Sky Full of Bacon

A corn husk broth, simple and remarkably satisfying.

If Michelin ever actually wrote a review of Next, which it apparently refuses to do, it would say less about Grant Achatz and chef Dave Beran’s ever-changing dining experience than the fact that Next seems to make Michelin’s head explode does. If Michelin is all about adhering to a rigid set of standards, Next is all about doing it new every time— and about a virtuosity that mocks the claims of authenticity that are at the heart of Michelin’s traveler’s guide mission. The guidebook to what to eat there meets the restaurant that brings every there to here.

But having eaten Next two and a half times— the half was noshing about half the El Bulli menu in the kitchen while it was being photographed on opening night— I think it’s not hard at all to see the consistent restaurant under the changing themes. Sourcing is more diligent and far-reaching than anywhere in town, technique is extremely refined and precise, though sometimes too much of it can be applied— pastas seem to be a problem and the chicken noodle (made mostly of meat glue) in the Childhood menu was an example of a trick that was better to contemplate than to actually eat.

Each meal is essentially theatrical as much as culinary, though the danger of coming off like EPCOT is always in their minds. So the menus, even when they follow a traditional format like kaiseki, also function as a kind of wordless narrative which takes us through the moods of the cuisine in question, with certain evocative tropes— like scattered leaves— which obviously have meaning to Achatz and Beran (both small town Michigan-raised) reappearing across wildly different themes. You’re dining within someone else’s dream of a culture.

In contrast to the kitchen’s exacting, if unspoken, vision, the atmosphere at Next still has some of the casualness of the relatively low-priced adventure that it started as (but quickly ceased being when it turned out that demand was through the roof). The staff seems young and sometimes a little giddy, their enthusiasm about what Chef has done shading toward fannishness; and the room is deliberately neutral, meant to evoke a train station leading you away (but also reminding one of a simple storefront theater where Shakespeare and Mamet get the same minimalist setting).

A sauce for one dish.

I liked the conceptualness of Childhood as a show, but didn’t come away desiring any of the dishes again. Kyoto, hewing closer to a real-world model, is far more successful in food terms. I’ve had kaiseki and omakase meals before, and this wasn’t the most out-there by any means; this meal at Sankyu, for instance, was more of a mind-blower in terms of strange textures and new experiences. But the microfocused precision of Japanese food is as good a fit for Next as anything they’ve done, and the meal was, simply, beautiful, a series of exquisitely executed dishes which gained in dramatic effect from their placement within the Next storyline, which took us from fall to winter, and in and out of the farm and the sea. And in and out of Japan and the midwest; a number of dishes were altered to make use of American ingredients, introducing homey midwestern flavors like corn or maple into a Japanese-context dish and, somehow, producing the shock of the familiar as palates prepared for the exotic were suddenly taken back to, well… childhood.

Things I remember as particular delights— a smoky corn husk broth which set the autumnal tone, and was amazingly satisfying and comforting; duck prosciutto, pretty as ribbon candy, tucked among the leaves of a “forest floor” course; a maple-tinged chawanmushi; a hearty broth, similar to the ramen they’ve been serving at The Aviary, served with wagyu beef; a persimmon filled with persimmon gelee and accompanied by edible maple leaves (and lots of powdered sugar; they were a bit bitter). Some courses were overly salty, especially a course of fried items, and though the robata-style box with pieces of brook trout was a cool presentation, I suspect it was a more exciting dish on days when it came with eel, as it apparently does.

And for this meal, not wanting to lose the delicacy of the meal in alcohol, I chose the non-alcoholic pairings and had a fascinating, if not always easy, series of teas and concocted sodas— though there was one, using roasted barley, which immediately conjured up a very midwestern picture indeed. I even passed it around and the same thought occurred to others in our party— “Convenience store on the highway.” Somehow the roasted barley suggested, with remarkable precision, the smell of a 7/11-type mini-mart downstate, mixing coffee burning in industrial pots with donuts in the air, maybe a little pine-scented air freshener. The power of food to evoke specific places at Next is truly extraordinary, even when it may not be intentional.

Pickled complements to something or other. See more of my photos at Grub Street.

* * *

Before Next I stopped at La Sirena Clandestina, John Manion’s South American-inspired restaurant (see my interview with him here), to have the drink that would take the edge off and ease me into an evening of non-alcoholic pairings. (As it turned out, Next had the same idea; even the non-alcoholic meal started with sake.) I didn’t taste anything, but I could tell I’d be happy hanging out here and eating Manion’s Brazilian comfort food.

