Monday, February 11, 2013

Next (The Hunt Menu)

When the time came to renew our season tickets to Next, there was still some uncertainty as to exactly which date we'd be departing Chicago for good. I knew that the first of the 3 menus for 2013 (entitled "The Hunt") would be occurring during our transition from north to south and, at the time, early March seemed to be a safe choice for Hunt tickets. However, shortly after I bought our new seats, Mrs. Hackknife discovered that her new employer wanted her in Tampa by 3/1 - I thus found myself scrambling to trade our table (originally slated for 3/4) for an earlier seating. Luckily, I was able to secure a 4-top in late January (also enabling us to invite our foodie friends, Phil and Karen, to join us again) so that we wouldn't miss out. This was a good thing since all early indications from the culinary cognoscenti was that the Hunt featured a spectacular lineup of creations by Chef Dave Beran and his crew.

Once seated, we were given a little notecard (sealed with wax and a single feather - pheasant?) explaining the premise behind the menu, which focused on the relationship between hunting animals and the natural environment where they live, in this case, the Upper Midwest (Chefs Beran and Achatz both hail from this region). Not only were game meats included, but also fish and vegetables (as they can be found in the lakes and forests, too), prepared using a variety of methods, such as smoking, preserving, and grilling, plus a dose of hands-off treatment (think foraging) for good measure. Our first course, in fact, featured some raw grub, a single hen-of-the-woods mushroom atop a warm stone with garlic, onion, and rosemary, encased in a glass container (see photo below). The aroma of the steaming herb was enticing and the mushroom wasn't bad, except for the fact that, well, it was a mushroom.

Much more palatable to me was the concentrated mushroom consomme that accompanied the fungus box, served in a simple wooden bowl (see photo below) and packing the punch of French onion soup on steroids (without the melted gruyere topping or the croutons). Every sinus cavity in my head was instantly and completely opened by this magic broth (it should be canned and placed in the cold & flu aisle at Target).

The subsequent course (featuring the bounty of the Great Lakes) was also very tasty, a slab of smoked lake trout (not unlike what you'd find over at Calumet Fisheries) and a glass jar filled with walleye rillettes, plus pieces of pumpernickel bread and some pickled kohlrabi (see photo below). Now that I've had the opportunity to sample a few different kinds, I'm fully convinced that anything with "rillette" in the name is going to make me swoon.

After the fish came what was possibly the most inventive dish (or collection of dishes) of the Hunt menu. A slab of birch limb (upon inquiry, our server assured us that it was "fully dishwashable") was placed in front of each of us, atop which rested 5 separate little piles of cured meats (see photo below) to made up this "Charcu-Tree". The cured bites included (from left to right) a rabbit pate, spicy elk jerky, a mild boar salami, antelope heart tartare that had an unexpected Asian flair (lemongrass?) to it, and a decadent blood sausage. There are many restaurants in town that are doing house-made charcuterie these days, but I'm guessing that none of them are like this.

Just when I thought the onslaught of game meat had been unleashed with the last course, the chefs threw us a little curveball, presenting a dainty plate with cellar-aged carrots and french fried onions (see photo below). The carrots had been picked during the final fall harvest in October, then aged in sawdust for 3 months before being disinterred, cooked, and doused with a buttery orange sauce. My mummified carrot ended up being the smallest of the 4 at our table, which made me quite jealous since the dish was a complete knockout (call me crazy, but I picked up notes of the ketchup and mustard that top a McDonald's cheeseburger, and I mean this in a good way).

It took us a couple of minutes to realize that the next dish was a clever play on bacon and eggs. The bite on the left consisted of scrambled (yaaa!) duck egg wrapped in radicchio, while its counterpart was a chewy, smoked duck tongue (tasted just like bacon) with apple and an apple cider vinegar sauce (see photo below). IHOP needs to add this duck breakfast creation to its menu tout suite.

Just as delicious (if not quite as unusual) was the poached sturgeon medallion that followed (on what appeared to be one of the gold-rimmed plates from the Paris 1906 menu), which was covered in a caviar-laden beurre blanc sauce (it's hard to see in the photo below, but there's also a crispy sunchoke underneath the fish). This was one of those dishes where I had to resist the urge to plate-lick when everything else had been snapped up.

