The meal starts off with an upsell for a chance to add a white truffle risotto to the menu since it’s white truffle season. 6g of white truffle for $125 extra. No thank you, I don’t like truffles enough for this.
The first wines featured are a 2007 Pinot Noir (Domaine François Mikulski, Volnay 1er cru Santenots du Milieu) and a 2009 Chardonnay (Domaine Hubert Lamy St. Aubin, 1er cru Clos de la Châtenière) from Burgundy, France, where the concept of terroir all started. The wine was paired with a large assortment of amuse-bouches, the most memorable being a crostini with nasturtium and parmesan (the parmesan was very noticeable), and a cone shaped bite of caramelized onion with chicken skin and heart. The chicken heart was made into a mousse so the flavor was there without any of the tough texture. The Chardonnay had a lot more depth than the ones I’ve had previously. I enjoyed the Pinot Noir though I wished there was more of it to pair with other foods.
Next came three different Chenin Blancs from Loire, France 2014, Santa Ynez, California 2013, Swartland, South Africa 2013. The same grapes from three different regions to showcase terroir. The Loire was sweetest, while the Santa Ynez was just kind of mild (my least favorite), and the Swartland tasted like it had a bit more depth and complexity in flavor. The food pairing was sturgeon with scallions and iterations of peanut. There were crispy peanuts, and a more buttery peanut which was almost like a white bean. Together it created a play on homemade peanut butter. The scallions were torched to crispiness. The sturgeon piece looked almost like a scallop and had a surprising texture (tender but firm). All of the ingredients worked well together for a great dish.
We are next presented with a 2007 red wine (Le Vigne di Zamó Schioppettino) from Friuli, Italy. They said this wine has been paired with barley for over 800 years. The food pairing was consommé of barley with arugula dumpling filled with montasio cheese. My friends didn’t like the wine at all, saying it was far too acidic. Surprisingly this was one of my favorite wines and I only noticed the acidity as a unique flavor profile. Perhaps my continual consumption of coffee has really altered my taste receptors. So this was a very interesting show of how different palate perceptions are. The consommé was a bit salty and the barley very fibrous; the dumpling with cheese was the best part.
Next came a very sweet Riesling (Balthasar Ress Riseling Spätlese) from Rheingau, Germany 1997. I prefer red wines and less sweet whites so this wine was not a favorite… for now. The food pairing was squab with beets done 5(!) ways and sliced fennel. The beets were grated into slivers and fried, sliced into disks, made into something similar to chutney, and two different purees. I love beets, and this really highlighted all their flavors. The two purees tasted different, one more creamy whereas the other distilled the essence of beet flavor into a sauce. Underneath the beets were pieces of squab. I have never had squab before and was very surprised to find the texture of the meat was much more tender than any chicken breast.
For the next course, there was no new wine but rather a refill of the same Riesling. The most crazy and memorable dish of the evening appeared in front of us. Pear cider within a bleu cheese-infused white-chocolate shell, presented on a forest floor bed of moss over dry ice (the white smoke representing the coastal layer). Pear and bleu cheese is a wonderful classic pairing and this was the Alinea group at its best: the pear juices pop into your mouth as you bite into the shell, and there is cheese infused everywhere. And then we drank the Riesling again, and it was no longer too sweet. In fact it was a perfect pairing, and really showcased how much a proper food pairing can change our senses.
Krug Grande Cuvée from Champagne, France MV served first in a flute and then in a wine glass to show how glassware affects taste. Paired with potato chips, onion, creme fraiche (a fancy chips and dip). The top of the dish lifted up to reveal another course: osetra caviar over a cake with bits of popcorn. This dish was then lifted once again to reveal a popcorn and brown butter soup. The soup tasted like popcorn, which is mostly butter anyways. Perhaps my least favorite pairing because the dishes made the Champagne taste even more bitter. I’m not a Champagne person and this hasn’t convinced me otherwise. The soup was quite good though.
Now we try another Riesling (Von Winning from Pfalz, Germany 2013), which is supposed to be less sweet and more earthy. I am never quite sure what earthy tastes like but I got an inkling here. This was amplified by the pairing with lion’s mane mushroom, maitake mushroom, bison from North Dakota, and truffled soil (black truffle, breadcrumbs, etc). I’ve seen lion’s mane mushroom before preparation and it looks crazy. It was my first time tasting it and I’m a big fan. The truffle flavor in the soil was subtle, which I prefer (black truffle is so distinctive I don’t need to be hit over the head with it) and the soil provided nice texture.
We now have a Bodegas Viñátigo Gual (white wine) from Yeoden Daute Isora, Canary Islands Spain 2013. The grapes are grown near volcanic soil and the wine is described as tasting “funky”. I agree, there is definitely a certain tropical, funky taste to the wine, and I enjoyed it. I usually am not excited by hamachi, but this seared hamachi tartare with cilantro, basil, ginger, fermented gooseberry was amazing. It looks like a whole piece of meat, but we are given only a fork and spoon, no knife, which is a hint that the meat must be super tender. And indeed it is a tartare, with the meat offering no resistance as you spoon it up. The fish is seared on one side, which provided really interesting flavors [that I cannot find the words to quantify]. One of the most surprising and delicious courses of the meal.
I think my friends and I all agreed if we had to choose one wine, this would be our favorite of the night: Kathryn Kennedy “Small Lot” Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Cruz Mountains, California 2012. Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the most popular wine out there, so there is a sense of familiarity, but this is the best Cabernet Sauvignon you can possibly have. Far more depth and complexity, full bodied without overpowering. Just the perfect red wine. And you would expect red wines to be paired with big pieces of meat, but instead we are presented with a large plate of pine needles, smoking rocks, artichoke leaves, snail shells, but only a small central egg cup of sauteed snail, artichoke puree, snail caviar, fried bread is edible. And it worked. Just the right amount of flavors to help us enjoy the wine. Here’s a picture, but the Eucalyptus leaves below have been replaced by pine needles:
We are now transplanted to the Rhone Valley in France with a 2006 Syrah (Domaine Lionnet “Terre Brûlée” Cornas). The food is presented in a dome, which is then lifted to waft rosemary scented smoke at you. Tempura lamb, lamb rillete, lamb jus, charred carrot slices (the best taking carrot I’ve ever had), and two small cubes of very dark chocolate “pudding”. The lamb was good (and one of the few rilletes I like) but I will remember that little cube of chocolate forever. The two courses above were both heavily terroir driven, and I loved it.
We begin the dessert courses with a very old 1971 Madeira wine (D’Oliveiras Terrantez). It is very sweet like most madeiras and ports, but there is a edge of sourness that comes from the age. Molasses cake, bay leaf, cottage cheese, orange zest, ricotta, banana was delicious.
For the finale, we have another dessert wine (Chateau Pajkos Tokaji 5 Puttonyos) from Hungary, 2006. The final dessert in a tasting menu often strongly impacts my overall experience, and this dessert was stunning. Caramelized white chocolate branches (almost like confetti), ice wine tea cookie, flan ice cream. I am out of words to describe this. It was a visual delight, and every bite was delicious. I think this ties for best dessert of my life.
And so we reach the end. I enjoyed every dish, and all courses were made to a shockingly high level of intricacy and detail. I would rate this as the best tasting menu I’ve ever had. While Alinea might have a few more single memorable dishes, there were some I did not enjoy or too many distractions on one plate. As a cohesive meal, I cannot ask for more than this dinner at Next. That being said, I would still have a hard time justifying the incredibly daunting price tag. Would I do it all over again though? Yes.
For an official review that more accurate describes all the dishes, see Phil Vettel’s 4 star review in the Chicago Tribune.