4-STAR DINING REVIEW
Phil Vettel reviews the Sicily menu at Next
Chef Dave Beran's touch of Sicily, the Gemelli con le Sarde. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune / June 28, 2012)
A Weber kettle grill.
For those who came in late, Next restaurant changes its menu to reflect a new culinary theme every three months or so. It has previously re-created the cuisines of Auguste Escoffier and Ferran Adria, and taken on the childhood reminiscences of the restaurant's own head chefs. Next's shape-shifting nature requires chef Dave Beran and uber-chef Grant Achatz (who also helms Alinea) to change not only the dishes they create, but also the manner of creation, to be faithful to the selected cuisine's style, history and culture. With "Sicily," Next's fifth and latest iteration (running until late September), it's not enough for the Next staff simply to cook Italian; it has to cook as Italians.
And so arrivederci to Next's usual bag of sci-fi tricks, ciao to house-made pasta and open-fire grilling.
"We're actually using our stove for once," Beran says. "It's a running joke with us."
The approach is bound to disappoint those patrons anticipating the "Alineazation" of Italy — liquid-nitrogen lasagna, perhaps — but Beran and Achatz play it scrupulously, defiantly straight. We tend to underestimate Italian cuisine in this country, and it's likely that some diners will underestimate "Sicily," scoffing at the notion of simple country cooking with a $250 price tag. Even if that figure does cover eight courses, wines, tax and gratuity.
But that is precisely Next's bold stand. Achatz and Beran have purposely distanced themselves from the culinary style that made their restaurants so popular in the first place. The masters of food manipulation are staking their reputations on a menu that repudiates manipulation in favor of simplicity and purity.
The menu's conceit is that "the best Sicilian meals are found in homes," and to that end, Next strives to re-create a home-dining experience. Previously, for instance, Next guests were handed playbills, booklets defining the evening's theme; for "Sicily," there is simply a card of welcome, signed by the chefs and other staff.
The first three courses are served family style; the fish and meat courses accompanied by passed vegetables. The signature dessert, a marzipan-enrobed cassata cake, is presented to the table whole (the better to appreciate the remarkable intricacy of the cake decorations) but served in slices (the better to appreciate the clean striations of white cake and ricotta filling). Courses are served on hand-painted Italian plates, sourced painstakingly from multiple suppliers (including eBay) and deliberately mismatched.
You begin with a quartet of small street-food bites, highlighted by remarkable arancini (fried balls of saffron risotto) stuffed with lamb's tongue and a burnt-tomato sauce, and roasted artichokes, their exteriors blackened from prolonged exposure to wood embers, their interiors soft and yielding (this dish alone justifies the Weber purchase).
Then it's on to seafood, and rather than one single frutti di mare assortment, there are five discrete presentations, each highlighting the character of its star ingredient. There is sticky-sweet octopus in agrodolce (this dish is one Szechwan peppercorn away from kung pao octopus); paper-thin flakes of air-dried tuna loin, which have the unctuous mouth feel of fine prosciutto; wood-grilled mussels paired with smoky red pepper; clams, whose chewy texture is offset by crunchy raw fennel; and sweet shrimp crudo with spicy basil, citrus, sharp raw garlic and tiny cubes of watermelon, as close to a Sicilian ceviche as you're likely to get.
More seafood adorns the three pasta dishes, again served as a group. Bucatini is crowned with sweet and silky pieces of sea urchin; light, slightly spongy gnocchi nuggets support coins of bottarga (sun-dried fish-roe flakes), their briny flavor heightened by a bottarga-laced butter sauce. The star of the grouping is the gemelli con sarde, twinned pasta twists with black currants and pine nuts, topped with golden pieces of fried sardine — my favorite dish of the evening.
Main courses celebrate abundance. There is a large fillet of swordfish, simple but flawless, with a wonderfully moist interior and a lightly crispy exterior, over mint-basil pesto. Following that, fist-sized pieces of slow-braised pork shoulder, with echoes of blood orange, arrive alongside a bold tomato sauce flavored with garlic, shallot and more citrus. The portions were such that my table toted home a doggie bag or two.
Leftovers at Next. Who'd have guessed? Then again, I can't remember my last Italian meal that didn't produce leftovers. (Actually, I can. It wasn't very good.)
The vegetables accompanying the main courses are knockouts: Ribbons of raw zucchini, blanched asparagus and fried zucchini blossoms, touched with a saffron-tomato-chili vinaigrette; and caramelized romanesco with boiled and fried chickpeas and wilted mint leaves.
The meal ends with a tray of sweets, including sesame-honey cookies, strawberry-filled fried ravioli and adorable mini-cannoli, their ends capped with marasca cherries.
Because of the menu's strong vegetable component, and the various ingredients that go in and out of availability during the summer, expect "Sicily" to be the most dynamic of any previous Next efforts. Indeed, my advice would be to sample this menu at least twice, preferably a month or so apart. Except that, given the extraordinary difficulty in obtaining tickets for even a single visit here, my advice is absurd.
Nevertheless, in the ideal, that's what I would do. Of all of Next's menus to date, "Sicily" is not my favorite. But it's the one I'd most like to repeat.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
953 W. Fulton Market
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Price: Dinner with wine, tax, gratuity approximately $250
Credit cards: A, DS, M V
Reservations: Prepaid tickets sold online only
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Ratings key: 4 stars -- outstanding; 3 stars -- excellent; 2 stars -- very good; 1 star -- good; no stars: unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.