The iconic dish of Next’s Childhood menu.
I had two feelings about Next’s Childhood menu itself before I went— on the one hand, I was excited by the prospect of a purely conceptual, even sort of dramatically shaped meal exploring the emotions and memories of childhood (specifically, as the red-LED typeface of the theme’s logo indicates, Grant Achatz’s 80s midwestern childhood, and that of Next chef Dave Beran). On the other hand, I have to admit that a dozen courses of PB&J and roasted marshmallows worried me a little— at some point an adult is going to want adult tastes, bolder flavors and contrasts than kids will tolerate. I was curious to see which side of that divide Childhood would fall upon.
What I wasn’t quite expecting was that it would fall firmly on both sides. Taken purely as a meal, Childhood is a little too narrow, a bit too sweet, caught up not only in the kid flavors but in something else I’m kind of past— the whole tiny dabs and maltodextrin powder approach of conceptual food. At Trio years ago, I was wowed by that as a display of virtuosity, but also by bold unafraid flavors (chocolate and green olive, oysters and lime), and by an exquisitely calibrated meal that served you a nice chunk of red meat just at the moment that single bites on spoons or pincers were growing a bit thin. I don’t think they’re unaware of this issue at all— the course called “Brussels Sprouts,” wittily built on the quintessential kids-won’t-eat-it-unless-ordered-to food, injects five more mature flavors (bearnaise, truffle, etc.) into the meal at one point for that very reason. But the concept is what the concept is; there’s a course called “hamburger,” and it’s a kid’s hamburger so it’s going to taste like a deconstructed Big Mac, ketchup and Thousand Island rather than spicy mustard and raw onion. You might like the latter more (I certainly do), but you didn’t when you were a kid, so this is what you get by the logic of the concept— and by the end of it, frankly, most of us were ready for something sharper tasting. (One of my dining companions and I walked over to Vera for a glass of very dry sherry, which hit the spot.)
But the key phrase above is “taken purely as a meal.” Because if you take this meal purely as a meal, if you’re unwilling to play, to let your inner child sit at this well-heeled-grownup’s table, you’ve completely missed the point and really need to be eating somewhere else for the next three months. This is a show, and as a show, it’s a delight. To steal from myself on Grub Street, “it’s a culinary Christmas morning with one present after another to open.”
Which is why, as at Grub Street, I’m reluctant to spoil the surprises of so many of these dishes. Seeing a plate of pork at Perennial Virant doesn’t spoil anything, it heightens interest, but seeing what’s inside the much-reported lunchboxes does, and in return for what? There’s a cookie in the lunchbox that looks like something you ate as a kid, but doesn’t taste like it. Why spoil that moment of engaging cognitive dissonance for you? Maybe that means Next Childhood gets a pass from detailed criticism for the sake of protecting its surprises, but only in the same way any other magic show does. (If you do want gorgeous plate by plate photos, or are quite sure you’ll never go, my friend’s Charlotte’s pictures of our meal are in this LTH thread, no doubt soon to be joined by many others.)
Other chefs like Heston Blumenthal have created dishes designed to evoke nostalgia, and there’s a place (Kitsch’n on Roscoe) that serves lunch in lunchboxes right by my house, so the idea of achieving some kind of Proustian memory effect of childhood with food is not new. (When it comes down to it, we all do it at Thanksgiving or Christmas.) And I still have doubts about whether food can genuinely achieve dramatic effects— it’s kind of like music, music can tell a story… as long as you first tell everyone what the story is. But damn if by the end, dishes that sound like the generic cliches of kid-dom (PB&J, Campfire, etc.) hadn’t seemed to acquire, even if only by projection, a kind of dramatic weight and emotional freight that conjured up a specific childhood for a chef from Michigan (or two)— outdoorsy (two evoke campfires, one fishing), typically commercialized foodwise (not only does the hamburger specifically recall a Big Mac, we even got a Ronald McDonald Thermos at our table), moments of maternal indulgence (a certain dessert). You really do seem to have exchanged the secret passwords of childhood with the chefs here and understood who they grew from, in a way that I’m pretty sure doesn’t happen at Kitsch’n or American Girl Place. Of course, I also haven’t actually read the autobiography of the chef of American Girl Place.
Most interestingly, this seemed to hold true even for the two of our party who hadn’t grown up in the U.S. Maybe it’s just that American childhood has been portrayed so much in pop culture that it belongs to the world now, and feels like the childhood you should have had, even if you didn’t. (I’m surely not the only American who sometimes feels as if everyone else had it but me.)
So go if you can, not because it’s a better meal than you might have at Perennial Virant or Telegraph or Vera or other places that opened in the Year of Next, but because it’s an experience no one else is doing anything like, anywhere on the planet.
