The highlight of our recent quick trip to Chicago was our attendance at the last Next dinner of the 2013 season, the Bocuse d'Or (BDO) menu. Now that we're no longer residents of the city, the costs and logistics of getting back to dine at Next are, shall we say, significantly greater than before, so the missus and I are going to have to think long and hard about whether we'll be able to continue these highfalutin junkets in 2014. The problem is that Chefs Achatz, Beran, and Co. continue to make it really darn difficult to pass up the amazing culinary experiences at Next and this latest iteration was no exception. For those of you unaware, the BDO is an elite cooking competition conceived by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse that occurs every two years in Lyon, France (his home base of operations) and requires participants to prepare both a fish dish and a meat dish in front of several judges (plus a raucous live audience, giving it the feel of an Olympic event). The finished dishes must not only be executed to perfection, but must also be aesthetically unique and include specific elements from each chef's home country. Since the USA has never placed high in the competition (as you might have guessed, the French frequently take the top prize), Chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Grant Achatz signed on a few years ago to mentor the American teams in the hopes of improving their performance. Chef Achatz's experience with coaching the USA team is what inspired him to create a BDO and Chef Bocuse "homage" menu using Midwestern ingredients as the basis for many of the dishes.
In order to give diners a taste of the BDO atmosphere, flags of the participating nations hung from the ceiling and video screens in the dining room replayed a telecast of the 2013 competition (although the audio didn't match up with the screen immediately next to us, which made it a little hard to follow). The initial table setting was sparse, yet elegant, featuring a small blue casserole dish along with a single rose in a clear glass vase (see photo below).
The casserole dish contained what was to be our first course of the evening, a tasty veal terrine with frisee salad.
A sweet cipollini onion marmalade (and a basket of small baguettes) was provided to help cut some of the richness of the veal. The drink pairing for the course was a Sazerac, a cocktail typically associated with New Orleans containing rye, Peychaud's Bitters, some simple syrup, and a bit of absinthe, which in this case we were instructed to add using the perfume bottle next to the glass. The absinthe added a pleasant licorice note to the otherwise-dry cocktail.
After the heartiness of the terrine, we were presented with a very delicate appetizer of jet-black osetra caviar served atop whipped beurre blanc and pine nuts in a dainty pastry cup. This single bite arrive on a tower of four stacked gold-rimmed plates meant to evoke the affluence and grandiosity of the old French nobility (with all those dishes to wash, it's no wonder that the downtrodden classes started a revolution).
The next hors d'oeuvre was a slightly-modified version of a Chef Bocuse creation, a mousse made of Darden ham (from Smithfield, VA) set inside a Madeira aspic (essentially a savory Jello) with a flower garnish - very French in presentation and very delicious in mouth. Both this and the caviar course were paired with a 2011 Beckmen Le Bec Blanc wine, a blend of mainly Rhone varietals (Marsanne, Roussane, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier).
Another Bocuse special, a rich and airy souffle of prawns, subsequently arrived. I'd happily frequent Long John Silver's if they could somehow manage to add this as a side to their fried fish platter.
The next small plate to follow was both visually stunning and incredibly complex in flavor, a cauliflower custard mixed with verjus rouge (the fresh juice of unripe red grapes), Alsatian rose wine, and foie gras, topped with curled swatches of white chocolate and freeze-dried rose petals courtesy of the flower in the vase at our table (our server dunked it in liquid nitrogen before depositing the remains on our dishes). If there were ever such a thing as edible poetry, this would be it. A glass of 2011 aMaurice Viognier paired well with both the prawn souffle and the rose cauliflower.
One final appetizer was provided before the main courses, this time a sort-of deconstructed spring roll featuring a charred lettuce spear, shaved bonito flakes, bottarga (cured fish roe), and peanuts.
