Friday, June 22, 2012

Next (Sicily Menu) - Revisited

Having returned from the City of Light yesterday (associated posting to follow, maybe soon), I have exactly 3 days between trips to revisit my placeholder writeup on the Next Sicily menu, which I will now attempt to do here. Our foodie friends Karen and Phil were kind enough to join us as we took a dining tour of the Mediterranean's largest island, home to Greek, Roman, Arabic, African, and contemporary Italian influences (plus probably a bunch of others that I'm missing). The slate of homestyle, stripped-down dishes prepared for us by Chef Beran and his staff this iteration at Next represented an abrupt departure from the last menu (el Bulli), which was all flair, science, and misdirection. Early on, we quickly realized that we were in for a rare treat.

Our table was first presented with 4 street-food appetizers, 3 of which you can see in the photo below: caponata (eggplant salad), panelle (chickpea fritters), and arancine (lamb tongue risotto balls). Blackened husks of fire-roasted artichokes (carciofi alle brace) are off to the left side.

Some of you may recall that I've written about making caponata before (in which eggplant is the main ingredient). I was pleased with my version, but this one was galaxies better, a fine mixture of perfectly seasoned vegetables that was delicious alone and made a great topping for the panelle (suggested by our server as a sort-of Sicilian nacho). The deep-fried risotto balls were rich and decadent, with the shredded lamb tongue made even more complex with the addition of saffron. Far and away, however, the standout of the 4 was the blackened artichokes, whose creamy white interiors (accented with balsamic?) could be scooped out with a spoon and hit 11 on the flavor scale ("even better than Gordon Ramsay's short ribs" said Phil, high praise indeed). For drink pairings, Mrs. Hackknife was given a glass of prosecco mixed with some amaro (a bitter Italian liqueur) and chamomile, while our designated driver (me) had a honey, chamomile, and saffron tea to go with the appetizers.

These beauties were followed by 2 pasta dishes (as often occurs in Italy, pasta preceded the fish and meat courses). First up was a small bowl of bucatini, a straw-like pasta tube, combined with a cream sauce and topped with 3 thin slices of umami-packed bottarga, the cured roe sac of tuna (or, in this case, red mullet) bound with beeswax. While this may sound less than appealing to many of you, it's actually quite good and I found myself wishing I had an Olive Garden's portion size of this dish.

Incredibly, the next pasta course was even better, consisting of gemelli (short twin strands of noodles twisted together) mixed with currants, pine nuts, and fennel, topped with a pair of lovely fried sardines (our fondness for small, salty fishes has been well-documented). The wine for this course was a vibrant blend of Inzolia, Cataratto, and Grecanico (white grapes native to Sicily). My non-alcoholic drink pairing was a, um, robust mixture of zucchini juice and something called Mount Olympus flower (also referred to as Greek mountain tea).

Continuing onward, we were presented with a family-style fish course, a grilled swordfish fillet dramatically plated with a roasted garlic bulb (which we happily disassembled and passed around), bundle of mint, and a mint/basil pesto. This was accompanied by a separate bowl containing an amazing chickpea salad topped with roasted romanesco broccoli that also quickly disappeared. I was given a strong concoction of green tomato, garlic, and white pepper to sip with my swordfish (not sure how I felt about this drink). Mrs. Hackknife's received another white Sicilian blend (tihs time Grillo and Cataratto) that was similar to Chardonnay with the herbal notes of a Sauvignon Blanc.

One protein remainded, described to us by our server as a pork shoulder braised for 7 hours, then plated with a tomato sauce featuring shallots, garlic, and accents of blood orange. The pork was inconceivably rich and spoon-tender, with a crispy flat exterior like the best bacon. Another great vegetable side also arrived at the table - asparagus, zucchini, and squash blossoms in a zesty vinaigrette. My glass of fennel verjus rouge (made from the juice of unripened red grapes) mixed with blood orange was a perfect match, as was the wine pairing, a lighter red featuring a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato.

Next up was a refreshing palate cleanser of watermelon granita, a shaved ice common in Sicily with a consistency that varies from place to place.

Our first of two desserts was also the most visually stunning dish of the evening. We first noticed the cassata at the table next to us, presented whole in all its glory. This sponge cake is a traditional Sicilian sweet with elaborate parts, including the decorative marzipan shell, a ricotta filling, and candied fruit toppings.

Unlike the other table, we received our cassata already sliced and plated with some additional jellied fruits. Our server was kind enough to bring out another uncut cake so we could take the picture you see above. Oh, in case you were wondering, the cake was fantastic, even without the unctuous dessert wine (a sweet version made from Moscato Bianco grapes) or the blended white balsamic, watermelon, and Pinot Noir juice cocktail.

Last up was a trio of tasty dessert bites: small cannoli with a marasca cherry on each end, strawberry-filled ravioli (like mini fried fruit pies), and sesame seed brittle.

So there you have it, dish after mouthwatering dish of perfectly-prepared Sicilian specialties, humble yet fit for royalty. All 4 meals I've experienced at Next have been nothing short of incredible, but I'd have to say that I'm slightly leaning towards this one as my favorite thus far, making me want to sample more Sicilian cuisine and even travel to the source someday (hopefully sans the La Cosa Nostra violence seen in the Godfather films). Given this continued track record of successes, the missus and I can hardly wait for the Kyoto menu that's due out this fall...

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