Sunday, June 12, 2011

Exclusive! - Aviary/Next (Paris 1906)

This will probably be the one and only time you'll ever see me place an exclamation point in the posting title (I generally try to avoid hyperbole as it gives me hives). Anyway, getting back to our story from last, I've just begun stuffing my face with (very good) pizza last Saturday when The Call arrives. It's my wife phoning from Target and I hear the kids causing muffled chaos in the background:

Mrs. Hackknife: I have a very important question to ask you. Are you somewhere where you can hear me?
Me: (munch) Umph....yes, sure. (I'm now thinking, "Oh God, I did something really bad. I accidentally bought girls clothing for Hackknife Jr., didn't I?")
Mrs. Hackknife: Do you want to have dinner at Next tomorrow night? And, by you, I mean, just you, not both of us.
Me: (gag, swallow, ?!?) Ummm....yes? Are you serious? (In order to properly understand the inanity of her question, imagine being asked "Is it alright if I sign this $25,000,000 check over to you?")

She was, in fact, serious, having responded to a request on Facebook from a woman seeking a replacement diner at her 4-top for a sick friend. Now, perhaps I should back up for just a second to provide a little context. For those of you unaware, Next Restaurant is the newest venture from local wunderkind chef Grant Achatz, already the proud proprietor of Alinea, voted earlier this year as the top restaurant in North America. Not content to simply sit on his laurels, he and his business partner conceived and launched in April a new concept in fine dining whereby the theme of the establishment (called "Next") would completely change every 3 months to focus on cuisine from a different location/time period (first up, Paris 1906). In lieu of reservations, interested diners would order tickets online much like one would for a sporting event or concert, with tables priced according to day of the week (e.g., midweek would be cheaper than weekend). Once you've secured a table with your credit card and selected your drink option (non-alcoholic, standard wine, or reserve wine), that's it - no money changes hands at the restaurant, no bill is presented, tax and tip are included in the purchase price.

So, you might ask yourself, was this a good business idea? Well, thus far, let's just say that thousands of foodies, many of whom are, inconceivably, way nuttier than I, have been falling all over themselves and doing everything short of selling off their first-borns to try to get into this place. The state-of-the-art online reservation system developed by Achatz and Co. is completely inundated when tables are periodically released, with a ratio of 3,000 hopefuls to every 1 successful table request (or so I've seen quoted - good luck with that). The same thing happens when the restaurant occasionally releases same-night tables on Facebook, soliciting emails from interested parties (Want to get in this way? Sure, just sit at your computer for several hours continually refreshing the page until the request for emails comes out and shoot off your response as fast as you can, hoping for the best. Think that's crazy? People are doing it. Lots of them.). Meanwhile, you can't beg, plead, or borrow your way in. Prime minister of a small African country? Sorry. Long-lost cousin of the sous-chef? Doubt it. Able to organize a Beatles reunion concert in the middle of Morgan St., re-animating from the dead both John Lennon and George Harrison, who then proceed with their still-living former bandmates to perform the "White Album" in its entirety? Thanks, but we prefer "Rubber Soul". And is all of this hoopla really warranted? Well, the press sure seems to think so, with every reviewer this side of Rockford gushing over each course, proclaiming Chef Achatz a genius redux, calling it "the meal of a lifetime", which, of course, just fans the flames even more.

I kept all of this in mind while carefully considering Mrs. Hackknife's proposal, albeit with some trepidation. Of course, I didn't really want to go there without her, but, as she pointed out, there was only one spot being offered, it was ours to take or leave, and given the level of interest, it would be downright dumb for me to pass on it. As always, she was right, and I agreed to go. The initial thoughts that followed after ending The Call were 1) "That was about the most selfless, generous thing that anyone's every done for me, I SO do not deserve that woman", 2) "Holy s$%t, I'm going to Next!, and 3) "I am totally screwed", for I had images of year after year of indentured servitude to my wife laid out before me in a futile attempt to try to repay this grand gesture.

With that, I found myself sauntering down Fulton Market St. on a warm Sunday night, a dead man walking on air, towards Aviary (Oh! Did I forget to mention that the brains behind Next also conceived and launched in April a groundbreaking new cocktail lounge with no bartenders, adjacent to the restaurant?). Once I received ground clearance from the bouncer that I was, indeed, allowed to enter the hallowed gates, I met up with my dining companions for the evening: Sara, the woman who made the request for a substitute, and her good friends, Ari and Alissa, newlyweds celebrating their one-year anniversary (a fine way to mark the occasion, I might add). After introductions (and a brief silent prayer that my tablemates wouldn't regret letting me tag along by the end of the evening), I glanced at the various cocktails scattered around the room - some were in futuristic-looking test tube/Bunsen burner setups, others in weird-shaped decanters, still others resembling art projects, all very pleasing to the eye (and presumably to the palate, as well). After bringing me an amuse bouche of watermelon gelee containing a pool of soju (i.e., Korean firewater), our server recommended I try the scotch pine cocktail, which was a frothy, pine-scented tipple, although I have no idea exactly what kind of spirits it contained. The drink menu had many other intriguing options; however, since we were having wine with dinner and I still had to drive back to the 'burbs, I put on the brakes after one cocktail and we headed next door towards dining nirvana.

