Like every Next dinner, a note waits at your table. This one was sealed with a wax stamp, and inside described the meal to come:
"With this menu we want to explore facets of hunting beyond basic ideas of game meats and hunting as sport, broadening our outlook to include fishing, foraging, and preservation. And because hunting and the outdoors are inseparable, the menu embraces nature throughout."
Hen of the Woods
The meal began with the presentation of a glass box. When opened, the perfume of fresh rosemary came out. Inside, two hen-of-the-woods mushrooms sat a top a hot rock, along with garlic and onion. To eat, I had to spear the mushrooms with a small pointer (I'm sure there is a technical name for this utensil, but I don't know it). Delicate, but woody thanks to the rosemary, this was fascinating start to the meal.
The mushrooms also came with an insanely rich consommé. It was like an entire bowl of French onion soup condensed to a two ounce shot.
Catch of the Great Lakes
The second course showcased the preservation techniques of the kitchen. In the jar was Walleye rillettes, which was supposed to be smeared on pumpernickel toast. It was creamy, obviously, but also much more delicate than others I've tried. The Walleye's subtle flavor still managed to shine through. And if it got to be too much, some pickled kohlrabi helped lighten things up.
More from the Great Lakes
There was also a cold and hot smoked lake trout, which unlike the Baltimore speciality, really is trout and from a lake. This immediately reminded me of the fine offerings at Calumet Fisheries, which is not such a bad place to mentally be.
Get it? Charcuterie on a tree limb. Anyway, this course featured five small bites perched on cross-sections of deer antlers. The bites included rabbit pate, elk jerky, boar salami, antelope heart tartare, and, my favorite, blood sausage.
Cellar Aged Carrots & Onions
This visually stunning dish featured carrots from the chef's garden that he had been aging since the harvest. They were paired with some very crispy fried onions. Now, I love carrots as much as the next guy, but I really wasn't expecting this dish to be such a knockout. The carrots were sweet, but still had some bite to them.
Duck Tongue, Cider Vinegar
Duck was featured two ways here. On the left was scrambled duck eggs wrapped in radicchio, while on the right was a puffed duck tongue, with raw apple and more radicchio. The puffed duck tongue was very cool, but the radicchio was very bitter. While by no means a failure, this was probably my least favorite dish of the night.
Fallen Leaves & Kidney
Why yes, that is a section of tree bark. Explained by the waiter as the restaurant's take on vegetable charcuterie, this composed salad featured some ingredients I would never have dreamt of serving together. I mean, would you ever consider adding fried seaweed, parsnip, pumpkin seeds, edible bark, and grated purple cauliflower? Let alone, be able to make it taste good? As with any good plate of charcuterie, the dish included mustard, though this one happened to be a kidney mustard.
Sturgeon & Caviar at Next
[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]
"We really wanted to show the fish with the caviar that comes from it," says Chef Dave Berna. "With the Hunt menu we want to utilize the entire product. It makes a more complete story when they are both together."
This dish is composed of sturgeon, spruce oil, sunchokes, and caviar buerre blanc. "We needed something more firm, with larger pearls and darker," Beran says. "So it still retains its texture when we heat it for the butter sauce."
More dainty food! Two bites of Woodcock, which I judiciously carved into four pieces, was served with tart huckleberries and shaved truffle. I could have eaten a dozen of these little guys.
Déjà vu? Of all the courses, this one feels like it was lifted straight off the Paris 1906 menu. As you may remember, that menu's centerpiece was a pressed duck course served with a sauce thickened with juices extracted from the carcass. This one subs in squab, and comes with a similar sauce. Also like the duck course, the squab's breast arrives perched on top of confit legs.
Not that I'm complaining. As you may remember, the duck was one of my best bites of 2011. A simple repeat would have been fine. But there were key differences. If possible, the squab tasted richer and more full bodied.
Steel Cut Oats
It also came with a small bowl of steel cut oats mixed with offal and more of the blood sauce. Surprisingly, this was the most indulgent bite of the night.
The backbone of the roasted squab was also brought out, and we were instructed to pick it up with our hands and get dirty, something that definitely didn't happen with the duck. Not knowing the menu, I figured this was the last course before dessert, because the duck was the final heavy course of Paris, so I dug in with abandon. But there was so much more.
Bison & Béarnaise
I was kind of sad when a waiter swooped by and walked off with the candles. But our table needed all that space for a massive, and very hot, black stone. Thin slices of bison were set beside it, and we were instructed to use tweezers to cook the bison on the rock. It seems weird to call the course light, but after the excess of the squab course, this was very welcome.
This was, without a doubt, the most unexpected course of the evening. A aluminum foil pouch arrived on smoking chips.
The Inside the Aluminum Foil
Inside was a majesty potato, a small purple variety, along with fresh thyme. A waitress then came by with house-made compound butter, and we were told to mash the potato up and mix in as much butter as we wanted. I know that self-mashed potatoes sound ridiculous, but the dish was so comforting and familiar, yet so well executed, that I couldn't help but finish off the whole thing.
Keeping the same humble theme, a hunter's stew of brisket and venison was brought out in a cast-iron pot. Stew was probably the last thing I wanted to eat after so many courses, but while it had incredible depth, it still had balance.
But the ciabatta served on the side completely stole the show. Warm and crackly, it was the best ciabatta I've ever encountered. The compound butter from the previous course found its true calling here. Interestingly, the bread was picked out because it could be cooked on an open fire.
Finally, the beginning of the dessert section. This play on a crème brûlée in a marrow bone was much more savory than sweet.
Another unexpected highlight, the barley pudding was cooked like a risotto, with very distinct grains. This, too, was not sweet, though the toppings helped make this a true dessert.
Preserved tart cherries, candied pecans, English toffee, brown sugar, and mint come on the side. Much like The Office's ice cream sundae, it's fun to mix and match the different components to craft the perfect bite.
Taking inspiration from dipping branches into maple syrup, this final course featured maple taffy that was poured over "snow."
To eat it, you immediately took up a small branch and rolled it in the taffy to create something of a maple taffy lollipop.