And so I did and I was. La Sirena Clandestina reminded me of its neighbor down the next block, Vera, which is never a bad comparison— the restaurant with the least touristy frillery evoking the place turns out to be the one most true to the spirit. (Well, never bad except to Michelin, who overlooked my favorite restaurant of the year entirely in favor of mediocre white tablecloth spots.) I’ve been kind of burned out on South American food in Chicago— too much of it seems muted, like canned food, a dim reflection of what must be brighter and livelier at home. Manion puts the life back into South American flavors in dishes that had the freshness of good ingredients, whether it was an empanada filled with sharp, funky lamb merguez, a tart shaved brussel sprout salad, or massive shrimp dripping with butter, char flavor and the sea. Best of all is moqueca, something like a South American risotto in that shrimp, mussels and some kind of white fish sit atop a heat-tinged soupy rice which is incredibly comforting (but has too much kick to be lulling). As at Vera, things tastes like themselves and are never dressed up to the point of losing themselves; only enough to be even more of themselves. There’s an essential honesty to the cooking that puts La Sirena instantly among my favorite openings of the year.

* * *

Strikingly similar to some of La Sirena’s stewy dishes is a dish like the African chicken at Fat Rice, a comforting dish full of good fresh finds (hunks of potato or whatever) hidden beneath its main protein. Otherwise Fat Rice, which is mostly Asian and specifically aimed at recreating Macanese food (the food of the Portuguese colony of Macau, and its European influences), is mostly about Asian flavors, but there are similar virtues in the way it highlights fresh ingredients. The dishes that have equivalents in local Asian restaurants bring brightness and clean flavors to sometimes muddled dishes like potstickers or the flat noodles in XO sauce.

Other dishes are, mostly, just simple and good— a crispy grilled sardine, or a clear pumpkin broth. I don’t think the food is as sharpened to a fine point of finesse as Manion’s food at La Sirena is; his is great out of the gate, Fat Rice (which just opened a week ago; we may in fact have been the first customers to actually eat on its opening night, though it had been doing soft opening dinners for several days) will be more of a journey of discovery. As comfortable as a dish like the African chicken is, you want to believe there’s a sharper, more refined dish to be found within it. Yet there’s so much to like here already in terms of good ingredients and honest approach that it, too, becomes an immediate favorite; I will be happy to see how it’s progressing every few months or so. And to congratulate when it wins a Bib Gourmand, Michelin’s pat on the head to restaurants they don’t quite get, but feel like they should be seen to like a little.

Disclosure: I was known to, and comped some items at, both La Sirena Clandestina and Fat Rice.

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I was approached by Shin Thompson of the former Bonsoirée with an offer I couldn’t refuse: shoot 6 pop-up dinners by 6 chefs vying for the job of chef at a new restaurant in the former Bonsoirée space called Table, Donkey & Stick. The restaurant’s theme was “Alpine Inn” and each chef was given a fair amount of leeway to execute their vision of hearty, welcoming Alpine cuisine using, if possible, whole animal cooking.

It was like a homemade Top Chef! I also knew it would take over my life for a couple of weeks, but that’s okay. So here it is, 24 minutes of video shot and edited entirely by me within a couple of weeks:

How did it all turn out? Go here to find out.


At some point at dinner at Elizabeth a thought crossed my mind: is this the end? This was not a comment on the imaginative and thoroughly interesting meal, but rather on myself, as I waited for the next entirely new and novel taste sensation to cross my palate. We had the deer menu, which is the foraging-based one, and while there were many things in it which were familiar— I believe I’ve had carrots before— there were also some that had come out of a forest one way or another, from autumn olives to matsutake mushrooms. And forest food has a distinct difference from plant or root food— it’s intense, woodsy (well duh), and… not exactly food, to our sensibilities. More like something between food and not-food. So when I ingested something like spruce soda, part of me was excited to be opening new territory on the border between food and the country next to it, but part of me was haunted by a thought… so have I exhausted the world of food? Are there no new flavors left in known cuisine, that I have to go hunting for novelty in a land beyond food?

Iliana Regan’s response to this would surely include the observation that many of the things I’m assuming to not be food have been food for other cultures and eras— spruce, to name one, was used like hops are today in beer around George Washington’s time. Or they’re simply other forms of food— those carrots are wonderful, but when their familiarity is joined with Queen Anne’s lace jam, all you’ve done is reunited today’s carrot with its grandmother’s flower. (At the bottom of that Queen Anne’s stalk is a little bulb that would eventually be bred into the modern foot-long supermarket carrot. I learned that in a Sky Full of Bacon video.)