Into the Next dining room we wandered, which was sparsely, yet elegantly decorated, with about 12 tables in all (not a big place - no wonder it's so hard to get in here). My immediate sensory impression of the room, other than the decor, was that it smelled like, well, Denny's, a comment I made to the others that resulted in looks of befuddlement until I explained that I meant this in the most positive way (you know, who doesn't like the smell of waffles and sausages? Great, we haven't even sat down yet and they already think I'm the world's biggest idiot). Our server appeared with copies of the full tasting menu and a brief brochure describing the rationale for selecting Paris 1906 as the inaugural cuisine at the restaurant, mainly a tribute to cooking legend Auguste Escoffier and his efforts in setting the benchmark for modern fine dining at the Ritz Hotel around that time period (Ed. note - Mrs. Hackknife and I stopped in at the Ritz for drinks while visiting Paris in 2008 and the most elegant thing I ate there was beer nuts. I'm so ashamed).

Explanations completed, a platter of hors d'oeuvres appeared at the table (see Photo #1 above), consisting of Oeufs Benedictine (truffled fish custard served in an eggshell, very similar to what we were served at August in New Orleans just a few weeks back, but a little runnier), small slices of foie gras torchon encased in brioche (how'd they do that?) with apricot jam, quail egg topped with anchovy (had a little bit of a tough time with that one), mushroom bite with leek (ditto), and pork rillette cracker. All small, all delicious, even the egg/mushroom appetizers, and we all agreed that we could easily eat a loaf of the foie gras brioche. The brut champagne that accompanied the course was spot-on, cleansing and tart. Moving onward, we were presented with small bowls of turtle soup (Recipe 907 in Escoffier's "Guide Culinaire" for those of you playing along at home) along with glasses of vin jaune, a very unusual wine similar to dry Sherry from the Jura region of Eastern France. The soup was more like a consomme (i.e., mostly broth) than the heavy, tomato-based concoction that is the turtle soup at Commander's Palace, and is apparently much more involved to make. By itself, the wine tasted a little metallic (which is how it's made, actually), but melded very well with the soup.

At this point in the meal, we began a three-course sequence that was so amazing I struggle to recall anything I've had that even remotely compares. First, a stunning Filet of Sole Daumont (see Photo #2 above; by this time, I had been gently asked by the waitstaff to refrain from using flash, thus bringing disgrace upon our table - Strike 2, dummy), plated in a pool of rich Sauce Normande and presented with crawfish/sole mousse (stuffed into the crawfish head), a crawfish-stuffed mushroom (again, with the mushroom - had to play along), and a sole roe nugget, all paired with a White Burgundy. The roll we'd just received a few minutes earlier was instrumental in mopping up that decadent sauce. Next was a simple plate of spring chicken, topped with Sauce Blanquette and presented in a diamond shape, along with salt pork-wrapped poached cucumber slices filled with chicken mousse (apparently, mousses were all the rage back then). The chicken was nothing short of mindblowing, moist, tender, and rich, seemingly a completely separate species from the junk I try to pull together in the Commissary. The wine pairing for this tidbit was a carignane-based red from the Languedoc region of Southern France, but it could have been Gatorade for all I noticed. Taste buds reeling in ecstasy, along came the coup de gras: a family-style platter of perfect roast duck (see Photo #3 above), dark leg and thigh meat still on the bone surrounded by uniform slices of breast, served with a drizzle of sauce infused with the duck's blood (and a gravy boat of the stuff on the side, which it didn't really need) AND the most decadent scalloped potatoes (excuse me, Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise, Escoffier #4200) known to mankind. The potatoes were great, but the duck, oh the duck - volumes of ink have been drained thus far waxing poetically about the duck course and I'm here to tell you that the fanfare is all warranted. I started with the breast/sauce combination and, just when I thought it couldn't possibly get better, it did when I nibbled on one of the leg bones. It's possible that tears of extreme joy mixed with regret (as all future duck will, you know, pale in comparison) were shed by one or more members of our party (I'll never tell which). The wonderful Rhone red (a Gigondas) only served to enhance the flavors into another dimension.

Having reached the meal's peak, we began a three-course denouement of Salad Irma (an edible flower, nasturtium, atop a bed of asparagus and radish - not bad, but somewhat lost in the afterglow), Bombe Ceylan (Escoffier #4826, ice cream encased in a chocolate shell with a cookie base and rum-soaked cherries on the side, very tasty, see Photo #4 above) served with a nice 10-year tawny Port, and a collection of mignardies (including beet gelees, nougat clusters, and salted caramels). And, with that, it was over. My only disappointments of the evening were that we missed out on two dishes that later I determined were reserved for VIPs (these were a knockout lamb entree and a Sauternes sorbet) and that we weren't given a quick walk-through of the kitchen as I'd heard some others had done (maybe we had to ask, but apparently, I was zoned out when the time came, way past my usual bedtime and engorged with Escoffier's goodies). All other facets of the meal were nothing short of spectacular - the memorable food, the relaxed and slightly irreverent service (a perfect combination of high-class treatment with low-brow dialogue - perhaps a shot at Trotter's?), the classic tableware. My tablemates were nothing but gracious and engaging during the meal (not even letting a little spilled wine dampen the mood - it wasn't me this time) and I feel indebted to them for letting me share in such a special experience (thanks again, guys). You can bet that when the subscription program for the restaurant is eventually established (think season tickets for dining) as alluded to by the staff, Mrs. Hackknife and I will gladly joust elbow-to-elbow with the foodie masses to secure our spot near the front of the line...

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