"Bocuse d'Or," the latest menu from the ever-changing Next restaurant, takes its inspiration from the biennial culinary competition named for the visionary Paul Bocuse. But the restaurant's tribute is as much to Bocuse the chef as it is to Bocuse the competition.
The dining room has been transformed, judiciously, into a de facto Bocuse d'Or front-row seat. Flags from competing countries hang from the rafters; large flat-screen TVs display footage of February's competition (and of January's Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie pastry competition). Twice each evening, servers parade 4-foot long, competition-style trays through the room; the lights come up, the crowd noise is amplified and customers are invited to applaud, cheer and even use flash photography.
(The displayed creations of trout, pheasant and beef will reappear as menu courses in due time.)
The menu itself begins with all the majesty, indulgence and, frankly, salt level of classic French cuisine. First there is a veal terrine, more than can be prudently consumed, presented in a large crock; alongside is an antique condiment set bearing coarse mustard and cipollini marmalade. The first hors d'oeuvre, a splayed sourdough crisp whose center contains osetra caviar mounded over whipped beurre blanc, arrives on a five-plate stack of elegant china, the plates layered with folded napkins for even more lift. Sheer decadence.
A beautiful and briny prawn souffle follows, as does a miniature timbale of ham mousse in Madeira aspic. Cauliflower custard sealed with verjus gel and topped with foie gras and white-chocolate curls includes an everything-is-on-the-table-for-a-reason surprise I won't give away here.
The menu takes a bit of a Midwestern turn with Michigan brook trout and coddled eggs, a nod to executive chef Dave Beran's grandparents, who liked to serve trout with scrambled eggs. Though I don't suppose the grandparents included fried-to-an-edible-crisp trout spine, spheres of olive-oil curd, gold leaf nor shards of eggshell (cunningly contrived from egg white and kimchi spice) on their plates.
After a marvelous mushroom consomme under a pastry dome, a Bocuse dish that was adopted (with credit) by Jean Banchet at Le Francais, the pheasant presentation rolls out. On the paraded platter, the pheasant was whole, its cavity filled with still-smoldering hay and herbs that filled the room with fragrance. On the plate, it's a trompe l'oeil, a tipped-over plant still life whose flower pot is a tart shell, the soil made of ground pheasant, the dying flowers edible greens, the spilled water a sauce blanquette. Beneath the strewn greens lurks the camera-shy star of the dish, a butter-soft piece of sous-vide pheasant breast.
The beef course is like a deconstructed steakhouse dinner; there's a roulade of rib-eye meat and a "boudin vert" of sausage infused with spinach and herbs, a hunk of bone filled with a potato puree that's about half bone marrow (think Robuchon potatoes, only richer), and bearnaise sauce rendered as a solid. In essence it's steak with bearnaise, potato and spinach, albeit in a Gene-and-Georgetti-meets-George-Jetson way.
The 15-course meal concludes with the reliably luxurious mignardises, but before that are two straight-up Midwest desserts. A sweet cube of butternut squash shares a plate with huckleberries, oatmeal crumbles and butter-pecan ice cream, while an ice cream bombe (a nod to a required element of the Coupe de Monde) uses apple, cinnamon and white chocolate to re-create the flavors of an apple pie (the bit of pastry lattice in the middle of the plate is a cute touch).
The beverage pairings are terrific, beginning with an audience-participation Sazerac cocktail (tables add absinthe via antique perfume atomizers) and concluding with an inspired nonalcoholic egg cream that goes great with the apple pie.
Service remains exemplary, which brings me to the full-disclosure part of my Next reviews: Because Next's menus have such short lives (Bocuse d'Or runs through New Year's Eve), my review is based on a single visit, rather than the usual two or three. And though I pay full price for the dinners, anonymity is virtually impossible with Next's online ticket system and my need to visit early in the menu's run. And so my presence is always known, from the front desk to the kitchen. I cover Next's iterations as a theater critic would cover Steppenwolf's season.
This is now the ninth menu that Next has fashioned in its three-year history, and to me a clear pattern has emerged: Whatever the menu title, whatever culinary style is contemplated, the finished product remains tethered — sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly — to the Midwest. Rather than re-create a distant time and place, as they did with the inaugural Paris 1906 menu, Next's team imagines how a given culinary style would work if it were anchored here, and cooks accordingly. It might be hard to imagine a restaurant that has embraced Japanese, street-food Thai and Sicilian cuisines as having a sense of place, but Next clearly does.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Next
953 W. Fulton Market
Tribune rating: 4 stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Dinner with wine, tax and gratuity approximately $250
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
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.