Monday, September 26, 2011

Next (Thai Menu)

In the midst of all these amazing dinners over the past month, Mrs. Hackknife managed to work her magic again and score us a table at the still-unbelievably-coveted Next Restaurant, this time featuring Thai food as the establishment's second menu (after all of the futzing around I did attempting to get tickets via the overburdened Next website, we discovered that she was in an ideal position to barter for re-sale tickets on Facebook, seeing as she's constantly online during the day). After the elegance and tradition of the first menu (Paris 1906), most of the critics seem to agree that the choice of Thai food for Act 2 was a riskier venture for Achatz and Co., especially since there are many good Thai restaurants in Chicago serving similar food at much more modest prices. Regardless, my experience eating there in June was so ridiculously good that I couldn't wait to have another go (and was anxious to have my guilt over dining there without my lovely wife last time slightly assuaged). I can't say that I'm a Thai food expert (hardly, in fact - I can only recall having it about a dozen times in my life), but I was comfortable putting myself in the more-than-capable hands of the Next culinary staff to churn out a menu that represents the best grub that Thailand has to offer.

On the evening of our late reservation (10:15p), we arrived an hour early hoping to have a pre-meal cocktail next door at Aviary. Unfortunately, I failed to verify that they'd be open, and, as it was a Sunday night, it turns out they were not (oops - not exactly the start I'd been envisioning). The hostess at Next steered us in the direction of the Publican (one of our favorite places) down the street to wait it out and we were happy to oblige (although the desolate 1.5 block-stretch of Fulton Market St. we had to negotiate to get there was a little sketchy this time of night, with random meat truck drivers loitering in some of the darkened doorways). The good folks at Publican sat us down at the bar and set us up with the chef's selection of a half-dozen oysters to tide us over (I kept the tiny cheat sheet they use to identify which oyster varieties are served that night - ours included Coromandel (New Zealand), Kusshi (Vancouver, BC), Marin Miyagi (Tomales Bay, CA), Island Creek (Duxbury, MA), Pemaquid (ME), and Wianno (Cape Cod, MA), some briny, some minerally, all good). Bellies primed, we headed back past the warehouses to our awaiting table at Next and settled in for some Thai goodies.

We opted to do one alcoholic drink pairing and one non-alcoholic pairing (this was a direct result of our, shall we say, overindulgence while dining at Trotter's a few weeks back) to spread out the booze between us and off we went. First up was a street food course consisting of 5 different bites (not all that dissimilar to the start of the Paris menu - see Photo #1 above) artfully presented on actual Thai newspaper (Where did they get it? And aren't they going through s%&tloads of it?), including a roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage (my favorite of the group - I wished for a platter of these), and a steamed bun stuffed with mushrooms (yes, I ate it) and green curry. The drinks that came with the street bites had a base of guava, mango, and papaya, with mine also containing some Batavia arrack (a spirit distilled from coconut sap) and Szigeti Sekt Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Course #2 was a Tom Yum soup, a traditional Thai dish containing hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, and ginger - incredibly tasty, layered, and rich, I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it better than the turtle soup from the Paris menu (probably heresy to most of the other diners). I preferred the non-alcoholic drink this time, a nice blend of chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee (the gin version of this was a little too amped up for my tastes). We each received a bowl of jasmine rice after this and were presented with small dishes of various condiments (including a popular Thai chili/shallot/garlic sauce known as Nam Prik, salted duck egg, green mango, white radish, and pickled vegetables), not only to complement the rice, but also some of the subsequent entrees. It was tempting to fill up on the rice/condiment combos alone as the Nam Prik and salted duck egg were standouts in my mind.

On came the fish course, a silky, incredibly-textured catfish filet served with a caramel sauce, celery, and coriander root (who knew catfish could be so sublime?). This dish was well-paired with both a carrot, ginger, and orange drink (non-alcoholic) and Txakolina, a sparkling, dry white wine from Basque country. This was followed by a slab of ethereal, meltingly-tender beef cheek served Panang curry style with peanuts, nutmeg, and kaffir lime (see Photo #2 above), probably my overall choice for dish of the night and most likely the one that set me on the path towards food coma (the hibiscus, mangosteen, and Thai pepper drink, along with the limited edition Half Acre Horizon Ale, brewed with hibiscus and created solely for this menu, also helped nudge me in that direction). The frozen watermelon and lemongrass palate cleanser was greatly appreciated at this point prior to the arrival of our two desserts. First up was a coconut shell that we were instructed to open at the table, with one half filled with frozen coconut juice (think sorbet) and the other containing an amazing amalgamation of coconut "noodles", corn, sweet egg, and licorice tapioca (see Photo #3 above), washed down with a corn/pineapple juice combination and a sweet Planeta Moscato from Sicily (although by now, I was so stuffed that not much alcohol was making its way down the gullet). Next came a dragon fruit slice, served au naturel with simply a splash of rosewater for enhancement (and a real pink rose to help boost the aroma), paired with a cool cucumber/mineral water drink and a stiff shot of Banks rum (which I sipped once and gladly passed on the rest). To conclude our Thai culinary tour, we were given little plastic baggies filled with chilled rooibos tea, palm sugar, and milk, a light, sweet drink to help with digestion and, in my case, prolong consciousness for the drive home (it was after midnight, you know).

I'd have to say that my second visit was about as good as my first and I know Mrs. Hackknife also enjoyed it very much. Not everything was perfect (most notably one of our servers, who strainingly tried to be funny nearly to the point of obnoxiousness, left us wondering at times if he was being serious or joking), but I'm still in awe of the concept at Next and the skill being demonstrated by the cooking staff in pulling it off tremendously well (in a kitchen that appears to be clean enough to eat off the floors, to boot). I have heard rumors of a future Sicilian menu, Japanese menu, childhood experiences menu, and even an El Bulli-inspired menu, all of which get our juices flowing in anticipation. If we can only somehow snag a place on the ticket subscription list if/when it ever comes out....

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