Man… I have never had such a hard time giving someone my money. Let’s just say I was 1 of the 14,000 people who tried to buy 1 of the 2000 tables offered online for the July-September Tour of Thailand Dining Concept at Next. I fought off repeated log-offs, a slow server, and 30 minutes of page refreshing to finally obtain a late table for Kate’s birthday.
Ok… so let me tell you a little about how this works because if you’re like me, you may not have realized how truly time consuming it may be to obtain a table at Next. Let’s see… Where to begin…
So what’s Next? It’s a restaurant concept opened 4 months ago by Chef Grant Achatz of the Michelin 3 starrred restaurant Alinea. Next creates a menu and atmosphere based on a type of cuisine and then changes it every three months. Their most recent menu: A Tour of Thailand could not have been more different than their last menu, Paris 1906. Perhaps even more interesting than their revolving menus, or should I say frustrating, is their reservation system. All reservations are made online through their website and are nonrefundable. A person can buy a 2, 4, or 6 person table with or without a wine pairings sold at a certain time slot. It’s essentially the same idea as buying a concert ticket. Your online purchase includes meal, drinks, tax and tip and at the end of the dinner you can leave with no expenses left to pay. It’s quite a revolutionary concept for reservations and dining in general.
Tickets for your evening meal are sold in advance for the three month dining concept and are released about a week before the new menu. The tickets released are an estimate of how many tables they can serve for the next three months and most recently sold out within an hour of the release. You have to have some patience as the online sale is a lot like ticketmaster and you can get logged off if you’re not quite quick enough.
We missed the initial sale for the first menu Paris, 1906 Escoffier at the Ritz, so I anxiously awaited a facebook status update for same day tables. The same day tables are announced via facebook midday, when the restaurant believes they have enough ingredients and staff to handle a few more tables. So how does one balance both Next facebook status updates and kidney function? I signed up to receive facebook updates for Next via text message. However, each time the text arrived for the Paris concept, I was either in between something at work, in a location with no internet service, or driving. A couple of times I may have franticly swerved my car to the side of the road to hastily send my prewritten email response in hopes we would be selected. Unfortunately, someone always beat me to the table and we set our hopes on The Tour of Thailand concept.
We arrived in the Meat Packing District, found a parking spot and meandered to the old Fulton Lounge site on the corner of Fulton and Sangamon. We checked in and waited outside on the ample sidewalk to be beckoned in for our meal. After about 15 minutes, we entered the intimate industrial appearing dining room. It was bustling with a diverse group of guests, Chicagoans, those from out-of-state, or international travelers, many of which, like Kate, had their SLR in hand. The large and speedy wait staff added to the high intensity atmosphere.
Our first course was Thai street food. A Thai newspaper was laid out across the table and our first course of drinks were served in plastic cups. The course was composed of a sweet roasted banana, a prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, and a steamed bun with green curry. The roasted banana was delicious with pickled shallots and cilantro blossoms. Our favorite item was the steamed bun with green curry.
Following our street food course, the newspaper table cloth was removed and a blue traditional table cloth was placed. A white bowl of pork belly, tomato and ginger was placed in front of us followed by a server who poured hot and sour broth into the bowl. The flavors of the soup were instantly familiar: Tom Yum Soup! The broth was certainly sour and not overwhelming spicy until Kate bit into a red hot Thai Chili and took the next 15 minutes to recover. With half of her lips tingling from the capsaicin she declared she would only be operating at 95% the rest of the meal. But given that the meal was nonrefundable… she had no choice but to continue on.
The next two courses were served family style with three classic thai condiments and rice served in bamboo like basket. First up, was the catfish in caramel sauce with celery and coriander root served on a metallic dish shaped like a fish over a hot burning coal. The sauce is essentially made by caramelizing sugar down into a thick sauce, a classic Thai and Vietnamese sauce. While the sauce was good, it wasn’t as intense as the catfish dishes I’ve had on Argyle Street. Following the fish, was beef cheek in a panang curry sauce. It’s basically their take on beef panag, a Thai staple. The curry was very fresh and the flavors were well developed but didn’t pack the burn your bowels type heat that I’m accostumed to in Thai curries. The Thai curries I enjoy the most usually leave me sweating profusely as I try to towel off the sweat before anyone notices.
Following the savory courses, we received a juice of watermelon and lemongrass which was quite refreshing. The dessert was two whole cracked coconuts served over a smoking coconut husk. The coconuts were split in half to reveal a dessert of coconut, corn, egg, and licorice. The other half of the shell was used as a bowl to serve coconut sorbet. This was Kate’s favorite dish of the night. My guess is because it allowed her thai-chili induced injury from earlier in the evening to finally heal.
Obviously, this is not your typical Thai neighborhood joint. But, with that being said the food here carried authentic Thai flavors with a certain elevation of ingredient and presentation. The flavors were clean and refined, and the ingredients were of the best quality. As for their service, all of their staff were quite knowledgeable and seemed to really enjoy explaining all aspects of the menu. Someone even stopped by to ask our opinion of the heat level and actually offered to bring us out a spicy side to add to our table. Our only suggestion for any of you still trying to snag a same day table is to definitely opt in for the non-alcoholic pairings which are an assortment perfectly mixed juices!
Next Restaurant | 953 W Fulton Market | Chicago, IL 60608 |