Mrs. Hackknife and I recently attended the final seating in our current sequence of season tickets for Next Restaurant (the others being the el Bulli tribute and Sicily menus). Joining us at our table this time were Jose and Sandra, a young couple we'd met via Facebook eager as we were to indulge in this kaiseki, or multi-course meal inspired by traditional Japanese cooking and aesthetics. As explained by the little pamphlet that was first brought to the table by our servers, the chefs at Next did not intend to present a rigid reproduction of true kaiseki (more on that later); rather, their idea was to interpret and honor the concept using the autumn season in both Kyoto and the American Midwest as inspiration. Unfortunately, given our table location in the dining room and the restaurant's no-flash policy, many of my photos didn't turn out so well, so I included only those pictures that look halfway decent.
The first course of our dining journey was a delightful palate cleanser in the form of a hot tea made not with tea leaves or toasted rice, but with burnt corn husks (as those of us who grew up in the Midwest know, corn husks are a ubiquitous presence around here in the fall during harvest time). The subtle sweet and smoke flavors of the tea were enhanced by some incense-like burning hay that had been set alight in a vase by a server at a nearby table of other diners (this mild act of theatrics would actually be part of our second course). As is the tradition with kaiseki (and in keeping with the fanatical attention to detail exhibited by the Next staff), the course presentation and the serving vessels were a visual feast for the eye as well as the food was pleasing to the palate (see photo below).
After the tea, we received a small plate resembling a dark abalone shell with echoes of orange, black, and turquoise (see photo below). On the plate was a sizable chunk of chestnut tofu garnished with an artfully-smeared white miso paste and eight tiny cubes of green apple. The tofu paired beautifully with both my drink (a cocktail containing sake, non-fermented gewurtztraminer juice, shochu, and a liqueur made from the citrus-like yuzu fruit) and Mrs. Hackknife's (a non-alcoholic blend of the gewurtztraminer juice, lemon verbena, and green tea). Also arriving at the table was the aforementioned vase with our burning hay (no doubt perfuming some other diners' meal as it did ours).
A common occurrence that we've noticed with the Next menus is that one of the courses often entails a platter with a collection of "snacks" and this one was no exception. Our kaiseki platter of small bites followed the tofu and featured a jumble of objects (intended perhaps to resemble a Japanese forest of maple trees in autumn - see photo below), including an amazing bite of pickled turnip wrapped with rich duck and red miso, creamy sea urchin (almost like a custard) sprinkled with grape-stem ash, tender poached shrimp with their heads removed and deep fried (the heads were impaled on sticks somewhat menacingly - this did not make them any less delicious), slices of crunchy lotus root chips, discs of karasumi (dried mullet roe, similar to bottarga and a rare Japanese delicacy), and hollowed-out yuzu shells filled with trout roe and the remaining shrimp parts. Although I found the busy presentation to clash a little with the harmonious concept of kaiseki, the snacks were all wonderful. The drinks for this course were a Seikyo "Takehara" (translated as "mirror of truth") Junmai sake and a blend of yuzu, pear, dulse seaweed, and bibb lettuce extract (which sounds somewhat disgusting, but wasn't at all unpleasant) for non-alcoholic.
Next up were three fish courses, each relatively simple when compared to the chaos of the snack platter. A few delicate slices of sashimi (one reviewer I read wrote that his fish were kampachi, medai, and salmon, but I'm not entirely sure which ones we were served, probably just whatever was freshest that day) were placed in a clear glass bowl with some wasabi, shiso leaf (similar to mint), and shreds of pickled ginger, neatly paired with another junmai sake (a Mizuho Kuromatsu Kenbishi, in this case) and a zippy ginger/white soy/cucumber/lime cocktail. This was followed by some braised abalone and abalone liver (in an actual abalone shell this time, not like the facsimile from earlier) with cucumber, red sea grapes, and some spinach-like kinome leaf, which we were told to eat last (the trick being that it acts as a mild stimulant, numbing the tongue). Once the feeling returned to my taste buds, I happily indulged in the subsequent course, a small vessel of brooding, dark broth consisting of rich maple dashi (rumor has it that the stock contained real-live maple branches in order to get the flavor right), shimeji mushrooms (meh), and a tasty log of anago (saltwater eel).