Another elegant show-stopper arrived next (clearly, we had reached the fine dining portion of our menu, with the fancy plates and the candelabra and such - I half-expected to hear Escoffier barking out orders in the kitchen), two pieces of tender woodcock stuffed with a forcemeat of liver, heart, and truffle, garnished with huckleberries (which, come to think of it, may be part of the woodcock's diet). Just for some added panache, a little bit of truffle and unsweetened chocolate was dusted over the top of the bird (see photo below).

The subsequent course consisted of three separate parts, each featuring a different portion of squab (basically a demonstration of how every piece of the bird could be put to use). First was the roasted breast (see photo below), looking and tasting very much like rich duck, bathed in a blood sauce just like the duck from the Paris menu (I'm told that they brought out the same duck presses for this one). Also on the plate is the squab leg meat and even the head (it's a little hard to see on top of the pile - look for the beak), which was stuffed with a mixture of finely-chopped squab brain seasoned with breadcrumbs. Our server instructed us to suck the brain-breadcrumb mixture out of the head cavity - this was my first dining experience with brain and, although I think it wasn't bad, I can't really say how much of the mixture I was able to extract (we all found it to be somewhat awkward).

No tongue contortions were required for Part 2 of the course, a bowl of insanely-rich steel cut oats cooked in more blood and chopped-up squab organs (see photo below), and possibly even a little foie gras. If this is what oatmeal was normally like, I'd be eating it every morning (at least until advised otherwise by a medical professional).

An odd-looking assortment of roasted bones made up the third part of the squab course (see photo below). These were the backbones, which didn't have much meat on them, but was scrumptious nonetheless. We were instructed to get dirty, using our fingers to gnaw off any tasty morsels.

Another unexpected dish came next in the form of a birch bark plate (again, dishwasher-safe) topped with a collection of mostly vegetarian ingredients (pumpkin seeds, bits of parsnip, purple cauliflower, edible bark, and fried seaweed) and one not-so-vegetarian (a kidney mustard). Like the carrot/onion dish earlier, this course was amazingly savory for including primarily vegetables (if the Vegan menu this summer ends up full of these types of things, I'm going to be pretty bummed that we missed it). My photo of the beautiful presentation turned out lousy, so I'm directing everyone to Serious Eats Chicago's picture here.

One more meat course appeared just before dessert, this time thin slices of raw bison that we were instructed to cook on a hot, black rock placed in the middle of the table (I recall doing something like this in Japan - see photo below).

The meat cooked very quickly and was ready to eat in about 20 seconds. The garnishes were simple, just some onion, leek, and a bearnaise sauce (see photo below).

Our first dessert pretty much made everyone's head explode, eliciting wild superlatives from each of us. A cross-cut section of bone was cleared of marrow and refilled with a marrow-based creme brulee more decadent than anything the French could conceive (see photo below). The portion was small, but what was there packed a solid jolt of ethereal sugar and fat (I don't think I could have handled anything much bigger).

Not quite as amazing, but still good was the small iron pot of long-grain Maris Otter barley pudding that followed (see photos below). Small glass bowls containing (from left to right) dried tart cherries, candied pecans, brown sugar, English toffee, and mint leaves were provided for each diner to customize his/her pudding experience. I'm guessing that this dish may have been a campfire favorite from Chef Achatz or Beran's youth.

Last, but not least, was one final dessert inspired by the maple syrup farmers of Quebec. A narrow, metal trough filled with shaved ice was placed on the table, atop which was drizzled some high-end maple syrup that quickly cooled into almost a taffy-like consistency (see photo below).

Our server gave us twigs so that we could twirl up the maple "taffy" and direct it mouthward, a technique used by generations of French-Canadian kids to get a tasty treat (see photo below).

Even though it's pointless to compare the various Next menus, I'm going to do it anyway and say that the Hunt has to rank among the best of the 6 I've been fortunate to experience (but, really, they've all been terrific). I continue to be astonished by how well Chef Beran and his staff are able to repeatedly conceptualize a series of dishes around a theme that's not tied to a particular place or time and then execute them flawlessly. We'll soon be out-of-towners, however, I'll gladly commit the added time and expense needed to return from Tampa for future menus as long as we're able to do so...

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