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Review Sun Sep 08 2013

Memoirs of a Vegan Evening at Next

The website is nothing more than a ticket management system. Facebook only gives you brief glimpses of what you can expect with announcements that have nothing to do with the food and everything to do with logistics. In short, it's the opposite of what any restaurant usually does when it comes to marketing their brand online. Yet it works. It's Next Restaurant -- the baby of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas led by executive chef, Dave Beran.

When my phone buzzed one Friday night with an invitation to go to the Vegan menu with reserve wine pairings, my response was an expletive followed by many exclamation points.

Like going on a first date, I was filled with expectation. Was this going to be the best meal I would ever have? Would it change my perceptions about food, my palate, or my love for cooking? Would I be blown away by cookery magic? Would I want to have Dave Beran's babies?

I walked in with my companions for our 9:30pm reservation, and we didn't even need to go through the formalities to get seated. Apparently, they were waiting for us. This was going to be the beginning of what I would experience to be a well-oiled machine that would make any operational manager giddy like a schoolgirl. Timed seatings, 19 courses with wine pairings and a full house, all without hiccups. Genius.

We sat at our table with this interesting centerpiece that we were told would be part of our meal. (Of course it would.) There was also a square glass filled with water with a floating candle. Surely, this was also going to be a part of the meal as well . . .

Theme #1: Everything has a purpose at Next.

The night started off with a brunt avocado dip and kale bouquet presented on a log (probably a mushroom log of some sort) and I was surprised at how quickly the next few courses came by: sprouted tempeh, frozen baked potato (not my thing), nori dumpling (heavy on the nori), earl grey rambutan (interesting) . . . I wanted to ease into this relationship. I wanted a little culinary foreplay. Course after course came with a brief introduction by the server before they hurried away, most likely to run another table's next course.

Nothing had blown me away until the baby artichoke arrived. I wanted more than my simple portion and, like scroungers, my companions and I scrapped every part off of the leaf as we could. More please.

Another win was the housemade apple cider vinegar drink that was poured tabletop from a wood beaker. It was a nice break in the wine pairing and even the boys agreed they could mosey up to it on any night.

The Lily Pond course arrived, and we would soon learn what to do with the water filled square centerpiece. That green stuff we saw floating around -- that was the salad to the lilies, hence the name. I didn't know lilies would fall under a menu option (or even food), but Beran made it delicious.

Our table was cleared and our dinnerware was reset when an 8" or so metal "straw" was placed in front of us. Would we be rolling something? Drinking something? (I'm sure the staff gets a giggle out of watching guests try to figure it out.) And then this guy landed on our table with smoke.

Fennel with Blackberry and a really strong drink.


Theme #2: Next likes to go heavy on the booze.

The next few courses were misses for me. Not bad misses, just nothing I wanted to call home about: salsifies with oyster and dandelion, fried swiss chard and douchi (way too salty and the fry on the swiss chard overpowered it).

Theme #3: Acid and salt

Not having had Beran's food before, I can't say if acid and salt is his thing or if it was due to the vegan menu. It's a good think I like acid but it definitely took center stage and I would have liked to see more balance. That was redeemed with the kumbu atoll, un-appetizingly called tofu skin with a signature umami flavor and a nice cream sauce served in the perfect bowl ever.

Up until this point everything was creative, excellently presented and good. I was being wowed but my palate hadn't been blown away like I expected. The chemistry was more like a sous-vide than a rolling boil. Like my real dating life, maybe I just went in with too many expectations for Mr. Right.

And then the mushroom cart came around.

Literally, a mushroom cart made its way to our table like a dessert tray. (Which if you ever meet Next enthusiasts just say the words "mushroom cart" and you'll be met with a "Dude, right!" I didn't get the need to display a mushroom cart but the transformation as mushroom risotto with farro made me not care. This was the dish I was waiting for. It was creamy, it was mushroomy, it was hearty, it was rustic. If mushroom cart had been a man, he might have sealed the deal.


Overall, the food was tasty with a few grand slams. After 19 courses you'd think I'd be full, but I still had room for a late night burrito; maybe it was the vegetables, maybe it was the booze or maybe just the sheer time.

All in all, Next and Grant Achatz's memoir Life on the Line (currently reading at the moment) inspired me to look at food and chefs in a different way. The vegan menu was creative and explored vegetables beyond what we might assume vegetables to be. I appreciate the thinking that goes into making these menus and the turnaround it takes for a staff to completely switch gears with every menu.

Now they have quietly moved onto the Bocuse D'Or menu which is the biennial world chef championship. The menu will supposedly be dictated by the contest with some rumored guest interactivity. If anyone wants to bring me, I'm all yours.

PS. Nick Kindelsperger's slideshow from Serious Eats did the menu more justice than my phone ever could even with the dark lighting.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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