Friday, July 8, 2011

Eating at Next

So, this post is a long time coming. Several months ago I wrote about the "Ticketing" system at Next, the new restaurant by Grant Achatz.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to be able to score tickets, especially considering the insanity that happened when they were released.

Anyway, I don't like writing reviews of restaurants, so take this more as a trip report. Actually, I intentionally waited to write this report until after the "Paris 1906" menu concluded. If you don't already know, Next reinvents itself every 3 months serving a new menu from a different time and place. I wanted to wait until the  "Paris 1906" menu was no longer available before writing this. If you've been you may agree or disagree with some of my thoughts, that's up to you.

My reservation was for 5:30, the first seating of the night, and we arrived a few minutes early.  It was a nice early spring evening and the door was still locked. We waited outside for a few minutes with some other folks. There was a tingle of excitement in the air. Promptly at 5:30 the hostess opened the door and greeted us.

We were quickly seated in the sleek dining room. Comfortable and elegant all at the same time, the room is comprised of soft gray hues with an interesting beam curving along the ceiling of the long narrow dining room. The tones of a cool, early 20th century French singer came over the sound system. 

We were greeted by our server with a "program" for the evening. The simple bifold, heavy stock program was printed on a gold exterior with a subtle "Next Paris 1906" logo on the front. Upon opening it the interior was printed with a map of the streets of Paris with these words:

"Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier opened the Ritz Hotel Paris in 1906. A New upper class thrived; visiting the Ritz, along with restaurants such as Maxim's, became something more than just dinner. Part fashion show and part social scene, the restaurant was now the entertainment.

Paris, 1906 - Escoffier at the Ritz was and easy choice as our opening menu at Next.

Escoffier's life was framed by La Belle Epoque; it was a period of political stability, technological innovation, and a thriving economy before the chaos and horror or World War I. His seminal La Guide Culinaire established dishes and techniques that became the bedrock of Western cuisine. His kitchen organization and methods are still taught today.

The main liberty we have taken with the presentation is to 'plate' most of the courses.  At the Ritz, this menu would have been presented as part of a grand buffet, or served upon great platters set amongst the guests at large tables. While Escoffier gave precise details on how these should be arranged, the visual feast occurred before the food arrived on a guest's plate. 

We have followed many of these guidelines, but have done so on a personal scale.

Bon Appetit"

Our server came back almost on cue after we finished reading the program and explained that this was their take on Escoffier at the Ritz and the whole idea behind the restaurant was about taking a journey.

Throughout the evening service was impeccable. Neither rushed, nor too slow, timing, attention to detail and every guest need was taken care of effortlessly.

Our first glass of wine was presented not long after. A very nice non vintage sparkling wine from the Alsace, Chateau d'Orschwir Cremant d'Alsace Brut. Unlike a lot of Champagnes this wine was not overbearing with yeast. The bottle was presented, glasses were poured and the bottle was set on a small silver tray on the table. Not that we'd need more, but left in case we wanted more. The first course arrived seamlessly after. A beautiful tray of Hors d'Oeuvers set upon an elegant silver tray. The server briefly described each; leek with mushroom, anchovy on top of quail egg, pig on cracker with chive, foie gras and brioche, and creamy egg custard with truffles.

These were as tasty as they were beautiful. The leek was a perfect round of leek greens filled with an earthy duxelle. The pig on cracker was the silkiest rillette I've ever eaten. The small quenelle was set atop a house made cracker that was light and crisp. The custard was served inside an eggshell. This dish contained potato puree, whipped brandade, and of course the custard, all garnished with chopped truffle. I really wanted to like this dish more. To me the potato was out of balance with the rest of of the dish. While the flavor was nice I really didn’t get much of that custard creaminess I was expecting. The Foie Gras Brioche was a real stroke of genius. The mini slice of brioche had a small circle cut from its center which was filled with a wonderfully smooth, yet not too rich torchon of foie gras. Wow, really elegant. My favorite bite though was the quail egg topped with anchovy. This perfectly cooked medium boiled quail egg was a single bite and the yolk just oozed. I was skeptical of the anchovy garnish, but it all worked together so well.

While enjoying the Hors d'Oeuvers a camera crew from CBS was shooting in the kitchen. To get some dining shots the camerman came into the dining room and turned his sun gun on (that little yet powerful light on top of the camera) and aimed his lens straight at me. Well, I don't really like being shot without my permission and I like a glaring light blinding me while I dine even less. Lucky for me I'm a producer and I knew exactly how to get him to stop...look straight into the lens and stare until he shoots someone else.  It worked.

The next wine was served not long after the dishes from the first course were cleared away. This was an unusual wine. 2005 Domaine de Montbourgeau Savagnin “Etoile” from the Jura region of France. This nutty white is intentionally oxidized which gives it the character of sherry. This paired perfectly with the next course, Potage a la Tortue Claire. Turtle soup! When the waiter presented this dish he referred to it as Turtle consomme. OK, so I have a bit of a problem if this was in fact supposed to be a consomme. Consomme is supposed to be crystal clear. When this soup was poured from the elegant white tea kettle into the bowl garnished with carrot, turnip, and chervil, it was not crystal clear. A minor point to be sure, since the soup tasted great.  The chervil garnish really played well with the consomme. I'm usually not the biggest fan of consommes because I just don't think they deliver the bang of flavor I'd like. This one too was a bit delicate.  I'd have preffered a bit more intensity. I was curious about what type of turtle was used and the waiter informed me they get the snapping tutrtles from a farm in Louisiana. Talk about an informed staff! The sherry-like wine worked perfectly with this dish.