We now reached a point of the menu where we got a brief respite from seafood, a black bowl with matsutake mushroom chawanmushi (traditional Japanese egg custard) infused with pine. After never having eaten it before, this was the second chawanmushi I'd had in as many weeks, the other one having been at the now-shuttered Bonsoiree. The Next egg custard was definitely more restrained and less savory than the version created by Chefs Kim and Clark, an exercise in subtlety in lieu of fireworks (I have to say that I don't think I liked this one quite as much). The drink pairings (a Konteki "Tears of Dawn" Daijingo sake and a sweet potato, kyobancha green tea, and melon cocktail) helped liven things up a bit.
One last seafood course arrived at the table: skewers of grilled ayu fish, served atop a hibachi (which appeared to only be used for aesthetic purposes) and eaten whole (heads and all), garnished with sides of crispy fried ayu skin (like the best pork rinds), pureed wasabi leaf, and cured egg yolk (see photo below). This was enthusiastically washed down with one of my favorite beers, a Hitachino Nest Classic Ale.
Another vegetarian course followed (a bowl of deep-fried tempura eggplant with shiso leaf and a chrysanthemum blossom), which then led to what was probably the most substantial offering of the evening, a hearty, family-style hot pot of soup, rice, pickles, and amazing slices of beef (see photo below). I tried my best to ladle out equal portions of each ingredient to my dining companions, although I'm sure I failed (I swear I didn't take most of the beef - really). The shochu (a Hamada Shuzo "Kakushigura") and apple/barley/licorice drinks that came with the hot pot may have helped tamp down any unnecessary accusations that might have been hurled in my direction.
The first of our two dessert dishes (entitled "first snowfall") is probably the iconic course for the Kyoto menu, a dramatic plate of roasted persimmon, deep-fried yuba (tofu skin), and sweet soy milk custard, topped with a maple leaf that was also deep-fried and dusted with sugar (see photo below). I loved the presentation (especially the leaf imprints in the sugar on the plate) and enjoyed the majority of the ingredients; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I both agreed that we probably could have done without the edible maple leaf, which was a little on the bitter side. I almost feel bad about this knowing just how much trouble Chef Beran (the man in charge at Next) went through to find the perfect maple leaves to accompany this course (TimeOut Chicago has a good writeup on this topic here), but it is what it is. One final sake was poured for the last alcoholic drink pairing (a Narutotai "Namagenshu" Ginjo), as well as another tasty fruit juice cocktail with wasabi, honeydew, and buckwheat honey.
For our farewell course, a simple bowl of dark green tea was paired with a single warabi mochi (a variety made from bracken - a type of fern - starch that differs from other types of mochi, which are usually made from rice starch) that was dusted with toasted soy, a very nice palate cleanser to conclude the meal (see photo below).
By most measures, diners participating in this iteration of Next appear to be just as satisfied with the Kyoto menu as the earlier ones (indeed, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune gave Kyoto a 4-star review), yet, inexplicably, the missus and I felt a slight twinge of disappointment about the evening's proceedings. After having discussed our thoughts on the car ride home, the issue certainly wasn't one of execution, service, or atmosphere (all of which were near-perfect as always). The nearest that I can explain is that, having had a few tremendous kaiseki meals in both Japan (Kyoto, in fact) and the United States, the version we'd experienced at Next just didn't quite wow us as much as those "traditional" kaisekis did. I acknowledge that the staff made very clear at the outset that what we would be served would be their own interpretation and, to their credit, I was impressed with how they entwined the "Autumn in Kyoto/Midwest" theme throughout each course (with all of the maple references, for example). Maybe this is just a case of us having too many preconceived opinions about a particular cuisine (i.e., Japanese food) at the expense of others with which we're not as familiar (such as Thai or Sicilian, two earlier Next menus that did wow us). Regardless, Mrs. H. and I are still very excited and curious about what the folks at Next are going to come up with, well, next...