Chicago Steak, the latest iteration of Next restaurant (which changes themes three times a year), is a head scratcher, the first effort by Grant Achatz, Dave Beran and Nick Kokonas to leave me uncertain as to what the trio intended.
It's an homage to the Great American Steakhouse and to the classic dishes that one expects to find there, and it's much more geared to the latter than the former. Those anticipating, say, a parade of beef — the steak, reconsidered — will be disappointed. There is but one steak among the 10 or so courses, and it arrives, appropriately, as the final savory course of the meal.
What leads up to that moment are a lot of very good to excellent dishes based around the steakhouse theme. Some dishes are unapologetically faithful, as in the case of the shrimp cocktail, a pair of hefty shrimp in a memorable cocktail sauce made from fermented tomatoes and horseradish. Decorated with sprigs of yellow celery, the sauce not only complements the meaty shrimp very well, it also left me with the impression that one could make one hell of a bloody mary with this stuff.
And then there is the oyster dish, one of the highlights of the menu, in which two Island Creek oysters are presented in a way no steakhouse has ever contemplated. The oysters sit in their shells, coddled in a rich sauce of creme fraiche and oyster liquor, and topped with Iberico ham; below the shells is a panzanella salad of broccolini, shallots, parsley and charcoal-grilled sourdough croutons. It's a terrific smoky-sweet-briny composition that had my tablemates and me in a virtual swoon.
The oysters are actually part of a pick-one trio that also includes clams Siciliano (a nod to 2012's Sicily menu) and a fried sweetbreads and steamed mussels surf-and-turf combo. Make sure your table includes at least one oyster selection for every two people.
The kitchen goes into mashup mode with the salmon coulibiac, a classic fish pie that, in this version, merges salmon en croute and beef Wellington. Wrapped around the king salmon loin are concentric circles of fine herbs, shrimp and mushroom mousse and, standing in for mushroom duxelles, a thick band of black trumpet mushroom risotto. There's a bit of the steakhouse to this dish, but mostly this is just a fantastic creation; if this dish were to reappear on the China menu this summer, I don't think I'd mind too much.
Following an excellent lobster thermidor, which has a surprise underlayment of melted leeks and apples and essentially functions as a protein-filled soup course, we come to the savory finale: rib-eye steak, presented in slices on a platter (vaguely reminiscent of last year's Bocuse d'Or menu), rich with beef flavor and a subtle blue cheese tang that only dry aging provides. Sous vide cooking keeps the meat bright red, a quick sear at the finish provides the charred exterior.
It's a superb steak but not a transformative one, and it mostly reminded me why steakhouses tend not to be rated at the highest rung on the fine-dining ladder. A great piece of beef, flawlessly handled, can take a meal only so far.
The steak comes with a trio of sauces; Next deliberately omits bearnaise sauce, though there is a capucine (nasturtium) sauce that functions much the same way, as well as a peppery veal-reduction "sauce Kokonas" (gotta be an inside joke there) and a Next steak sauce that's like a really, really good A1 Steak Sauce. Serving as side dishes are an onion gratin that's like French onion soup minus the soup, and a two-jacket (twice cooked) potato that combines bone-marrow potato puree (another Bocuse d'Or nod), home fries, hash browns and '70s-era potato skins in one package.
A series of desserts concludes the meal, starting with a Champagne float with brioche ice cream (the brioche meant to evoke the toasty notes of a much older Champagne vintage), and progressing to flamed-tableside baked Alaska (here called a Norwegian omelet, an older name for this dish) that includes tobacco-flavored ice cream as an evocation of the postprandial cigar. At the very end is a chocolate-mint parfait, a salute to the Andes mints that so often accompany the bill. Service is its usual charmingly chatty self, though I must note, as I do with all Next reviews, that because of Next's online ticket system and my many visits here, I am never anonymous when I visit this restaurant.
I like the Chicago Steak menu, but the very limitations of the steakhouse concept seem to hamstring the kitchen's ability to dazzle in the way it often does. Next focuses on superb technique and tasting-menu presentations; steakhouses focus on massive portions of proteins and desserts the size of toasters. Possibly Next and steakhouses were never meant to intersect.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
953 W. Fulton Market
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Dinner with standard wine pairing, tax and service charge approximately $340
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Tickets sold online only
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.