The other thing is that if you want to talk not-quite-food, there’s plenty of modernist manipulation going on in this meal, in which twigs and sprigs rest atop emulsified stabilized this or that. So if you think Elizabeth’s little storefront is doing a sort of eccentric, primitive folk art food— a reasonable impression from media and Regan’s deceptively dreamy manner— there’s also plenty of cutting-edge technique under the Etsy-obsessive picnic in the woods image that she’s constructed.

But how was the food, you ask, suspecting I could go on for paragraphs in this vein. And you’re right. This is a meal that everyone who thinks about their food should have in order to think about it, and conversely, if you’re going to go there because it’s new and trendy but you’re going to be disappointed that it didn’t hit familiar notes, please, spare us all and go have a steak at Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf.


Elizabeth has its moments of conventional comforts— a ragu on top of polenta is warm and comfy, and without being told you’d never know the odd thing about it, which is that that’s not beef, it’s raccoon. Right where you want a red meat course comes a course of venison, both loin and a sausage wrapped in cabbage (which led to the only real executional misstep of the night, in that my wife’s wasn’t warmed properly). Matsutake mushroom tea isn’t expected, exactly, but it’s certainly warm and nurturing. But most things are out to surprise you in some way. I loved a bite the menu simply calls “rice crispy,” which had puffed rice and other savory flavors topped with a single chip of air-dried… did she say bear? I think she did. The meal ends with a caramel whose comforts are instantly undercut by a livery tang. Even at the end, you’re not getting out of these woods easy.


All this happens in a small storefront where the kitchen is entirely open to the dining room; the obvious comparison that everyone makes is Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas, but I compared that experience to a backyard barbecue and it has a definite party-at-Phil’s-place vibe, a downshifted haute cuisine that says “I could make you the most precious thing you ever ate, but I’m just going to make something that sounds good to me.” Elizabeth by comparison looks as quietly, seriously efficient as surgery back there, and if the welcome is genuine in its desire to make us part of the family— at one point, we’re moved up one communal table, to the one the Owl menu diners have just left, to be closer to the kitchen and the other remaining diners— well, Regan seems relaxed and whimsical when she comes out to introduce a course, but everyone else works like they have a boss who wants things just so. (People have worried that her scant kitchen experience suggested that Regan was taking on way more than she could manage with the three menus running side by side. Talk to her for five minutes and you realize that, like Grant Achatz, she’s the type who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t screw up anything, ever.)


As in the movies, where a “personal vision” these days is something a director brings to a corporate property like Batman, the restaurant scene has gotten so good at blending chef’s strengths with huge commercial projects that we take it for granted that any chef’s goal is to get to the 500-seat restaurant which updates the traditional genre with farm to table ingredients or a knack for charcuterie or whatever will keep the chef happy cranking it out night after night. Elizabeth is a restaurant not so much opposed to thinking about a restaurant that way as simply existing in another dimension where the question doesn’t make sense. As with a Terence Malick movie, either you’re in for trying to keep up with a completely personal journey, which will sometimes frustrate you but promises showing you something you’ve never seen before… or you shouldn’t even start. Part of the thing about going in the woods is that people do get lost there.

* * *


Of course, we haven’t really exhausted the world of food at all; even when we’ve tried something, who’s to say we’ve really had it? Surely part of the fascination with food comes from its evanescence— one person says X is the greatest barbecue place in the universe, but on the day you go it isn’t and some other place blows you away. In Spain I had delicious iberico ham at every opportunity, but transcendent iberico ham only once, at an upscale restaurant. What was the difference?

I went with two friends to Kai Zan, the new sushi restaurant of the moment, at least the moment between B.K. Park leaving Arami and the launch of his upcoming Juno. It’s a tiny place, where I was wedged into a table like I haven’t been wedged into anything since my late grandfather’s early 60s British sports car. We ordered the omakase, which starts at $50, telling the waiter that we’d pay a little more for something exceptional, we weren’t afraid of anything, and we didn’t want to just see tuna and salmon all night. He immediately called our bluffs by saying that they had live uni (sea urchin) tonight, would we be interested?

I’ve eaten uni. I think I even liked it once, at NoMI Kitchen where it came with iberico ham and avocado on toast. I’m not opposed to it, but let’s face it, it’s got all the squishiness and fishiness that says to a westerner, you’re eating something that you shouldn’t be and you will be paying for it later. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt ill off it, only during it.) But I was in the kind of company where we all felt, if you’re promising us a better uni experience— it wasn’t actually live so much as “extremely recently dead”— then we should, in the name of our honor as gentlemen and officers of her majesty, eat uni.

