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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!

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First of all, let me say that if my mom is reading this, and I’m sure she is (Hi, Mom), she is one of many who think I am certifiably crazy as a mad bat, for having done this, but I did it.  I ate at Next last Wednesday, Feb. 22, succumbing to the undeniable and almost out-of-control allure of the El Bulli menu.  Yes, it was expensive.  Crazy-expensive.  Hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  But it was hands-down the most amazing food experience I’ve ever had.  The creativity, the imagination, the “think outside the plate” concepts absolutely blew me away. I sum it up in four words: inspiring, magical, fun and absolutely delicious.  Also, a little drunken.

If you’re not familiar with Next, visit their Facebook page.  The entire menu changes every few months, and the current menu, which started in early February, is an homage to the famous El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, where chef Ferran Adria broke barriers like no one else.  El Bulli closed in July 2010, so Chef Grant Achatz and Chef Dave Berans of Next decided to recreate the experience, Next-style.   Along with the amazingly crafted food and the wine pairings, I have to say the staff at Next is simply amazing.  The atmosphere is fun, the servers look like they are really enjoying bringing this experience to diners and they know everything about every dish, every wine — they’re amazing.  And nice as can be!

Now, I’m not a football fan, a Hollywood actress or a politician, but this was like the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards and the presidential elections of dining all rolled into one amazing 5 and 1/2 hour evening.  Behold the “Carrot Air:”

Yes, it looks like a brilliant orange bubble bath – but it was the purest, most intense carrot flavor EVER!  The combo of the light, airy foam and the flavor and the aroma was  just amazing.  Definitely in my top five dishes.  Of the 29 courses.  Yes, 29.  But some are just literally one bite, like these:

Clockwise from top left: trout roe tempura, a quail egg in a “toffee” shell, liquid chicken croquettes and El Bulli’s famous “spherical olive:” a molecular gastronomy first, with olive brine and oil magically (yes, magically!) transformed into a liquid-y slurp of briny olive goodness!

And how can you not love a black sesame sponge cake with miso?  “What?” you say? Yes – it’s sweet, it’s black, it’s shaggy-looking, it’s salty from the creamy miso and it looks like it was made by a Muppet chef.  And it was delicious.

OK, onward.  Here you have some of the more substantial courses.

From top left, clockwise: savory tomato ice on almond milk custard, cauliflower “cous cous” surrounded by a ring of ingredients that you mix together as a sauce (peanuts, Campari gelee, I don’t even know what all, but it was damn good), shrimp “bisque” (my description, not theirs) and get ready – because it sounds gross, but it was amazing– hot crab aspic with mini-corn cous cous. Deeelicious.

Okay, ready for more?  Here it comes…

From top left, clockwise: Trumpet mushroom carpaccio, Red Mullet “Gaudi” (a bite), Nasturium with eel, bone marrow and sweet cucumber.  Sigh.  That red mullet was served on a sheet of glass, which was placed onto a “place mat” that was a big bag full of hot water and sea shells.  Shut up.  So clever!

Okay, by now we had quite a few wine glasses on our table:

All told, I think there were about a dozen different wines, all of them fabulous.

And then there was the civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly:

And here was the one thing that I did not care for, since I am (inexplicably) a life-long blue-cheese hater.

This is the gorgonzola balloon.  A cold orb of (strong) Maytag blue cheese sprinkled with nutmeg.   I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t like it (and I did try it!)

And now for the finale!  Sweets!

Top left was the Mint Pond – a giant glass plate with another “plate” of ice perched on top.  They sprinkled on dried mint and two other things (sorry, I’d hate rather a lot of wine at this point) and then you smacked it with your spoon into shards.  And ate it!  Fun!  Then came tiny chocolate donuts, filled with liquified coconut, a chocolate plate with gold leaf, cafe Cortado with a tequila gelee you dropped into your cup and finally, a whimsical plate of gloves waving goodbye.  Under one was a dish of passionfruit marshmallows.  Sigh.

If you want to go to Next, my suggestion is to join their Facebook communty; they offer same-night and next-night tables and you have to act fast, but it can be done.  The way I went was through a new friend I met on the Facebook page last June, looking for two people to share her four-top for the Paris 1906 menu.  She needed to fill her table for this one, so we made it happen!  The El Bulli menu runs through May and will be followed by menus inspired by Kyoto and Sicily.  (The other menus are considerably less expensive than the El Bulli menu.)

Yes, it’s expensive and excessive in every way, but to a food-freak like me – and many others – it is a simply unforgettable experience.  I’m an official Next groupie at this point.

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