The bread course was next, a nice little roll served with butter. Nothing “wow” here, but I made sure to save some of the bread for sauce sopping later on.

Next (PUN!) we were served a fantastic 2006 Macon Milly-Lamartine “Clos du Four.” This white burgundy showed why Burgundy is a great wine region. Neither over-oaked nor too buttery, this minerally white was sure to be a great food wine. While the wine was good the next course was my favorite of the evening. Filet de Sole Daumont. All I can say about this dish is wow, just wow. The sole may have been the single most perfectly cooked piece of fish I've ever eaten. I just can't say enough about how amazing this was. Also on the plate were a perfectly fluted mushroom cap stuffed with crawfish, a crawfish head stuffed with crawfish mousse, and a small ball of breaded sole roe deep fried to a crispy brown. All of this was sauced with a spectacular bruleed butter sauce. Aside from the obvious flavor explosion one thing that really stands out in my memory about this dish was how the texture the flute cut on the mushroom cap really made things even better. A subtle point, but something that I'm sure most people miss. Too bad, because it's small details like this that really make a restaurant like Next stand out against the rest.

The wine that followed this dish was a bit of a surprise. This 2009 Chateau de la Liquiere “Les Amandiers” from Faugeres in the Languedoc is a rhone style blend. The reason it surprised me is because the next course was Supremes de Poussin. Chicken. Red with a chicken dish? Yup it worked, it just goes to show how the minds behind Next are always pushing to give the diner a new experience. It would have been so easy to serve a rich chardonnay from Burgundy with this dish, but not these guys, they never take the easy road and always push for excellence. The slight smokiness of the wine really paired nicely with the dish. This course was a perfectly cut diamond shape of chicken breast cooked sous vide, topped with a super rich and velvety foie gras sauce. Along side were two rounds of cucumber which were seeded, and filled with a chicken forcemeat. This was all poached in butter and wrapped with a salt pork. The cucumbers were really outstanding. Of course what isn't when it's poached in butter? I didn't quite “get” the salt pork though. I just couldn't figure out why it was needed and what it added to the dish. Also, while the flavor of the chicken and sauce were fantastic, the chicken was just ever so slightly over cooked. Again, not a huge problem but a slight, unexpected misstep.

The next wine was a 2006 Domaine Brusset “Les Travers”, Cairanne located in the Cote du Rhone. The huge berry flavors and good tannin structure stood up well to the luxurious, fatty texture of the Caneton Rouennais a la Presse. This duck entree was perhaps the most talked about and raved over dish of the entire menu. The sauce for the dish was made with a duck press. Chefs put the carcase of the carved duck into this tool and crank the press down to extract all of the juices which are used to create an elegant, yet not overly complex sauce. While really good, I found that the duck just wasn't hot. Now, perhaps this was intentional as in Escoffier's day it would likely not have been hot. Regardless I'd have liked the dish to have been hot. Another minor misstep I think.

Along side of the duck was served Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise. This was the finest preparation of potatoes Dauphinoise I have every had. Creamy, perfectly cooked potatoes that weren't too rich. Usually this dish is so rich you can only eat a few bites. But not this one.

After this we got a small, tiny Salade Irma. An array of greens served with nasturtium blossom, asparagus and radish. While nice, I found this salad to be slightly overdressed.

Dessert was a Bombe Ceylan. This coco covered ice cream dome sat atop a chocolate cookie aside rum soaked cherries. While perfectly fine, I felt the dish was a touch too cold and paled in comparison to the rest of the meal. This was served with a Smith Woodhouse 10 year tawny port.

Finally came the Miganardises. 3 really wonderful little sweet bites to end the meal. Salted Carmel, a spectacular nougat, and a beet jelly that blew me away.

While enjoying our last course I mentioned to my friend that I hope we could get a tour of the kitchen.  One different thing about dining at Next is that no bill is presented at the end of the meal because everything is paid for in advance upon the purchase of your ticket.  After our dishes were cleared we got up to leave and a server came over to us and said he had arranged a tour of the kitchen for us. Apparently he heard me say I'd like one while he passed. I didn't think I was speaking loudly enough for anyone other than my friend to hear me.  Again, just another example of the level of attention to detail and outstanding customer service which comes with a dinner at Next.

So much has been written about Next; Paris 1906 that there's not much more I can say about it. Many people exclaimed “Perfection”, “I can now die happy”, or “The best meal of my life.” Well, I don't think it was that great. It was really outstanding and worth every penny. While it wasn't perfect the meal was one that I'll remember for a long long time. Congrats to all at Next on giving diners a wonderful experience.

While I didn't take photos of any of the dinner you can find some really spectacular ones here. Thanks to the folks at LTH Forum for allowing me to post this link and to "Yellow Truffle" for his permission and great photography.

Now I look forward to my “Next” meal “Tour of Thailand” which I was able to score tickets for tonight!