Grant Achatz, already a culinary superstar with his avant-garde Chicago restaurant Alinea, has another hit on his hands with Next, the restaurant he and his business partner Nick Kokonas opened in April. It is, quite literally, the hottest ticket in town. And a ticket it is. For rather than take reservations and present a bill after dinner, Next sells your admission in advance. The menu is preset, just like a theatrical or musical program.
For their opening act, "Paris 1906," Achatz and his executive chef at Next, David Beran, harked back to the days of chef Auguste Escoffier at the Ritz. On my recent visit, it lived up to the hype, and then some. Not only was the food magnificent, it actually made me feel as if I had been somehow transported back in time 105 years to see and taste the cuisine as Escoffier might actually have done it.
By July 1, however, Paris 1906 will be gone, replaced with the next idea, which has been announced as Thai cuisine. Specifics are sketchy at this point, but it's hard to think of something further removed from Paris 1906.
That's one reason that a comparison with other forms of performance art makes sense. Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vittel likened it to a repertory stage company. This time Shakespeare, next time David Mamet. Now Paris, next Bangkok.
Why Escoffier? Well, in his seminal book, Le Guide Culinaire, Escoffier famously codified restaurant French cuisine as it was done. All the sauces, techniques for cooking meats and vegetables, and instructions for putting it all together into classic dishes, are in that bible of professional gastronomy.
But over the years Escoffier went distinctly out of fashion. Nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s rejected all of his codification in favor of quick, fresh dishes and unthickened sauces that did not require a huge team of cooks to prepare. The food most highly regarded restaurants serve today owes more to nouvelle cuisine than Escoffier.
It may seem like a strange move for a modernist chef like Achatz to open with a cuisine that looks back 100 years, but in fact it's more subversive than it looks. Rather than follow Escoffier's procedures as written, Achatz and Beran used their full arsenal of modern equipment and techniques to make their version.
In that way, it's rather like playing Baroque music on modern instruments. For those unaware of this hot-button in the classical music world, a movement dedicated to playing the music of Bach and his predecessors on the instruments of his time gained considerable strength and momentum in the 1970s, willing to trade the accuracy and facility of modern flutes and trumpets for the excitement of making the sounds and performing the music as they believe Bach would have heard it. It has, as you might expect, a more limited audience than the more familiar timbres of the instruments we are accustomed to hearing.
Or, to put it in a theatrical context, it's like doing Shakespeare with modern scenery and speaking the words without the phony English accents. The trick is to honor the poetry of the text without losing the drama. In culinary terms, this is exactly what Achatz and Berans achieved in my meal.
The pressed duck at Next: a classic presentation.
The centerpiece of the menu is the main course, Caneton Rouennais à la Presse. A classic duck press stays in the kitchen because the dining room lacks the room for it, but the century-old machine expresses the juices from the roasted carcass to make the sauce, just as it did for Escoffier. The sauce, and the dish, are heady in their intensity.
Although each dish on the menu carries a number that corresponds to its recipe in the Guide Culinaire, Achatz and Berans have found ways to use sous vide and other modern techniques, which they are more comfortable with. Escoffier's Suprêmes de Poisson (Recipe No. 2845), for example, are poached in broth and glazed with chicken jus. Next's cook sous vide with the chicken jus at low heat for a more intense flavor and more predictable results. The simplicity of this dish is disarming, relying entirely on the natural flavor of the free-range chicken.
"We weren't trying to create a food museum," Achatz said. "In some cases, executing the recipes exactly as he did, the end results may not be as widely accepted as they were back then."
The hors d'oeuvres exemplify the style. Served on an ornate oval-shaped platter, they look like the sort of classic pre-meal bites of yesteryear—a bit fussy, but each one a revelation in flavor and texture. There's a slice of foie gras torchon-filled brioche with apricot jam, an egg shell filled with béchamel and topped with caviar, and my favorite, a quail egg topped with a fresh anchovy and other ingredients of Escoffier's classic sauce gribiche, deconstructed. The yolk, still liquid, provides the sauce in the single bite. Achatz confirms there is nothing like it in Escoffier. It is entirely their own invention, but makes an ideal bridge to modern tastes.
In point of fact, few of the dishes on the menu entirely follow a single Escoffier recipe. They often combine several recipes—a protein from here, a sauce from there, a garnish from somewhere else in the book—to create something that will appeal to modern tastes. "[Escoffier's] book is essentially a bunch of puzzle pieces that you can pick up and put together," is how Berans put it. That, in essence, is how a professional kitchen works. Make the building blocks, and use them to assemble a new dish.
This is wine-friendly cuisine, of course. Next does not have a bottle list, but it offers pairings by the glass at $48 and $98. We opted for the $98 treatment, which included a clean, vivid Vincent Carré Champagne Brut NV with the hors d'oeuvre, and a refreshingly fruit-forward, refined Domaine Brusset Gigondas 2005 with the duck. In a nice touch, after the wine is poured with a specific course, the bottle stays at the table until the next course, in case you want a few more sips or just read the label.
In a menu of this complexity, it's inevitable that some elements come up short. That was the case with the Filet de Sole Daumont (1950), which came off as bland and soft, and the Coche Bizouard Meursault Goutte d'Or 2005 served with it wasn't much to talk about either. The dessert bombe looked beautiful but lacked intensity of flavor.
The hors d'oeuvre platter looks classic, but includes a few surprises.
But the success of the rest relegated those to quibbles. And it might not have happened if Kokonas hadn't talked Achatz into it. The chef remembers it vividly. He had just cooked a very traditional duck breast dish for Kokonas, who looked up and, as Achatz recalls, said, "Wow, this is fantastic. Would you ever consider opening a restaurant cooking French food?" The chef allowed as how he would be bored after three months. It would be the same with Italian food, or anything else. He needed the range of possibilities that Alinea was known for. Kokonas suggested they do French food for three months, then another cuisine, and another, changing it all to keep it fresh.
"I rolled my eyes," Achatz recalled. "Every three months we're going to pull it all up, create a new menu, train the staff, re-do the beverages and everything? No way."
"You realize," Kokonas responded, "you just described Alinea?"
"He had me there," the chef smiled. "[At Alinea] we change it all seasonally, we go out of our comfort zone, and it's fun for us."
Even though the Paris 1906 run at Next is basically sold out, it is not entirely impossible to get in. Some 10 to 15 tables are held back for VIPs, and some are made available for the same day. There is also a thriving resale market on Craigslist and other online sites, where the asking price for a $65 to $110 ticket can balloon into the thousands. Tickets for the Thai production go on sale next month.
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Steve Trachsel — Poway, Ca. — May 21, 2011 12:01am ET
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