The Gastronomy of Trust – Damon Baehrel – Earlton, NY
As diners, we often forget the trust that we place in those who prepare and serve us sustenance. But on occasion this rises to the surface when we choose to dine in an especially “authentic” (read: dirty) ethnic restaurant. On other occasions this may be linked to the servers, a notable concern (if now inconsequential) in the days of the AIDS epidemic. Sometimes the kitchen workers are the source of our fears, as when frightening accounts of raging hepatitis are spread. Lettuce has e.coli and ice cream, listeria. In truth, many food-borne illnesses are spread in restaurants (and, of course, at homes as well).
This recognition of the centrality of trust in the culinary arts brings me to the case of Damon Baehrel. Damon Baehrel must surely be among the world’s most astonishing restaurants – if indeed restaurant is the proper label (there are reservations, diners, and a bill). The restaurant is run by one man, Damon Baehrel. He gathers the food, prepares it, serves it, and does the dishes. It is as if Domenico DeMarco of DiFara Pizza channeled Per Se. And did so with humanity, botany, and artistry. Damon was literally alone with us in the restaurant. Literally. Alone. This is a one-man show: a man on a tightrope.
Many things separate Damon Baehrel from the other great American restaurants. First, to get it out of the way is the five-year wait for reservations. The restaurant has stopped taking reservations because of the waiting list. I received a reservation after about eighteen months because I pleaded (truthfully – no fibbing, please) that moving back to Chicago from New Jersey would make a visit prohibitive, but some on the list travel much further than I did.
Second, Baehrel’s commitment to foraging and locavore cuisine puts Noma to shame. Almost all of the ingredients (with the exception of seafood which shows up on Damon’s doorstep each morning from a supplier) is gathered from his several acre property in New York’s Hudson Valley (near Coxsackie) or from his farm nearby. This includes beef and pork and duck. It also includes tree sap from a forest of species and flour from an astonishing array of plants. We were served berries, nuts, mushrooms, and many weeds. These ingredients, many of which were new (and disconcerting) to me, allowed for techniques of cooking that are not found in most (all?) restaurants. Damon Baehrel does not cook with butter, cream, and sugar: the holy trinity of cuisine. He uses natural sweeteners (such as stevia and tree saps) and thickeners. He is aware of how ingredients change in their flavor (such as lichens) over the course of the year and uses them when ripe.
My ignorance led me to wonder about the effects of these ingredients. I confess to speculating if I would wake on the morrow. Might some plant be toxic or might I have some severe, but unknown, allergy. I arose smiling, able to write this review, but I did rely on faith, and I hope that Damon is well-insured. There were so many plants and fruits that I had never previously eaten that I could not help but think that this was a form of culinary roulette.
Although as server, Damon insisted (perhaps somewhat too often) that he was a better cook, he did just fine. He was very attentive and is a compelling and lively field guide. He spends much time talking about and showing off his ingredients and his process. He has a puppy dog demeanor, and at times comes across as excessively modest, but his desire to please is genuine. Add to this, Damon is largely self-taught, raised in Massapequa, inspired by a mother who was an avid gardener and forager. His professional gastronomic background is thin. He lacks formal gastronomic credentials and stands outside the “culinary world.” He is truly and startlingly an autodidact. Yet, his dishes connect well in structure with those found at elite restaurants, except with different ingredients and techniques of preparation. Focusing on hyper-local ingredients (what is available on his twelve-acre property), he labels his style as “Native Harvest Cuisine.”
The evening was exceedingly (perhaps uniquely) pleasant and ended with a gift of bread and a bottle of wine (take that, Gordon Ramsay). Damon’s generosity in wine pairing stands apart from any other restaurant. We were served seven bottles of wine and were encouraged to drink as much as we wished, ending with a 1998 Chateau d’Yquem. Had he been located on a subway line, rather than on a curvy country road, that wine would have disappeared. The cost of the evening is significant ($450 before gratuity – should we tip the cook, the server, the forager, the expediter, or the dishwasher?). Lasting memories are priceless.
