Hi Food Friends! And happy (hot!) summer to you! You might know about my obsession with NEXT restaurant in Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz’s and Chef Dave Beran’s innovative concept, where the entire menu and theme change about every three months. In February, I brought you my adventures at their El Bulli tribute and now I bring you the Sicily menu, which started in June. It was fun and it was delicious and this post will mostly be photos. I don’t routinely throw down the big bucks in restaurants, but there’s something so compelling about trying out each and every menu, to taste new things, to revel in the culinary skill and imagination of Chef Beran and the wine pairings of Joe Catterson. I can’t stay away!
First, if you have interest in NEXT, I highly recommend checking out their Facebook page — it’s evolved into a really fun community of “Nexties” who share feedback, funny comments about trying to get tickets and help out newbies with information and insights.
Second, my friend Amy and I were excited to finally visit The Aviary before dinner, which features brilliant cocktails and bites in a sexy, modern space right next door to NEXT. Behold my Watermelon cocktail:
Wish I could remember all the ingredients, but I was so damn excited, I forgot to write them down. I know the perfect, spherical, watermelon-red ice cubes were made with bitters and the whole drink was redolent with watermelon and just the right amount of ginger bite. It. was. divine! And because I was actually, in fact, starving, at 8:30, before our 9:30 reso at NEXT, we ordered a “bowl of chips.” But no – not potato chips. Pish-tosh: Aviary would never send out a bowl of plain potato chips. No, it was this:
Photo is not so great, because it was kind of dark and I wasn’t about to let loose with a big obnoxious flash, but there were chips made of lotus root (the lacy one), seaweed, chicharrones (pork rind, uh huh), polenta, squid ink with puffed rice, bonito, parmesan, and tapioca (a crazy-looking, bumpy thing with some cheese flavor on it, I swear). So much fun.
Okay, time to go NEXT door! The dinner opens with the cutest handwritten note autographed by Chef Beran and our section server Terrance and another chef, who it’s killing me I can’t remember (or read) his name.
What a fun touch. And it was immediately accompanied by a fantastic cocktail of amaro averna (a Sicilian herbal liqueur), honey, chamomile tea, Meyer lemon and Prosecco. Sensational. Okay, on to the food!
There was beautiful Caponata (a stew of eggplant, onions, celery, I think some raisins, and definitely pine nuts) and crisp, golden Arancine, fried orbs of risotto-style rice filled with a lamb’s tongue ragout (yes, delish!). There was also the most amazing char-grilled artichokes, but it didn’t photograph well, sorry!
Then came two pasta courses:
On the left you have handmade bucatini with Bottarga (cured fish roe shaved thinly into slices) and a cream sauce, and on the right, gemelli with fresh sardines, bread crumbs, currants and who knows what herbs and other delicious bits. Both were divine!
Then came the most tender and delicious swordfish on a bed of fresh mint pesto, accompanied by one of my favorite dishes: ceci – chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) with purslane, a wild, nutty-tasting succulent, which many call a weed, and romanesco, the freaky-looking child of a cauliflower and a broccoli. Plus white raisins and Lord knows what else – it was fabulous.
Aaaand, here comes the most tender, fatty, delicious pork shoulder … braised for six hours … with a side dish of sauteed zucchini and a gorgeous, spicy nasturtium, shaved raw asparagus and a delicate, perfectly fried zucchini blossom. Stunning.
Oh, my Godfather. I’m so freaking full. But here comes a lovely raspberry sorbet (I think it was raspberry – it was red and refreshing). And dessert. Full disclosure: for some reason, Italian desserts (with the huge exception of panacotta, which is not Sicilian) are not my fave. NEXT created a beautiful cassata, a traditional Sicilian cake, gilded with green and white marzipan (almond paste), covering white cake and a ricotta layer – it was gorgeous – just not to my taste. And tiny, perfect cannoli, which were light and delish. And I just realized I neglected to share the wines – but one of our favorites was the Planeta Passito, di Noto, 2008, a Sauternes-style dessert wine that was THE BOMB! Not overly sweet, crisp – completely delightful.
So there you have it. I can only hope I did it justice. It was three hours of food bliss, Sicilian style, and I cannot end this without giving a very loud SHOUT OUT in BIG SHOUTY CAPITALS to the staff at NEXT. The servers – many of whom I happily recognize from previous visits - are SO nice, so much fun, SO knowledgeable about the food, the ingredients, the preparation, the wines, the everything, it’s amazing — and lends so much to the entire experience. Mille grazie to all! And to those who plan on going: enjoy. And to those who cannot: enjoy eating my pictures!