At this point in the meal, the servers paraded out competition platforms to "show off" three of the finished entrees to the diners (this activity is conducted in front of the judges during the BDO, adding a dramatic flourish to the event). The items on each platform were elaborately displayed as you can see (sort of, that is - my apologies for the poor pictures) from the next three photos. First up was a trout and egg course:
Followed by smoked pheasant atop a smouldering bed of hay:
Last, but not least, a ribeye beef presentation inspired by Chicago's history as a center of publishing (hence the typeset letters, paper cutter, etc.):
As nice as it was to view the carefully-arranged platforms, I was happier when the subject vittles were placed in front of me for consumption. The brook trout course (inspired by Chef Beran's traditional family dish of trout and scrambled eggs) was dazzlingly deceptive, consisting of several elements that were not immediately what they seemed to be. The trout was prepared two ways, including the filet in medallion form and the deep-fried skeleton (yes, it was edible). Bright yellow coddled eggs (a challenge for me) provided the sauce for the fish and appeared to emanate from an eggshell and yolk placed on the plate, which were actually eggwhite/kimchi spice pieces (also edible) and spherified olive oil curd, respectively. Celery root and pickled green blueberries added depth to the flavors, with a touch of gold leaf for elegance. To accompany this mysterious dish, the sommeliers chose an equally mysterious wine, a 2009 Scholium Project Midan al-Tahir blended from five different white grapes (Gemella, Verdelho, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc).
The second fish entree was no less intricate, but didn't have quite the same hocus-pocus factor as the first. A small filet of Neah Bay salmon was paired with beets, browned butter, and parsley. Underneath the glass tray holding the salmon was a tuft of thyme that was set alight by the kitchen to bathe the ingredients in herbal aroma (a fairly common Achatz tactic).
What followed next was a wonderful mushroom consomme course adapted from a soup that Chef Bocuse conceived for President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing of France in the 1970s. The consomme is topped with a pastry dome, which I found was easiest to eat after being punched down into the broth (see destruction below). A Wild Hog 2009 Pinot Noir (from the Russian River region of Sonoma) gently accompanied the soup.
The first of the two meat courses was a meltingly-tender diamond of sous-vide pheasant, covered in a sauce blanquette and garnished with a grilled baby leek, caramelized onion, and a small pastry shell filled with what appeared at first glance to be dirt (the whole dish is plated to resemble a spilled flower pot), but was actually ground pheasant.
Even more mind-blowing was the beef course, a medallion of rare ribeye wrapped in a sausage layer (a "boudin vert" made green with spinach), then paired with roasted carrot, a cube of solid bearnaise sauce, and a leg shank whose hollow had been filled with mashed potatoes amplified by bone marrow (!). I'm not sure whether to refer to this creation as a deconstructed steak dinner or the ribeye of the future, but the marrow potatoe puree may very well have unseated Robuchon's infamous death potatoes as the world's most decadent. A 2010 Yorkville Cellars Rennie Vineyard Carmenere was selected to go with the steak and friends.
No French feast is complete without a cheese course and this was no exception. The BDO menu featured a robust Swiss cheese called Tete de Moine (literally "monk's head", so named for the cloistered monks that originally created it) that was cut tableside into long shavings using a special tool that resembled a turntable with a blade. The pungent shavings (which resembled flowing fabric or a sea anenome) was placed in a clear glass dome along with cashews, pear, and milk skin, paired with a 2010 Milbrandt Estates Riesling Ice Wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington State.
Keeping with the oceanic theme, a brilliant blue-glazed dish arrived with the first dessert course, a deconstructed apple pie a la mode with a lattice crust that could have been mistaken for a coral reef, plus some sort of bruleed schmear (marshmallow? white chocolate?) in the shape of an angelfish (at least that's what I saw). Apple slices could have been shark fins, a slab of ice cream bombe looking like a whale's eye - ok, maybe I'm taking the nautical thing too far, but the whole creation was delicious.
If you never realized that butternut squash has potential as a sweet, look no further than the second plated dessert, which featured a orange cube of the stuff daubed with gelled huckleberry pickling juice and accompanied by a crumbled pecan oatmeal cookie/dollop of butter pecan ice cream, plus some purple edible flowers. A non-alcoholic egg cream (contains milk, soda water, and chocolate syrup, yet no egg or cream) helped wash down this loveliest of confections.
Ready to roll out the door into the street at this point, the final course of mignardises arrived, a small collection of lemon macarons, chocolate/raspberry/hazelnut truffles, and bitter chocolate taffy pieces, the perfect end to an amazing meal.
Now that we'd survived the evening's onslaught (although, by the next morning, I wasn't sure I'd survive, suffering the full impact of refreshment fatigue at that point), I was struck at how well the BDO menu dovetailed with the Next crew's very first menu, Paris 1906. Given Chef Bocuse's chronological place in the pantheon of 20th Century French dining (that is, between the excesses of Escoffier/Fernand Point and the restraint of nouvelle cuisine), the dishes prepared by Chef Beran et. al. served as a wonderful bridge connecting Belle Epoch and modern Gallic gastronomy, a perfect reflection of the great cook's legacy...