The meal itself consisted of 23 courses, served over six hours. In contrast to so much about the restaurant, the courses were structured in a traditional format (opening bites, vegetable courses, seafood, meat protein, and dessert with palate cleansers in-between sections). The plates revealed a modernist aesthetic, and several were beautiful, but perhaps not so different than other high-end restaurants, and restrained because there was no corps of kitchen workers to provide “the touches.” We were asked not to take photos, but a large-format book will soon be available picturing Damon’s cuisine.
We began with a series of small bites. First was an exceptional modest, though subtle, piece of bark, made of cedar flour and hickory nut flour on which was lain a “nubbin” of cured chicken. A bit of poultry on a cracker is not such a big deal, but in this case what made it startling was the unusual flavors brought out by the flour and the curing. It tasted more flavorful, more nutty and herbal, that what its structure predicted.
This was followed by a piece of Scottish salmon brined in sycamore syrup, served on another bark chip with black burdock paste, unripened green strawberries, pickerel plant, and sorrel vinegar. As was often the case Damon sprinkles powder on the plate for color and to remind us of the commitment to native plants. Here the dust was from dried marsh marigolds. Even more than the simple opening dish, this was a delicate symphony of flavors. The strawberries were evocative but never overwhelmed the syrupy salmon. It was the first of the dishes that suggested the complexity of the dishes to follow.
The third course was another cracker, this made of pine flour from the inner bark of the tree. To moderate its tannic bite, Damon cured and soaked it for over a year, and served it with duck egg white and a composite of chopped Hen of the Woods and Grey Oyster mushrooms, both picked that morning on the property. It was lovely in its understated quality. A noble bite.
Then followed a palate cleanser: sugarless carrot ice made with stevia tea syrup. This ice was served with two powders: pink (from maple leaves) and green (from green onions and lichen). Damon’s ices and slushes are incredibly deep and flavorful and the expression of carrot reverberated throughout the meal.
The fifth course was the first of the triumphant courses of the evening, revealing the range and power of Damon’s craft. It was a bread, cheese, and sausage plate, arranged as Alinea-inspired contemporary art, but with each of these tastes created by Damon himself. He may be one of America’s greatest cheesemakers, and a respectable bread maker and provider of encased meats. Breads included those made from cattails, clover, flax, and acorns. Although Damon does not cook with butter, we were served two butters: cow butter with wild Angelina and sheep milk butter with Lamb’s Quarters. Sausages included guinea fowl, goose, duck, venison, lamb, and Berkshire pork, cured with spruce and pine. If there was one dish that I wished that I could have captured digitally, this was the one.
The next course raised the stakes. Visually it was modestly plated on a plank of wood, but it packed flavor and texture in its small cube. Imagine a lasagna (or a Napoleon) in which the multiple stacked layers alternated between mushroom and daylily tubers. The sauce was composed of milkweed shoots, birch stock, and rutabaga root. Who knew? Bite for bite, this might have been my very favorite of the night.
I was not as taken with course seven, which seemed to be a play on the kind of gag-inspired dining often found at restaurants that specialized in molecular cuisine. Damon’s “Phony Egg” had a Fat Duck vibe. The phony white was cattail shoots in maple sap, the yolk was a pickled gold tomato with parsnip juice, the home fries came from the inner bark of the willow tree, and the bacon was snipped from a heritage turkey leg. It wasn’t a bad dish, but it seemed designed for fun than for taste.
Course eight was a pre-Keller cone. Although Damon did not emphasize how his dishes related to other modernist culinary creations, he explained that he began making these savory cones in 1986, before Thomas Keller (who had cooked in the Hudson Valley) made them iconic. In Damon’s version, the cone, set in a decorative bed of dried peas, was made with acorn flour. The filling was nightshade (not deadly!) beans with birch sap, eggplant powder, and hickory nuts. It was more a tribute to the wild than brilliant in its own right.
