spot. The smokiness was a very nice touch.
The savory section of the meal ended with a roasted chicken that came to the table served in a cast iron bowl lined with banana leaves and hot rocks, supposedly as the chicken was prepared this way. The chicken was good and it definitely tasted and smelled as if it was barbequed but not quite, at least not in the American way of barbequing chicken. I personally enjoyed the creamy corn tamales that were served in the corn husks with the chicken. They were sweet and tasty and rounded out the flavors of the chicken quite nicely.
I was truly stuffed by the time the desserts courses started, and none of the dishes looked particularly enticing. The Sweet Potato Donut was a full sized dense piece of dough served with some fruity sorbet. It wasn’t particularly sweet, but I didn’t find it particularly satisfying either. The sorbet was refreshing, but the guava flavor wasn’t my favorite.
I did not have any room to even give this dish a taste, but my dinner mates did not seem to think too highly of this dessert either.
Overall, the meal had a few nice notes throughout reminding me a little bit of Grant Achatz but also introducing some new and unique concepts. However, if I were to compare this meal to all the other Next menus, it would most definitely be at the bottom of the three which sounds so harsh, but the reality is it is next to impossible to top one self every three months. Inevitably, some meals will end up being less impressive than others while others just naturally resonate with ones taste buds more than others. Either way, the concept behind Next is quite interesting and as long as the chefs are continually wanting to challenge themselves, I’ll continually be interested in checking it out.
Next: South America – Peru
953 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
PAFO Ratings for Next: South America – Peru:
Ambiance 3 stars
Food 3½ stars
Overall rating 3½ stars