The Thai Menu at Next Is a Party
Jeff Ruby's Meal at Next in 280 Words
Chicago magazine’s chief dining critic, Jeff Ruby, sent Dish this report on the new Thai menu at Next (953 W. Fulton Market; 312-226-0858):
Thai restaurants have one of the world’s best cuisines to play with. A pity they have to do it in Thai restaurants, where the décor usually tends toward garish art involving Buddhas, elephants, and Buddhas on elephants. The joy of Next is that it can look only like Next, which means the food is all that matters. After the playful staff lined my table with Thai newspapers and poured plastic cups of sparkling wine with guava, mango, and papaya, the experience felt more like a food stall at Bangkok’s Chatuchak market than any million-dollar renovation could have. A very, very upscale food stall.
All the familiar flavors flow through the nine-course menu—lemongrass, coriander, chilies—and if you know your galangal from your ginger, you may not experience anything new. But even Thai pros will find beautiful dishes more deeply flavored than they’re accustomed to, like an amazing hot-and-sour broth with pork belly, tomato, and kaffir lime, which out-tom-yums any tom yum you’ve ever had. You’ll find phenomenal condiments, like salted duck egg and green mango sauce, and a stunning dessert of a whole coconut harboring corn, egg, licorice, and coconut-milk shaved ice that distills an entire country into a thick shell. The only issues were the air, which gets stuffy, and the braised beef cheek with a coconut-lemongrass-peanut-nutmeg curry, which was so salty we ate only a third of it. (No Next staffer asked if we wanted to take it home. Do they even have takeout containers?) The menu is less eye-popping than the Escoffier debut, but more familiar—and more fun. In short, Paris 1906 was a banquet; Thailand is a party. I’d rather go to a party.
Only two blocks east of Rick Bayless’s haute Mexican ziggurat at Clark and Illinois Streets, Cantina Laredo (508 N. State St.; no phone yet), a Texas-based modern Mexican franchise, plans to open its first Chicago location in mid-September, with more than 400 seats on two floors. The downstairs dining room will offer the main Cantina Laredo menu of fajitas, enchiladas, and specialties such as a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, spinach, onions, shrimp, and herbs and then wrapped in a grilled skirt steak. Unlike other locations of the chain, the Chicago branch will have a kitchen devoted to small plates, which will be offered in the upstairs dining room, with menu choices made for the local market. “Chicago is the most beer-friendly city in the country,” says the executive chef, Larry Sinclair, a veteran of PF Chang’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. “What goes better with Mexican food and good tapas?” Beer and gourmet Mexican—sounds like those Texans have us pegged.
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
—Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Irish writer and poet
Horatio Alger Meets Anthony Bourdain
Although it’s too early to say whether it’s a rags-to-riches story, the tale of Javier Pérez, the co-owner of Al Dente (3939 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-942-7771), did start with rags: As an immigrant from Mexico City, he washed dishes for Tony Mantuano at Tuttoposto in the early nineties. Over the years, he learned to cook and worked at MK, HotChocolate, and the restaurants at The Wit hotel (Cibo Matto, State and Lake, and Roof). On July 13, Pérez opened his 70-seat BYO in Irving Park with his wife, María. “Right now my concept at Al Dente is contemporary American with Italian-Mexican infusions, flavors,” Pérez says, giving the example of a calamari steak appetizer with guajillo marinade, fingerling potatoes, and habanero aïoli. Rags to business ownership is still a pretty good story arc.
Eight Questions for Justin Perdue
Perdue is the new chef at LM Restaurant (4539 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-942-7585). (The previous chef, Bradford Phillips, left for the new Pump Room.)
Dish: What was your first restaurant job?
Justin Perdue: I got really lucky and managed, while going to school, to score a job with Bobby Flay, and I opened up Bar Americain. There were, like, 100 people in line for these jobs. Somehow I got picked. I don’t know how.
D: How did you wind up in Chicago?
JP: I was supposed to transfer to Mesa Grill in Vegas, but I drove all the way out there and there was no job yet ready for me. I was driving back, [and] I pulled into a motel parking lot [where] they had free Wi-Fi. I looked on the Internet, and by the time I got to [my parents’ house in] Wisconsin, I had an interview set up at NoMI the next day. That was in 2005.
D: What happened with Bobby Flay?
JP: He was actually out there [in Las Vegas] at that same time, but I didn’t know it. He was trying to create a position with the union for me. When I got to Wisconsin, I sent him an e-mail saying there was no job out there for me and that I was home and had been offered a job. The phone rang, and my mom answered it. She whispered, “It’s Bobby Flay.” He was really mad at me: “Is this how you want to start out your career? Did you accept the position?” “Yes.” “OK. Goodbye.”
D: How long were you at NoMI?
JP: I was there a year and three months. I kind of thought I wanted to go toward Tex-Mex, and I got a job at Topolobampo.
D: How long were you there?
