A Night at Next Restaurant—If It Served What You Eat at Home

For the audacious, revelatory restaurant, this will be the ultimate test: Re-creating one couple’s actual meals. Welcome to You.

Photo: Taylor Castle

This sort of revelatory experience is getting to be old hat at Next, which since 2010 has presented three limited-run, themed menus each year. . . . Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas and executive chef Dave Beran come up with audacious challenges for themselves, and every time, they and their army of chefs meet them. —Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune, May 30, 2013

“Welcome to You,” our server cheerfully said as we sat down. “We have worked tirelessly over the past two months to bring you our inspired modern take on all the crap you normally shove in your mouth.”

He went on to explain that Next, in partnership with the National Security Agency, had planted tiny cameras in our refrigerator, in the light fixture above our dining room table, and inside our back molars.

For two months, we were told, Grant Achatz and his team had watched footage, with dismay and more than occasional shock, of what passed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our household.

“Chef Beran wants you to know that it has been our privilege to turn your sad eating habits into something we can be proud of,” our server said.

He paused dramatically.

“It has been our most difficult challenge yet.”

From the moment we walked into the restaurant’s narrow vestibule, where several pairs of our children’s dirty socks were strewn across the floor, it was clear that we were in for a singular, incomparably personalized treat.

The experience began with the decor, which, appropriately, was not much to speak of, mostly consisting of crookedly hung framed posters from 1990s museum exhibitions.

The table was where things got interesting. Overdue utility bills sat nestled under my left elbow, while my wife’s view of me was partially obstructed by a replica of my small gym bag. More children’s socks served as a makeshift centerpiece, and under our feet was an inspired approximation of everything my three-year-old was supposed to have eaten since he was born. “Farm to under the table,” the server noted.

But before we could fully take in our surroundings, three members of Next’s staff wheeled out a cart with a microwave on it. Our server announced, “We call this dish Wait, I Thought You Were Going to Take the Chicken out of the Freezer This Morning. ”

Inside the microwave there was a rock-solid frozen chicken, locally sourced back in January. The microwave sat by our table the entire evening. Every now and then, a Next team member would stop by to check the bird and then press the defrost button to add another five minutes.

While we waited for the chicken, the courses began.

First came Chef Beran’s take on the Wheat Thin. Three of his crackers were delightfully served at the bottom of an actual Wheat Thins box. They were warm and crunchy, with each bite bringing the kind of subtlety of flavor one more typically associates with chef-driven Wheatables. But what truly set them apart was the freshest turmeric oleoresin and zestiest soy lecithin I had ever tasted.

“Can I have one?” my wife asked.

“Shoot, I just ate the last one,” I replied.

“Check underneath the cellophane on the cardboard floor of the box,” our server swooped in to say.

Sure enough, there was one last cracker for my wife to enjoy.

Next came a simple, delightful Bagged Salad salad, which was unbagged tableside, with the server pausing halfway through the process to say “Oh, wait, I think we might have one cucumber left” before running back to the kitchen.

While the cucumber never did materialize, the next course—Next’s take on a single-serving Home Run Inn pizza—more than made up for it. The sauce, rustic and watery, is the standout here, and you’re offered the choice of having your pizza taken out of the oven either two minutes too soon or too late. The dish is paired brilliantly with a Samuel Adams Blueberry Hill Lager, the black sheep of the Beers of Summer variety pack. “It’s been sitting in the fridge since last August,” we were told.

No more than five seconds after I bit into my half of the pizza, the Next host arrived at our table with a phone. “It’s your mother,” he said, and handed me the receiver. What followed was a 10-minute conversation rehashing the rental car details for my family’s upcoming trip to visit Mom in Florida. (Only later would I figure out that it was actually Achatz impersonating my mother.)

By the time I got back to the food, my wife was already working on the next course. Presented cold and still in its takeout container, Leftover Pad Thai had been congealed to perfection over a nine-day period. A bottle of Pinot Noir (“chosen solely based on its label”) nicely accentuated the tofu while, after three glasses, deaccentuating our lives.

The remainder of the meal was devoted to Russian Mother-in-Law Bites, which consisted of refried meat patties and cabbage soup. These were paired first with vodka and then with vodka.

My wife and I were plenty full, but we made room for the dessert, Ice Cream Freezer Burn. Basically, they take ice cream with freezer burn and remove the ice cream. Delicious.

As we left the restaurant, we paused to take in the other diners: a single woman in her 30s eating over a sink, a family of six tearing into rotisserie chicken with their hands, couples eating spaghetti. And many flickering TV sets.

“Wait, what about our chicken?” I asked as my wife was handed our coats and our kids’ dirty socks.

“Oh, we’re going to have to throw that out,” our server said.

“Right,” my wife said.

“Right,” I said.

Halfway home, my wife exclaimed, “Darn, we forgot the doggy bag!”

To which I could only reply, “Don’t worry. Something tells me it will be waiting for us in our fridge.”

Mark Bazer hosts The Interview Show every month at the Hideout and cohosts the new WTTW show My Chicago.

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