* * *
Now, having said not to be reductive and look at it merely as food, let me be reductive and go through the courses; again, you are advised not to read this if you expect to go, but I want to keep my notes on the meal and be able to compare them with others’. The first decision we were confronted with was whether to order the alcoholic or non-alcoholic pairing. I might find it a little tough to go through a meal like this without at least a little wine to cleanse the palate here and there, but in retrospect, I wish I had gone for the non-alcoholic one, which seemed to have some clever things in it (even if, as Kennyz said, it kind of came down to eight kinds of tea). I had one taste of a fennel root beer served with one of the courses and it was one of the best things I tasted all night. (I asked our server for more information about the two choices, but again because they wanted to preserve the surprises, got back a stream of generalities which didn’t really tell me anything.) That said, a Madeira/Luxardo Maraschino cocktail that started off the evening was also one of the best things I drank that night (or this year). If I could have that followed by the non-alcoholic pairings…
The first course, PB&J, is a present in a box which you are urged to eat in one bite. The part you can eat in one bite is a ball, maybe a rice shell, containing a liquid peanut butter and jelly flavor; only when I got the menu at the end did I learn that the fruit was pomegranate, which gave you the sense of PB&J but with a tarter taste than the sugary simplemindedness of concord grape. The next is Chicken ‘Noodle’ Soup, whose joke is that the chicken is the noodle; but with no particular chicken flavor, it was just an exercise in meat glue and the interest of this soup was in a very fine and complex, mushroomy broth. Fish-n-Chips, the kid’s picture course, followed, and was perhaps the most successful course of the night, both imaginatively and in terms of flavor— a beautifully sous-vided (I think; you could see the shape of the plastic pouch) piece of walleye with oniony chips-dirt, pickled waves, and crispy potato… something, I’m not sure what they represent in the picture except, maybe, how a kid with crayon draws.
Mac & Cheese was next, a nicely creamy mac and cheese made with a tarter grownup cheddar into which you were supposed to mix half a dozen bits of tiny flavors. Some, frankly, seemed too small to taste— a tomato gelee, a microscopic pinwheel of jamon serrano (I think) and arugula. A few— a cheddar crisp, a little mound of parmesan— were very good; one, a powdered hot dog, was outright gross, a nasty swig of salty artificial meat flavoring. I guess if you’re doing a kid food that everybody’s already doing, this is how you take it to the next level, but this was the first point where I felt the effort that went into a dish hardly repaid in results.
Next is Autumn, stuff smoldering over a dish on top that looks like the accumulated stuff of a forest floor. I joked that this one really did remind me of my childhood, since the adults were always smoking at the dinner table. Many parts of this were tasty— crispy fried kale and tiny broccoli bits, the nugget of polenta deep inside (don’t think too hard about what that is supposed to represent)— but I didn’t feel like I quite got it as a full dish. Maybe it isn’t one and the randomness of every bite being different is the point. School Lunch isn’t really food, except for a rice pudding/panna cotta called, surprisingly, “Prune” on the menu, but its various quirky manufactured foodstuffs were all fun to play with (though I couldn’t finish the onion chip, far too salty). Hamburger, with its piece of short rib (along with the walleye, the most real piece of meat all night) and its bun liquified and spread all over the plate, was fun in its deconstructive absurdity, though you’ll never want to eat a hamburger that way again. Still, as a culinary Rorschach test, it was one of the most playful and entertaining dishes of the evening. (Speaking of having all this again, a couple of people on LTHForum are talking about whether they want to book two or three times for this one, or just once. Even if I could imagine having this again five years from now, I would never have it again within a few months, any more than I’d see most movies twice in three months; you’d still remember it beat by beat, which would utterly kill the fun of it all. I also think I’m just too much of a guilty liberal to feel entirely right about grabbing multiple tickets for something where so many people are desperately trying to get in once. Think of all the poor Occupiers who will never get to eat a capitalist meal like this…)
The first dessert course, ‘Foie’sting, had terrific apple cider donuts but the foie frosting was, surprisingly, chocolate with barely a foie taste discernable. We all kind of wished that was dialed up, as chocolate (almost) alone seemed too… normal. The best part of the next dessert, Campfire, will be largely overlooked by people— the show part involves a campfire set alight at the table, made of sweet potato logs dyed blue with blue corn dye. You’re encouraged to eat them, but frankly, a single bite will discourage you from eating any more; I can think of a dozen better ways to make a sweet potato look like a log and actually taste like something. Meanwhile, hardly noticed, is the marshmallow part of the course, vanilla marshmallows with bourbon ice cream and, some kind of fruit (mango?) sauce, which frankly minus the show could be a dessert anywhere— and it would be a credit to any place that served it, a simple but superbly balanced dessert of sweet, tart and creamily boozy all at once. The meal ended with Hot Chocolate accompanied, for the drinkers, with a shot of Cognac.
So foodwise, I’d count the soup, the fish and chips, and that dessert as first-rate dishes, most of the rest as first-rate entertainment, which some might not find quite high enough a batting average; but I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this one when better dishes elsewhere have faded. Service at Next seems to be determined to be delighted, which occasionally was a little much, and at this very early stage (we went on the third night of actual service) we did have one half-long delay between courses. On the other hand, there was a point where I had left one Brussels sprout on that plate, and I became aware (because of the mirror behind the seats) that they were waiting, very unobtrusively off-stage, to deliver the next course; the instant I popped it in my mouth they swooped in, removed all the plates, and set down the next dish without ever doing anything that called attention to the fact that they were waiting on us.
And really, the best recommendation for the service is this: at one point, after I had tried snapping a few (blurry but kind of cool) shots of Achatz at work from my seat, a server came by and said: “Sir, I noticed you were taking pictures of the kitchen from your seat.” (At first I thought I was going to be chastised.) “After dinner, would you like a tour of the kitchen?”* Well, after such a good show, who wouldn’t like to go backstage and meet the performers?
* This was, incidentally, not because anyone recognized me as anybody. I’ve met Achatz enough times by now that I believe he would know who I am, vaguely, and I also think I’m pretty accurately pegged far down the list of media people he needs to think about. In any case, he was gone by the time we visited the kitchen, but Dave Beran remembered me from this shoot and we spoke pleasantly for a moment about the dinner.