JP: Nobody leaves Topolobampo. But after NoMI and Topolobampo, I missed the French [cuisine] and that kind of atmosphere. I stayed at Topolobampo only four months and opened Old Town Brasserie with Roland [Liccioni]. I lasted about a year. And then I went over to Sixteen.
D: How old are you?
JP: I’m 30.
D: What are you going to do at LM?
JP: [Stephan Outrequin, the owner,] wants to take it up a level from where it’s at right now. It’s more rustic bistro food, and he wants cleaner plating, use more local farms. I might do a little bit of my molecular stuff to add a little oomph to the presentations and flavors.
D: Will the prices go up?
JP: Right now we’ve got a three-course prix fixe for $37, and the entrées are about $22 to $26. But we want to take it up a little bit: $24 to $31 and then a four-course tasting. We would like to keep it at $40, but we might do $40 to $45. One of my goals is get a Bib [Gourmand] from Michelin.
I Do Like Cool Jams
Another egg in the brunch omelet is scheduled to crack in the next two or three weeks when Jam n’ Honey (958 W. Webster Ave.; 773-327-5266) opens in Lincoln Park. “The area seems like it needs something with breakfast and lunch,” says the owner, Frank Ruffolo, who also owns Franconello’s in Beverly and Franco’s Ristorante in Bridgeport. While the identity of the chef and whether dinner will be served are undetermined, Ruffolo says the menu will consist of American standards. “We’re not looking to invent breakfast,” he says. Maybe this is the next evolutionary step for the bacon fad—throwing in some eggs.
- Fried calamari at The Happ Inn Bar & Grill is a hit with Pollack and company.
- An early front-runner for the star of the Rustic House menu: gnocchi with foie and crispy garlic slices.
- At NoMI Kitchen, Pollack could not stop eating the foraged mushrooms.
- Follow Pollack on Twitter.
Things to Do
1. Feed Junior for free on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Jerseys Pizza & Grill (2360 Lakewood Blvd., Hoffman Estates; 847-765-0085), where your entrée purchase also nabs picks from the kids’ menu for up to two children.
2. Get on the list for BlackboardEats, the newest site for weekly dining deals in Chicago and the suburbs. A hint of what they’re serving up: Last week’s inaugural deal was a $60 five-course prix fixe at ING.
3. Wish the year-old Lillie’s Q (1856 W. North Ave.; 773-772-5500) a happy birthday on August 1. The bash kicks off at 11 a.m. with $1 pours (regularly $10) of the barbecue-sauce- and moonshine-laced cocktail Lillie’s Q-Rita. Things really get cooking at 9 p.m., when owner Charlie McKenna hands out free tastes of his award-winning ’cue.
4. Visit Gypsy, a pop-up restaurant at Logan Square Kitchen (2333 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-2333) open Friday from 4 to 11 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 11 p.m., from the crew behind La Sardine and Le Bouchon. The counter-service joint will offer spiffed-up street food—like duck tacos and peanut-butter-and-jelly ice cream—and was crafted with Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival attendees in mind.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Westfield Old Orchard mall’s culinary theme park Wilde & Greene Restaurant + Natural Market (4999 Old Orchard Center, Ste. C18, Skokie; 847-674-7070) has opened its restaurant (a maze of 18 different food stations) and its rooftop café, which serves tapas, salads, and sandwiches. Although the restaurant is on abbreviated hours for now, regular hours will begin next week, and the 6,000-square-foot market is still in the works. . . . Fül (3310 N. Broadway; 773-525-0240), an eco- and fitness-minded spot with salads dubbed “Health” and “Fitness” and an on-site nutritionist, is now fueling the health-conscious in Lake View. . . . Cooper’s Hawk, a winecentric restaurant with a menu that identifies a pairing for everything, even tortilla soup, is opening at 1740 Freedom Drive in Naperville on August 1. An Arlington Heights location is planned for fall. . . . In downtown Evanston, a fast-casual taco spot called Austin’s Tacos (622 Davis St., Evanston; no phone yet), serving what the owner, Sam Vergos, calls premium tacos, is scheduled to open in a month and a half. Vergos says his three restaurants in Dallas include a diner, a burger place, and a Southwestern restaurant. . . . The guilty pleasure of pommes frites and angel hair onions at Bistro 110 (110 E. Pearson; 312-266-3110) disappears forever when the restaurant ends its 24-year run August 4. . . . Eater reported that the local barbecue guru Gary Wiviott will be the pit master at the forthcoming Barn & Company (950 W. Wrightwood Ave.; 773-832-4000); . . . . Deleece Restaurant (4004 N. Southport Ave.; 773-325-1710) and Deleece Grill Pub (3313 N. Clark St.; 773-348-3313) are offering expanded dinner hours around the Paul McCartney concerts at Wrigley Field July 31 and August 1. . . . The trade magazine Pizza Today named Piece (1927 W. North Ave.; 773-772-4422) its independent pizzeria of the year.