What's it Like to Sit through Next's 23-Course Vegan Menu?

[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

What happened to Chicago? When did this meat-obsessed, stock-yard city become so obsessed with vegetables? Last month, Amber checked out Grace's 9-course "flora" menu, and pondered afterwards whether there was a better fine dining restaurant for vegetarians around. Not to be outdone, Dave Beran, the executive chef at Next, crafted a 23-course vegan menu for the summer. Last time I visited the shape-shifting restaurant, it had just started The Hunt, a menu filled with more wild game than I'd ever eaten in one go. What could Beran do with nothing but produce?

I'll get right to the main question most of you have: What's it like to sit through a 23-course tasting menu with no meat, seafood, or dairy? Well, when the fine chefs at Next are preparing the feast, it's downright easy. In fact, of the four menus (out of eight) I've been to at Next, this one was the most consistently satisfying. While some courses from the previous menus might have reached greater heights, they also featured some dishes that were conceptually interesting, but not exactly delicious. On the other hand, the Vegan menu was stunning from beginning to end.

As I expected, Next didn't just take familiar dishes and replace the animal products with some clever substitutes. But the kitchen also didn't just serve up a bunch of barely fussed with vegetables, so that we could experience their natural essence. Instead, the dishes showed the versatility of fresh produce and how they could be transformed into something new.

Sadly, I arrived exactly right on time only to realize I'd forgotten my camera, so I had to make due with my iPhone. Oh, and the restaurant is very, very dark. That explains why the pictures aren't quite up to par and why a few courses are missing. But I still think you get a sense of what makes Next, and this vegan menu, so special.


953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 (map)