To eat at Next is to share skull space with some of the most creative culinary minds in America. That is manifestly apparent after one dines at Kyoto, the sixth production, if you will, of Next's culinary repertory.
For those who came in late: Next, which opened in 2011, changes its entire concept every few months, offering menus from different lands, centuries and even states of mind. Among the previous iterations have been Paris 1906, childhood and Sicily.
The object in these menus is not about transporting patrons to another time and place; it's more about viewing that time and place through the unique prism of chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran.
The setting this time around is autumn in Kyoto, and it is Next's best menu since Paris (the very first Next creation). It might be Next's finest effort yet.
The first course sets the tone for the upcoming journey, as first courses should. It is a Japanese-style tea, but made from charred corn husks, which convey the sweetness of corn with a burning-leaf smokiness.
"Autumn is the time of the rice harvest in Japan, so it's common to find toasted-rice tea," Beran explains, "but that would seem artificial, because we don't grow rice here. So we created something to relate to our harvest, and this felt and tasted like fall right off the bat."
The meal is unquestionably Japanese — the scholarship behind the 14-course menu is astonishing at times — but corn, apple and maple themes (the menu has fun juxtaposing sugar maple and Japanese maple) echo throughout.
The second course consists of chestnut tofu, over a white-miso puree laced with apple (a play on apple butter) and a few fingernail-size pieces of crisp gala apple; on a separate dish, a tuft of hay is ignited for a bit of aroma (the proximity of Next's tables and staggered meal times ensures that echoes of that hay experience will return to you again and again).
Following that is a hassun tray, a sort of elaborate Japanese surf-and-turf arrangement, presented here as fall diorama. Colorful maple leaves and leafless twigs suggest a Midwest forest floor; scattered among the flora are fish and fowl: Duck and red-miso wrapped around pickled turnip, hollowed yuzu shells filled with trout roe, poached shrimp and fried shrimp heads (both edible) and sea urchin sprinkled with grape-stem ash (all that's missing from the tableau is moonlight).
Things get a bit more straightforward in subsequent courses, such as a very pretty presentation of braised abalone and fresh abalone liver along with seaweeds, radish and kinome leaf (which will make your tongue tingle), and a comfort-food bowl of matsutake mushroom chawanmushi (steamed egg custard). The sashimi presentation, a trio of kampachi, medai and Quinault river salmon, had one table companion swooning.
"The only way this salmon could be fresher," he said, "is if you were a bear."
I was equally impressed, minus the bear reference, with the grilled ayu, served skewered on a striped plate (its lines mimicking a hibachi grill) alongside dishes of wasabi leaf puree and whipped egg-yolk emulsion.
Authenticity does take a back seat to flavor when it comes to dessert, particularly the roasted figs, served in a sweetened soy-milk custard with deep-fried yuba (tofu skin). There's a bit of maple sugar in the custard, and crowning the plate is a sugar-dusted, deep-fried Japanese maple leaf. Beran says a local farmer sends Next hundreds of leaves each week, which, you have to admit, is a pretty clever way of getting dead leaves out of your yard.
The one dish that doesn't quite work is still, in its way, astonishing. In appearance it's a simple bowl of eel and shimeji mushrooms, floating in a dashi broth that's been flavored with maple (too much maple, I thought, distracting me from the painstakingly prepared eel). But I'm still impressed by how the maple got in the broth in the first place, via a stock created from maple branches, infused with bonito (fish) and kombu (seaweed) to be a true dashi. And the dish uses anago eel rather than, say, unagi or hamo, because, Beran says, "this was the one we liked most in our eel tasting."
Servers aren't so much waiters as they are roaming table-side guest professors. Every nibble, every sip at Next has a back story, and servers relate them as though from personal recollection, making the experience as immersive as it can be.
About the only missed opportunity is the inexplicable failure to convert the Office, Next's lower-level lounge, into a karaoke bar. Can't believe they overlooked that one.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
953 W. Fulton Market; nextrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Price: Dinner with wine, tax and gratuity approximately $250
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Tickets sold online only
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valetparking
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.