Editor's Note: This post took some time to get to us. Due to Next's quick moving schedule, the Sicily meal recapped here is no longer available. But since many of us didn't get to experience this unique menu when we could and because these pictures are so good, I thought a little eye candy wouldn't be such a bad thing.
While in Chicago for a bread baker's conference in September, I managed to wrangle myself a reservation at Grant Achatz's Next. Unlike Alinea, his elBulli-inspired temple of modernist cuisine, the approach at Next is much simpler, if still unorthodox. Every three months, the prix-fixe menu rotates. Not rotated merely because of seasonal change, but changed to an entirely different regional theme altogether.
Since Next first opened in the spring of 2011, the various themes—each one centered on a different time and/or place—have been "Paris: 1906", "Thailand", "Childhood", "Tribute to elBulli", "Sicily", and "Kyoto." (To be clear, it's only the menu that changes with each season; the sleek, contemporary decor remains constant.)
We got to experience the Sicily-themed menu a little while back.
After being seated, we were offered three options for beverages with our meal: a selection of Sicilian wine pairings, an upgraded selection that included wines from all over Italy, or a selection of house-made juices, sodas, and teas (we opted for the deluxe wine pairings).
The pours at Next are extremely generous. You don't merely receive one glass of each selection, or even one bottle, for that matter; so long as you are still working on the portion of the menu with which the wine is paired, you drink as much as you want. Which is to say that, after nearly five hours at our table, we were all well south of tipsy (as the slowly degrading sharpness of my photos as the night wore on attests.)
The food was delicious, from beginning to end, and the wine pairings were—to my admittedly unsophisticated palate—well-selected. But the most interesting part of the meal for me was the seeming contradiction at the heart of it: there we were in a posh, stylish, and very expensive restaurant, eating food that was nothing if not humble. Yes, the sheer quantity of dishes, expertly choreographed and executed, elevated it to fine-dining status, but still, this was home cooking, not haute cuisine. It wasn't the food you'd eat at the finest restaurant in Palermo, it was what you'd be served on a holiday feast at Nonna's house, if you were lucky enough to have a grandma that cooked this well.
In the end, it's an EPIC meal: 9 courses, 23 dishes, and 6 different wines, consumed over nearly 5 hours. (Not to mention the most important figure of all, four: the number in our party.)