Next, the shape-shifting restaurant by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (the principals at world-famous Alinea), dazzled diners with its inaugural "Paris 1906" menu. For an encore, the kitchen went about as far afield as possible. To Bangkok, in fact.
"We really wanted to depart completely, not just from French, but from the whole of Europe," says Dave Beran, Next's executive chef.
Done and done. "Paris 1906," which I reviewed exactly four months ago, presented formal French creations based on the turn-of-the-century recipes of Georges Auguste Escoffier. "Tour of Thailand," which runs through Oct. 9, is a multicourse journey that begins with street food, segues to formal dining and ends up literally back in the street — sated guests head for their cars clutching clear bags of sweet Thai tea, effectively hitting the street with street food in hand.
In a way, the current menu, which launched in July, takes more risks than its predecessor. Few diners were in any position to gauge whether Achatz and Beran had faithfully reproduced Escoffier. But Tour of Thailand includes versions of pad Thai, tom yum soup and Panang curry, dishes familiar to even casual Thai-food fans, and readily available — at much lower prices — throughout the city and suburbs.
With this menu, Next injects itself into the how-much-is-ethnic-food-worth debate. Though Thai restaurants have proliferated throughout the region, the market for top-dollar Thai food is decidedly limited. Only Arun's has ever commanded haute-cuisine prices consistently, and deservedly so.
Clearly Achatz can do likewise — reservations for the current menu are as maddeningly elusive as for the first — but one wonders how sustainable "Tour of Thailand" would be over time.
But then, that's precisely the point of Next, a restaurant that reinvents itself quarterly. Like a repertory theater company, each iteration of Next is a separate production, only the cast and crew remaining the same.
The meal begins with an assortment of street-food dishes — a mint leaf bearing raw sweet shrimp, accented with garlic, galangal, ginger and lime; coins of smoky, fermented sausage; crispy prawn cake and steamed pork buns — placed on sheets of newspaper (Thai newspaper, of course). Next up, a grill box of wood coals, over which skewers of chicken heart, strawberry and squid sizzle.
There was a green papaya and mango salad with salted crab, whose bright flavors went up in flames when my mouth encountered some hot peppers that virtually cauterized my tongue; I gathered that that was not the dish's intent. The soft riesling that accompanied the dish helped cool the fire, but not enough.
The tom yum soup, made here with a pork base, has a richness and depth I've encountered nowhere else; I want all my tom yum this way from now on. The beef cheek dish, actually a Panang curry, is another revelation, its myriad flavors clean and distinct.
I liked the idea of the condiments, which arrive as a separate course — dishes of chili-shallot sauce, duck egg with mango, peppers and cucumber with dried anchovy — made to be mixed with the steamed rice brought alongside. But even after the server identified each item, I lost track of what was what.
The dishes remained on the table for the next two courses, essentially reduced to their subordinate status; I liked the flavors, but the effect was overwhelming.
The final courses are standouts. First there is a coconut, split open to reveal a dessert assortment of licorice tapioca, paper-thin young coconut, egg noodles cooked in star-anise syrup, coconut ice, coconut mousse and frozen-corn pudding.
Next up, dragonfruit, its puddinglike interior sprinkled with rosewater and served with a long-stemmed rose to reinforce the fragrance.
If the first Next menu transported diners to a place they could never visit, this Thai menu leads them through familiar territory and manages to make the experience seem new.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
953 W. Fulton Market, Next restaurant.com
Open: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Dinner $65-$110; beverage pairings $75
Reservations: Online reservations, prepayment required
Noise: Conversation- friendly
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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