Course nine was another palate cleanser. In this case, a very deep wild grape and wild clover. It was a taste that revealed the grape essence.
We finally spied the sea, treated to the bounty of Nova Scotia. First was an excellent clam bathed in hemlock (!) oil. I began to think Socratic thoughts, but so far, so good. This lovely lithe dish was served with ostrich fern heads and golden thistle root chips. Here was a dish that seemed both light and substantial. A bite with great power.
The following dish was another high point of the evening. Nova Scotia peekytoe crab, steeped in sap (Damon prefers not to boil or steam, believing that food loses its flavor through such techniques, but roasted the crab on cedar wood). Acorn butter served to give the crab a richness that matched animal fat. Added was lovage juice, garlic scape juice, and turnip water. Although I could not otherwise guess the sauce, it consisted of wild chicory roots in ironwood liquor, creating an intense herbal broth that brought out the meaty aroma of the crab.
Course twelve featured a star turn of Nova Scotia lobster, steeped in birch sap, roasted on hot stone. (Roasting is a favorite technique at the Bistro). The merry crustacean was served with sweet goldenrod and a cured yellow fin tuna salami with birch leaf ashes. Again, with Damon as guide, we had a combination of beautiful but expected seafood set in the uncounted bounty of the forest.
Thirteen moves from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland to present salt prawn served in cherry tree sap (again with the sap) with lemon cucumber and spicy cured swordfish. I didn’t find this dish as compelling as the other seafood treats, but certainly it was a treat, even if the swordfish missed the mark.
The next palate cleanser was another slushie: combining unripened grape juice and sumac berry. It was a sweet and sour delight, the most compelling and original ice of the night.
We slid into animal protein, all from Damon’s nearby farm (no roadkill). Course fifteen was the most outstanding of the meat dishes. This was pine-needle cured pork from the neck, shank, and shoulder blade, cooked for nine hours in hickory sap, and presented compressed in a squash blossom with pea shoots and bull thistle sauce. (Damon uses very little in the way of traditional grains). Not only was this a beautiful plating, but it was also so intense as to be hard to imagine that pork is often dry and tasteless. This was an astonishing dish. Dazzling.
Heritage goat starred in course sixteen: goat leg roasted on a hot stone, served with goat and wild pear sausage and what Damon described as “rotten potatoes” (potatoes that had been stored, fermenting in vinegar. The sauce was made from Adirondack blue potatoes. As challenging as rotten potatoes are to think, the goat leg was that delicious.
Teal duck, a mild canard, did not impress me very much. It was well-cooked, but not as flavorful as I had expected, even when coated with sumac powder and cooked in soil. The high point of this dish was the tender toddler asparagus shoots that had only emerged this morning.
Our beef dish, course eighteen, was Red Angus beef, dry aged for seventy days, then heated under glass. The tender eye round was served with birch polypore mushrooms that had been steamed for fifty hours. The dish was impressively napped with wood nettles, sage salt, and wild turnip sauce. Again, a traditional protein was combined with tastes that were novel and a bit edgy.
Our first two desserts, plated together, were a lovely wild elderberry slushie and a “creme brulee” (without creme). The creme consisted of duck eggs, stevia, and squash seeds with a crystalized walnut sap syrup and serviceberries. It was a stirringly rich dessert in which any thought of sugar or cream had been properly banished. The grandest dessert of the night.
Course 21 was “Earlton Chocolate,” made without cocoa, but with fermented acorn butter and hickory nut butter edged with a puddle of mulberry juice. I was astonished at the extent to which the combination tasted like a dark chocolate. Perhaps it didn’t taste much more than chocolate, but chocolate from acorns grow.
Our cheese and fruit plate was remarkable because each cheese – ten of them – was hand-created by our friendly chef/cheesemaker/dishwasher. By this time in the evening, I felt a certain lassitude, but the range of cheese from a powerful blue to a watery curd were remarkable. Here was a fromagerie disguised as a restaurant.
Finally a last slushie: grape and maple sap. A lovely end to a staggering, enveloping, and glittering evening.
