First Impressions of Next's Chicago Steakhouse
I first read about Next's upcoming Chicago Steakhouse menu on my phone while sitting in a Chicago steakhouse. This should immediately illustrate what differentiates this menu from all of the shapeshifting restaurant's other guises: competition. For the most part, the previous menus created an experience you couldn't find in Chicago. But if there is one genre of restaurant Chicago knows well, it's the steakhouse. What could Next possibly have to say?
Thing is, that unnamed steakhouse mentioned above was both mediocre and wildly overpriced. While I've had some genuinely great steaks around the city, I've mostly found the rest of the steakhouse experience to be so frustrating that I often want to stab my eyes out with the oversized steak knives. So you can't blame me for fantasizing about what Grant Achatz and executive chef Dave Beran could do with the staid, boring, and routine steakhouse meal.
Instead of offering a modern interpretation of what a steakhouse could be, Next drew inspiration from the Mad Men era (that's the 50s and 60s for the rest of you). You won't find any deconstructed or overly manipulated dishes on the menu. This is just about pure gluttony and more butter than you could ever dream of. It's the most straightforward Next menu I've tried.
For a whole recap of the meal, click on the slideshow. But if you want to get straight to the steak, plus some additional thoughts I had about the experience, read on.
Next's 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. The only satisfactory answer I have is that I think it's incredible—it's maybe not my absolute favorite in Chicago, but it's definitely in the top three or four. More importantly, there's no other steak around 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.
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.
Steakhouses and Choice
I suppose the real question is whether it is worth it. Basically, if you have the money, love steak, but always feel let down by the steakhouse experience, go for it. But I can see how this could infuriate others, especially those who love steakhouses just the way they are.
Steakhouses are all about choice. You choose the cut, size, age (sometimes) and temperature. And while sharing is welcome, you only have to do so if you want. Who cares if the cuts are insanely over-sized, or that you'll only be able to finish half it? That steak is yours. But Next's whole business model is about streamlining the ordering process, removing almost all choices. For this menu, that means that there is one cut of steak (a ribeye) that is cooked the same way for everyone. As I mentioned above, two people also share one steak.
If the meal were cheaper than most steakhouse meals, the answer would be simple, but it's probably more expensive. The cost for one ticket was $160, and that's without a wine pairing. That's a lot! Of course, most steakhouses aren't cheap and it's not unreasonable to spend that much, though you'd have to go all out and order multiple bottles of wine.
Honestly, I'm kind of conflicted about the whole thing. I kind of wish I could just order the steak and sides with a big glass of wine and be done. That's certainly enough food. But that's not the point of Next, is it? Plus, many of the early courses were phenomenal, even if I did find the desserts a bit lacking.
So I came away with more questions than answers from my visit, and you probably will too. But at least you get to contemplate the meaning of it all while devouring some genuinely excellent dry aged beef.