Next's Chicago Steakhouse
Here's a preview of what's to come. Good? Okay, let's get started.
Any self respecting steakhouse serves a Martini, and Next doesn't shy away from the challenge. But instead of going strong with the liquor—and then serving the result in a glass the size of a fish bowl—the restaurant's one and only Martini is a 1-to-1 mix of vodka and dry vermouth. The result is a clean and sleek drink, which even non-Martini drinkers (like my wife) can appreciate. The drink is also shaken tableside, which doesn't do anything for the taste, but is a nice introduction to the meal.
Eating crudité is usually a two-step process: first, pick up the raw vegetable, and then dunk into a sauce. But Next combines them by dusting each of the offerings in a dill pollen, among other flavorings, which tastes remarkably like ranch dressing. Though slightly messier—a towel is provided afterwards to wipe down your hands—the choice assures that each of the extra crunchy vegetables is evenly seasoned. Plus, it looks really cool. It's a great start to the meal.
According to my server, the bread uses a 30 year-old starter from the pastry chef's mother. The bread is very flavorful and packed with personality.
Unlike the crudités, Next doesn't mess with the shrimp cocktail eating process—the shrimp still have their tails on for easy dipping. The remarkably juicy shrimp prove that the restaurant is sourcing and cooking carefully. But the biggest surprise, and pleasure, of the dish is the unrestrained cocktail sauce. It's packed with nose-clearing horseradish, which reminds me of the potent sauce served at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis.
Surf and Turf
While I got the shrimp cocktail, my wife got this dish. It's a little more conceptual, and it's initially hard to figure it all out. Grilled mussels share the enormous plate with sweetbreads, tart cherries, and a hilariously over-the-top dusting of herbs. The mussels are good, if messy, but they pale in comparison to the crunchy little bites of fried sweetbread. Give me a basket of these guys and I'll be happy.
Every steakhouse needs a salad that is served with the maximum amount of fuss, and here Next goes all out. All the components are tossed together tableside in a bowl set over a huge block of ice. Instead of going with a Caesar or wedge, Next serves something called a LeVasseur Salad, a concoction absolutely packed with herbs, some of which are charred in brown butter. It's topped with two butter-poached frog's legs that are as tender as any I've ever encountered. I know this sounds like an odd mix, but the salad was easily a highlight of the night.
With the salad out of the way, the dishes immediately get heavy. The first fish course resembles nothing less than a beef Wellington, with salmon encased in duxelles and flaky pastry. (Apparently, this is a Russian dish, though I found a similar recipe in Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire.) It's a beautiful sight, and all the more impressive that none of the layers are overcooked (the salmon is especially tender). But it's also very buttery, making it slightly hard to appreciate the fish. So I didn't feel the least bit guilty about popping the salmon out, and finishing the rest with nothing around.
In the odd chance that the salmon wasn't rich enough for you, it's followed by Lobster Thermidor, a dish actually known for being ridiculously over the top (so. much. butter.). And it certainly is, but Next pulls a fascinating trick here, spiking the dish with a combination of apple, charred lemon, and sherry. All that acid tricks you into eating way more of this than you think you have room for. I wouldn't call the result balanced, but it is incredible, and another highlight.
30 Day Dry-Aged Ribeye
Let's get through the details first. Next uses a ribeye that has been dry aged for approximately 30 days at Flannery Beef in California. The steak is seasoned solely with salt, poached in butter, and then seared briefly. This cooking method results an interior that is exactly the desired temperature, with a beautiful browned crust, and remarkably little gray in-between the two. (I don't have the exact temperature for the steak, but it's definitely on the medium-rare to rare side.) After resting, the steak is sliced and brought out on a platter. Two diners share one large steak, which would be more than enough if you two ate nothing else, and is almost too much after so many courses.
Of course, the most important question is how the steak stacks up to others in town. The only satisfactory answer I have is that I think it's incredible—it's maybe not my absolute favorite in town, but definitely in the top three or four. More importantly, there's no other steak in town quite like this, making it a truly unique experience. Though it's only aged for 30 days, it has a definite mineral tang and a hint of blue cheese funk, neither of which gets in the way of the beefy base. I would have perhaps liked more of a crust, but that would have come at the expense of the extremely tender interior, which is obviously what the kitchen obsessed over. I was expecting the steak to arrive with some hulking steak knife, but that would have been completely unnecessary when a regular knife does the job with little to no effort.
Final Steak Thoughts
That also means that it doesn't instantly obliterate every other steak in town. It's just a great steak, cooked carefully and exactly, and served up without any input from the guest. That also means that if any of your personal steak preferences don't align with Next's, you might leave disappointed. For one thing, no one asks you how you'd like the meat cooked. And while the meat isn't quite as spectacularly rare as it looks—at least, I don't think it is—my wife definitely preferred some of the end pieces that had a little more brown.
The steak is served with three sides. My favorite of was an onion paysan, which features a bed of well caramelized onions—think French onion soup—that are topped with a crunchy coating.
Speaking of crunchy, these cute little spuds were so crispy that they were almost impossible to cut, making them extremely hard to eat. I thought this was a wasted opportunity at first, but halfway though the course they softened somewhat, and I eventually grew to appreciate them.
I should note that there was also a dish of brussels sprouts that was fine, if forgettable, which partly explains why I forgot to take a picture of them.
Now, on to dessert. To pair with the yeasty character of Colin "Extra Dry" Premier Cru Champagne NV, the kitchen created a brioche ice cream. I'll never turn down champagne, and overall this was a great breather after the succession of heavy courses.
Though the name is slightly confusing, this is basically a baked Alaska; that is, ice cream incased with artfully torched meringue. It's a beautiful plate, striking a great balance between being slightly ostentatious but still refined.
As the name suggests, this is a combination of creme brûlée and cheesecake, complete with the crackly caramelized crust on top and creamy filling. Sounds interesting, but I found it way too salty and missing the tanginess of a good cheesecake. Then again, perhaps I had reached my limit for the night.
I understood the concept—it's an after dinner mint!—and the flavors are mostly accounted for, but there's almost no sweetness. Plus, I like mints with a good crisp layer of chocolate, but this had no texture at all. I realize at this point I'm critiquing something this small, especially when it's nothing more than a final bite of a rewarding meal, but it's a tad bit frustrating to end the meal with a few less than thrilling bites.