We arrived at 4 p.m. and left after 10 p.m., and our host never slowed down, and was never less than delighted and willing to share. Dinner at Damon Baehrel is a meal like no other. A bucket list experience. Perhaps these dishes, taken together were not as beautifully packaged as some of the restaurants with a culinary brigade and every so often one might miss a pat of butter, but in terms of sheer pleasure in the chef’s company and in the shared wisdom of eating off the land, nothing could compare to this night. No chef has ever received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, but there is always a first. My money is on Damon Baehrel. If it takes five years to dine with him, you will swiftly forget the delay.
776 County Highway 45
Earlton, NY 12058
Top Chef/Tough Chef – Elizabeth – Chicago - June 2014
One of the challenges of progressive cuisine as artistic endeavor is that dishes demand to be loved. They snuggle up to diners, rarely stare them in the face or kick them in the shins. In contrast, contemporary art has a well-deserved reputation for such affronts. Provoking one’s clients has a long and respected history from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ to Richard Serra’s brutal steel plates. These are objects that are important precisely because they insist on being unloved.
Chefs do not have that luxury. A dish that doesn’t taste good does not have many takers, even Grant Achatz knows that. Perhaps this is because, unlike when we visit museums, we pay for the privilege of consuming our choices. One rarely hears, “Ugly, slimy, and bitter, but essential.”
Chef Iliana Regan, the wunderkind behind Elizabeth, has established what is surely one of Chicago’s half-dozen most essential restaurants; yet even Chef Regan does not create dishes that are “ugly, slimy, and bitter.” However, in her rare series of personally gathered compositions (served on occasional Tuesdays) she explores the boundaries of taste and texture. The dishes on Elizabeth daily menu are diner-friendly, despite their gathered ingredients. During this summer Chef Regan plans to visit important sites of gathered cuisine, such as Noma and Willows Inn (and Nathan Myhrvold’s molecular workstation in Seattle), and surely her vision will be shaped as a result.
The dishes on Tuesday – at least the Tuesday that I attended – are more edgy than those on Saturday night, but more vital for creating a cuisine that doesn’t depend on diner-love. They are not unctuous or coarse, but neither are they syrupy comfort food.
Dinner on Tuesday began with a composed dish of wild strawberries, baby radishes, allium flowers, hyssop, and hay pudding, placed atop malted barley soil. Malt soil is a common base for salads at Elizabeth, ground fine as a condiment. Tonight, however, the soil was rocky. We were served barley pebbles, emphasizing the texture of the dish. Our attention was directed to the plate. One could not eat the salad thoughtlessly, and whether one wished an easy mix, one received a rocky outgrowth on which radishes, allium, and wild strawberries survived.
This starter was followed by a paean to skin: crispy salmon skin sous-vide, served with sunchokes, late-season ramps, and wild carrot pesto. Again one’s attention was focused on the ingredient: the animal as lived and killed.
Perhaps the most important dish was the main salad: a bouquet of wild greens that lacked the buttery geniality of bibb: yarrow, chickweed, bok choy blossoms, and other peppery and bitter roughage. The plate was centered by a calm house-made whey sorbet, which provided a honeyed warmth to the unforgiving greens. It was a salad that demanded a new perspective on what greens can teach.
This salad was followed by a dish that provoked in its blazing minimalist simplicity. Chef Regan served a small piece of bluegill, blanketed in tempura batter, perched on a puddle of creamy potato: beige on beige. With the attempts by other chefs to create a blow-your-horn dramatic cuisine, this dish hid in plain sight. But each half was so delicately perfect that a diner was reminded that all that mattered was taste and texture. In its lack of glamour the bluegill was most profound. It was pure sensory delight: no sound and fury.
I was less impressed by the asparagus, Hollandaise and 64 degree (Celsius) egg (and wood sorrel), which traded in current cliché. Even the plating seemed conventional. Nothing wrong with the combination, but little that one wouldn’t find in common boites throughout the metropolis. