chicago: next – thailand & authenticity
After our meal at Next Paris 1906, Grace and I weren’t sure if we’d be able to go back to the restaurant anytime soon. Even ignoring the challenge of racing online to try and get tickets, there was the small (in size, but not obligation) issue of the baby. If I had guilt going down the street to Lake Park Bistro while Po Po and Gong Gong watch the baby, just how guilt ridden would I be taking him to Chicago, leaving him with someone to eat at Next? Apparently not very much, because before I knew it my sister (evil evil sister) had gotten me to log in with 16,000 other people and race for tickets. If not for the interference of a colleague I probably would have gotten tickets myself, but as it turns out my (evil) sister did and used her (evil) powers of persuasion to tempt me.
(Note to baby: I tried my hardest to resist. I didn’t want to go but your aunt made me. She made me. You believe me, right?)
So (reluctantly) we all went to Next and left baby with Chad, my brother-in-law who won the prize of staying home to watch the kids (Yes, my sister is so evil that she not only made me leave my baby so that Grace and I would eat out with her, but also left her own child at home and forbade her husband from coming with us. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
The actual space of the restaurant does not change much from meal to meal. On walking in, the slate colored floors and stark walls feel modern; but it’s surprising how much changes with just a few touches at the table. Gone are the antique china from Paris 1906, first replaced by Thai newspapers and plastic forks and followed by a deep purple table runner and some woven baskets for rice.
The meal starts much like the Paris 1906 menu with a selection of small bites. Each bite is a riff on something from Thai street foods just assembled with an arguably higher attention to detail. A savory sweet roasted banana, raw sweet shrimp and garlic, prawn cracker, a slice of Issan-style sausage and a Chinese style steamed bun. Not everything on the plate was perfect, but good enough. The flavors were strong leaning towards salty, but more often than not, balanced with the sweet and sour. The best were the shrimp, which were smooth and soft, pungent and fragrant. The biggest disappointment was perhaps the steamed bun, which was doughy and whose filling (green-curry mushrooms) lacked sufficient punch to overcome the bun.
The tom yum style soup came next. I supposed when building a tour of Thailand menu some iconic dishes are bound to appear and short of pad Thai, there is probably no less iconic Thai dish than tom yum soup. In a way this is a great choice as there really is no one tom yum soup and really it encompasses a range of dishes making for a soup with a good balance of salty, sour and hot. More commonly the broth is made from prawns, but here chef Beran chose to use a broth made from pork shanks and pork feet finished with fat like a ramen broth to deepen its flavor. The resulting hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, ginger soup is fantastic.
Before the next two courses a set of relishes are brought to the table -
- nam prik pao – chili, shallot, garlic jam – pungent and garlicky, slight heat
- salted duck egg, green mango, white radish – like the filling of a deviled egg
- pickles (watermelon rind) – tart, thin crunch
The catfish with caramel sauce, celery, coriander root comes soon after presented in a large fish shaped bowl. This is the first in a series of dishes that mark a clear departure from the standard service style. The catfish and relishes are served family style complete with self-serve rice on the side.
The sous vide catfish is buttery and the sauce is a mix of sweet caramel, salt, garlic and coriander. Mixing and matching the relishes with the floral jasmine rice between bites provides for a fun taste rollercoaster of salt, sour and spice.
The table is only partially cleared leaving the rice and relishes for the next course. The panang curry of beef cheek is delicious. The curry is rich with a background of coconut and peanut accented with kaffir lime and warm nutmeg. The beef cheek is eye piercingly tender. It is good that there is plenty for second, third and forth servings of even just the curry over rice.
A brief palate cleanser between the curry and the desserts to come. A drink of watermelon and lemongrass – bright and refreshing.
The coconut, corn, egg, and licorice dessert is not a typical Thai dessert but rather an amalgam of five different sweet street food bites. On one side is a young coconut water ice served tableside. On the other is a mix of flavors including licorice tapioca, egg yolk cooked in star anise/saffron syrup, candied limes, cured sliced mango, young coconut, crumble of dried coconut milk powder, lime, freeze dried corn, frozen shattered corn pudding, coconut mousse, pink peppercorn, anise hyssop, and fennel flowers. From the simple to the sublime this dessert is difficult to describe. It is cool to the mouth but the flavors are warm and tropical. There is a hint of savoriness but undeniably a dessert.
As if the coconut dish was not conceptual enough, more Alinea is incorporated with the final dessert. In a strange Bachelor-esque turn, a rose is brought table side. “Smell the rose” says the server. It’s a strong floral smell.
When the server comes back he has a dragonfruit topped with a rose syrup. “Smell the rose, and eat the fruit, then smell the rose again” he says. And so we do. Again there is that strong rose scent. We take a bite of the dragonfruit and suddenly the rose is in our mouths. We smell again and the scent is gone. The rose has a faint smell of grass. We take another taste of the dragonfruit and the rose is in our mouths again.
When we arrived at Next we were greeted by the street, and as we leave we get another treat from the Thai streets – bagd of milk tea (rooibos, palm sugar, milk).
- guava, mango, papaya
- chrysanthemum, lemongrass, lychee
- carrot, ginger, orange
- hibiscus, mangosteen, Thai pepper
- corn, pineapple
- cucumber, vichy catalan
The power of the non-alcoholic drink pairing is just how well they are paired. At times the drinks themselves can feel a bit bland; but together with the food the flavors come out. But overall the drinks from Paris 1906 were probably a bit better.
I am guilty as anybody in questioning the authenticity of food but more and more I find myself wondering what I mean when I say it. Is it who is cooking the food? Is something inauthentic if the person cooking is not what you’d expect them to be? No. There are Asian chefs all over the world cooking classical French cuisine. Pok Pok in Portland is considered amongst the best and most “authentic” Thai food in the country and the Chef-owner Andy Ricker is white. And though Chef McDang may be the most famous chef in Thailand it is his Australian friend David Thompson whose book is more revered around the world as the quintessential text on Thai food. Perhaps authenticity is more about expectations. But then how could something be authentic if one has never had it? And does that also mean that authentic is different for each person or is there some authority which deems somethings authentic and others not? As Todd Kliman identifies so well in his essay “The Problem of Authenticity” in Lucky Peach, authenticity is in fact a moving target changing depending on the time and the place. So what do I mean when I say something is not authentic? For me it may be a feeling – as if there is a sense of disingenuousness. It’s presumptuous to say, but sometimes it feels as if the food just has not been cared for and the food has not been respected.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Next was trying to master in 3 months a completely foreign cuisine. And to be sure people were looking for them to fail. But chef Dave Beran clearly took his task seriously and did his research eating at Thai restaurants all over the city and studying the cuisine best he could. For the most part, I think they nailed it. Was it the best Thai food I’ve ever had? I’m not sure, but it is definitely in the conversation. Michael Gebert from Sky Full of Bacon has been sparring (with pretty anyone willing to spar) over twitter on the notion of Next being the best Thai in Chicago. His notion, best I can surmise, is that there is great Thai (e.g. TAC Quick, Spoon Thai) in Chicago and that it seems ludicrous that 16,000 people (me included) would buy the hype and compete for Thai food at Next when they could get it for 1/4 of the price at another Thai restaurant. And I get that, but it’s not the same (mandatory disclaimer – yes, I have eaten at those other restaurants, and yes I have also been to Thailand, but no I do not in any way consider myself a Thai food expert). There’s a reason Next sells tickets instead of giving checks. Only part of it is being transported to another place, the other part is the show. I go for the food, but stay for the details – the drink pairings, the Alinea-fied dessert, the playful bags of tea. In a way it better be some of the best Thai in Chicago for the price, and chef Achatz and Beran care enough to make it so.
953 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
Post Script: My sister is not actually evil, rather just slightly skewed toward malevolent. Thanks to her getting the tickets we were able to have this great meal. We were both worried about getting back to the kids so we tried to eat ‘efficiently’. Last time Grace and I finished in 1:46. This time in a table of 4 we finished in 1:41. Sub 1:30 here we come. Unless of course we snag a kitchen table next time…