Left to right: Next’s pristine environs; truffled egg custard and sole à la daumont; caneton rouennais à la presse: a whole roasted duck, pressed and served in its own juices
So much ink has been spilled about Grant Achatz’s inaugural menu at his shape-shifting juggernaut that Jeff Ruby, Chicago’s chief dining critic, traveled instead to a virtual chateau in Monte Carlo and turned over his pen to the one man whose opinion matters: the ghost of Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935).
Of course I know the restaurant. I may be an old man, but I keep abreast of news. This Achatz fellow’s name kept popping up in my Google Alert, and I paid it no mind until my dear wife, Delphine, showed me the article in Le Monde. After that, I watched with much interest. The menu is a love letter to me, non? I had no choice but to rouse my bones and see if Next warranted a letter back.
No, I did not want preferential treatment. My name had been on the list for tickets since last fall, and Delphine and I waited like everyone else. She relished the challenge of beating out 20,000 others with the same goal, although I fail to see how a computerized ticketing system serves the diner. Restaurants are a hospitality business, and there is nothing hospitable about asking patrons to spend a month hitting refresh—qu’est-ce que c’est?—on their web browsers. Yet what choice does M. Achatz have? He evidently commands an entire world vying for 62 seats. Even with half of Europe at my feet, I never confronted such madness. As it happens, a friend secured four tickets for $168 apiece and graciously extended an invitation. I packed my portmanteau for Chicago.
If the hostess who greeted me at Next realized that the ancient figure facing her had invented the kitchen brigade system and written the most important cookbook of the 20th century, she gave no indication. Neither did the manager, who seated us along a handsome brown banquette. Though the narrow room gleamed, each fold of the linens straight and true, my younger companions bemoaned the clamor. I, too, found the boisterous hum a notch too piercing and the setting prohibitively dark, but what do you expect? I am 164 years old.
Next’s tableware gave me pause: Had the owners ransacked my attic? A faux-iron beam snaking over the dining room recalled the old Chemin de Fer du Midi train tracks from Bordeaux to Toulouse, but otherwise I cannot say the environs paralleled the France I recall from 1906. Nor, from what I’ve heard, was that Next’s intention. The owners plan to inhabit the space for 15 years and alter the dining concept every three months. If they really intend to open 60 restaurants at the same address, perhaps neutral décor is a prudent choice.
I was handed a pamphlet that roused long-dormant details from my life, a reverie that ceased only when the waiter delivered a wondrous gougère—a lovely cheese puff filled with the type of Mornay sauce of which my physician would have highly disapproved. The hors d’oeuvres that followed, presented on a silver tray, quickened my pulse as only the sight of former lovers can—though those paramours have changed greatly. Oeufs Benedictine, my old warhorse of truffled egg custard, came in an open shell layered with a brunoise of black truffles, sauce à la crème, and smooth brandade. Even more dynamic: the majestic fried quail egg, a precise wonder topped with anchovy, caperberry, cornichon, onion, lemon zest, mustard, tarragon, and parsley. The tray’s other inhabitants—including a luxurious foie gras torchon embedded in eggy brioche with apricot quenelle and a perfect little mushroom duxelles piped into a leek—were but humble subjects in the court of a king.
Just as I did in my day, Next employed the reptile’s flesh and bone for its glorious citrus-tinged turtle consommé, stoking the appetite for the procession of dishes that ensued. Achatz and his executive chef, David Beran, revitalized sole à la daumont as a congress of artistic statements, their canvas a glaçage of sauce Normande. They roll sole with crayfish mousse, stuff a crayfish head with the same mousse, fill a button mushroom cap with an intricate salpicon of crayfish tail, and deep-fry a sole roe ball. And they took my beloved suprêmes de poussin (poached chicken), sliced the breast into a diamond shape, and coated it with sauce blanquette. Magnifique! Curiously, they also poached two cucumbers in butter, wrapped them in salt pork, and supplanted the seeds with chicken mousse. I still do not understand how.
The menu’s centerpiece sent me into a tailspin. Caneton rouennais à la presse, an entire roasted duck that’s been squeezed in a vice and is served in its own juices, was so toothsome, so crispy and tender-rich, that I grieved never having personally coaxed so much flavor out of that dish. “We took some liberties to maintain the consistency of the product,” M. Beran told me when I inquired about the preparation. He uses more Cognac and less red wine than I ever did, reduces both, and adds them to the duck jus to control every batch of sauce. Rather than a muscular 2006 Cairanne Domaine Brusset “Les Travers” with the duck—one of the many agreeable wines the cordial staff topped off during my meal—I would have preferred an 1888 Chateau Fourteau. Have you never encountered it? I have a couple of bottles in the cellar. Delphine! Une faveur, s’il te plaît!
The ideal choice to follow such treasures was exactly the one that arrived: a striking salade Irma of peppery nasturtium and asparagus tips that wiped the palate clean. For dessert, Next turned a bombe ceylan inside out, putting the rum on the outside and the coffee within, the kitchen applying the chocolate with some gadget called a paint gun. The mind reels at the bounty of tools at their disposal! Ah, if only I were 130 years younger . . .
Feeling playful and my tongue loosened by tawny port, I asked Nick Kokonas, a proprietor, what old Escoffier would think of all this. “I think he would have a good time, marveling at the fact that 100-plus years hence we are still in awe of his talents,” Kokonas said. Just as I was preparing to identify myself, he added that Next’s access to technology had improved Escoffier’s recipes and “hopefully realized his vision even more fully.” Coming from a man whose kitchen team learned their craft at schools where the very curricula are based on my teachings, such a statement borders on blasphemy! Before I could issue a scathing riposte, Delphine dragged me out.
While I stewed on the flight home, my wife recalled something I wrote 109 years ago in the foreword of my book Le Guide Culinaire: “I wanted to create a useful tool rather than just a recipe book whilst leaving the reader free to decide on the way to carry out the work according to his own personal views.” Lord. Kokonas was right. For a century, I have watched chefs slavishly follow what was intended more as guide than gospel. At last! Here are modern chefs with the requisite respect for good ingredients and the imagination to use my book as a starting point rather than an end. If only the airlines maintained similar standards. That rubber mallet head they had the nerve to call poulet? I caught stray pigeons in the Franco-Prussian War that had more flavor.
Photographs: Anna Knott