As I’ve said many times, I tend to prefer beautiful, well-executed vegetables to most proteins. So when Rocky and I were last in Chicago we were excited to see what magic Chefs Dave Beran and Grant Achatz would work for their vegan themed menu at Next. Really excited. Amped even to the point that Rocky wrote and choreographed a full-on vegan cheer(complete with hip rolls and mock pom pom movements) which she performed throughout the day before our meal. Come dinner time, we were ready.
At our table, which was set with a few adornments that would be put to use through the early courses of the meal, we were greeted by a letter in some branches and our starting beverages.
Starter and burnt avocado. A dense, crunchy cracker made from sourdough starter, to be eaten with burnt and fresh avocado puree. Tangy and acidic, accented with oxalis and togarashi.
Kale bouquet. Small ‘bouquets’ of crispy kale sitting in the avocado.
Frozen baked potato. Frozen skin of Purple Majesty potato loaded with a smooth sorbet of the potato. Blah.
Sprouted tempeh. A tempeh tart with sprouted basil and chia. Nice basil taste.
Nori dumpling. Good vegetal seaweed flavor. Soft and spongy with a salty crunch on top.
Earl grey rambutan. Rambutan(a lychee relative) flavored with earl grey and made into a pleasantly fruity jello shot.
Baby artichokes. These were delightful. Charred and filled with artichoke puree. A wonderful balance between the rich puree, the toasty and caramelized leaves, and a little astringency. This was Rocky’s favorite savory course.
Fermented apples and lichen. Fresh apple ice and lacto-fermented apple. Cashew: roasted, raw, powdered, and oil. Rose candies and petals. Fried lichen. Seven month oak-aged apple cider vinegar made with an eight year old starter. An awesome back and forth between some really fun flavors.
Lily pond. Lily bulbs, sauteed and raw. Lychee. Red veined sorrel, burgundy and rainbow oxalis, celery leaf, and micro chard fished out of the table decoration. It was a nice contrast between the starchy sauteed bulbs and the crisps raw ones.
Rice yogurt and white asparagus. French white asparagus prepared three ways: confit stalk, blanched tips, and julienned then salt-cured with pear. With rice yogurt, rice crackers, purslane, and dried herbs. The asparagus was superb. The crackers lent a little salt and acid. A small amount of the yogurt was nice, but it was cloyingly sweet.
Salsifies with oyster and dandelion. Pickled salsify with oyster leaf. Pureed salsify stuffed in bad-ass crunchy roasted skin with dandelion greens. I loved the super bitterness of the leaves with the light sweetness of the root.
Swiss chard and douchi. A beer battered leaf of chard over a carrot and beet sauce. Next to a pretty solid black bean and chocolate douchi with some smoked orange. A fairly rich plate with the excess of fried batter.
Kombu atoll. Kombu seaweed, yuba, ponzu, pumpkin seed, shiso. Visually inspired by an atoll coral reef. Damn…this dish was incredible. Great depth of restrained savory layers of flavors. Easily my favorite dish of the meal.
Mushroom cart. Farro risotto in mushroom stock with a mix of wild mushrooms. Sunflower seeds, petals, and leaves. Sunchoke chips and milked sunchoke. The varieties of fungus were killer, though overall the dish was super rich and really salty.
Red onion | inspired by Stupak. A take on Larb, the national dish of Laos. Instead of minced meat, the focus was a pile of heavily caramelized onion. Accompanied with brussels sprouts puree, fresno chiles, coriander, lime, mint, and quinoa wire(circa Alex Stupak).
Curry roasted cauliflower. Curried cauliflower in a nice harisa with chickpea, turmeric, cumin, golden raisin, pine nuts, and sprouted chickpea.
Olive oil jam and bitter chocolate. Olive oil, szechuan buttons, chocolate cake, freeze dried strawberries, and black truffle. Before the dessert arrived, we were offered some szechuan buttons so we could experience their tickling/numbing sensation. The dessert was fantastic. Great textures and tastes, not too sweet, and the tingle from the buttons was a lot of fun. This was Rocky’s favorite plate of the night.
Hibiscus and pistachio. Hibiscus cake dusted with pistachio. Pistachio shortbread. Thai long pepper sorbet with hibiscus. Fennel marmalade. Iranian pistachios. Vanilla syrup cased in pistachio. Quite an amazing dessert. A delightfully themed variety of preparations. My second favorite course, next to the kombu atoll.
Steamed crepes. Burnt sugar. Passionfruit. Chocolate.
Overall a fun meal with some very creative and clever highlights. Initially on leaving dinner I was a little let down by the lack of pristine fresh vegetables I had expected from an all-vegan menu in summertime, but I got over it, looked back, and was pretty impressed with the offerings. Did it ‘challenge my perceptions of what vegan cuisine can be’ as the cheesy welcoming letter-mission statement suggested? Not really. But would I eat this menu again? Certainly.
Some wines I was served:
Date of visit: June 16, 2013
Next. 953 W Fulton Market. Chicago, IL www.nextrestaurant.com