As it turns out, we ate a lot of uni. Possibly 50% of all the uni I’ve ever eaten, in fact. One grade of it was in the cup above, alongside a scallop and a shiitake mushroom. More of it was in something else, and then finally came our live uni, half a dozen pieces draped on a plate. I would have happily not eaten any more by that point… but I also would have been sorry not to have had this uni. Squishy, yes, fishy, no, it was mild and tasted of the sea in a clean way. It was the best uni of my life, in the sense that it explained why I disliked previous uni but not, entirely, why anyone should really want uni— why it’s a food at all (except for desperation by seashore-living peasants millennia ago). But that is part of what I find fascinating about Japanese food— they seem to live much closer to the border between food and not-food than I do (though quite possibly they feel the same way about westerners).


Another thing I had I have no such ambivalence about. It was some kind of wild trout— I forget the exact descriptor, but this was plainly cold-water fish, muscular and yet ribboned with lush layers of fat. It was easily in the five best pieces of sashimi I’ve ever eaten, delicate yet firm, fatty yet meaty, containing contradictions and multitudes… and, significantly, prepared with a confidence that it needed nothing more than the sprig on top and the lemon below.


Sushi falls into two schools these days— there are a few minimalists remaining, like the great Katsu, but the trend these days is to gussy fish up with other flavors. The late Kaze restaurant (Kaze the chef is now at Macku) was a notorious practitioner of this with his banana toppings on tuna and the like, those rolls full of mayonnaise and sticky-sweet sauce are the ubiquitous offenders, and I wouldn’t say this kind of thing is strictly unknown at Kai Zan, but it’s kept from overwhelming the fish (or the fresh wasabi, which made many appearances, unmistakable both on looks and the lack of the instant horseradish burn). A couple of dishes got out of their control— a starter with a raw quail egg in it was like taking a swig straight from the soy sauce bottle— but most were simple and successful. On the whole, they’re buying beautiful fish, treating it with respect and enhancing it in only small ways. And the final tab for a meal which wedged us even further into our tiny table was all of $75 per person (it’s BYO), even with every special in the house thrown in. I tweeted this when someone broke the news of B.K. Park leaving Arami:

BREAKING: Katsu back to being only place to get sushi in Chicago

Which may not have been strictly true, but came closer to it than you’d wish. Kai Zan steps us that much further back from apocalypse.


Disclosure: my meal at Elizabeth was comped, as a media guest. Kai Zan was paid for.

* * *

Well, I’m a full month behind on tracking my favorite things I ate this year, so here’s the list for July through now:


• Cheese curds at The Old-Fashioned in Madison, The Brewery in Mineral Point
• Ribs, 17th Street BBQ, Murphysboro, Illinois
• Filipino soup at Max’s
• Grilled beef tongue at Vera
• Fries at Au Cheval
• Fries at MBurger
• Beet, chicken tacos, Bullhead Cantina
• Manti at Afghan Kabob
• Margherita, sausage at Armitage Pizzeria
• Nathan Myrhvold’s modernist pastrami, caprese salad shooter, Trotter’s beer-can squab with tripe ravioli, at Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary dinner
• Tea-smoked duck at Lao Yunan (former Spring World), different from other Tony Hu versions
• Bonsoiree a la Beverly Kim: Chawanmushi, smelt, makkoli cake
• BLT dog, Bill Kim’s Urban Belly Dog, Franks N Dawgs
• PB&L (pork belly & lamb) sausage at Publican Quality Meats
• Phil’s Last Stand’s imitation of an In’N’Out burger
• Burger with tomato jam at Burger Bar
• Fried Dill Pickle Salad, Stout Barrel House & Galley

Armitage Pizzeria.

Trenchermen: bacon cured sweetbreads, smoked sturgeon dish, heirloom tomato salad, coffee cake with smoked meringue
• Choucroute garni at Everest
• Sopa Azteca, Masa Azul
• Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza, rabbit sausage, Nellcôte
• Deep Purple Poutine, iNG
• Rice Krispy, carrots, raccoon ragu and polenta, Elizabeth
• Salmon from Ming Tsai’s new book at Takashi
• Lots of fresh uni, wild trout, Kai Zan
• Not-perfect-yet chestnut pasta with guinea hen sugo, Avec
• Duck and vinegary slaw ordered by pointing at what someone else was eating, Pho Xe Lua
• Ramen, Ginza
• Chicken soup with crispy rice, Lao Shanghai
• Enormous roasted chicken wings, Golden Palace
• Calamari dish, Bar Ombra
• Chicken boti, Ali’s BBQ
• Butternut squash velouté, fall chocolate dessert, Acadia
• Miche, La Fournette
• Hard kiwi-quince jam, from Orianna Kruszewski at the Green City Market
• Smoke cocktail, Allium
• Something from The Aviary… wish I could remember what…

Beets, Vera.

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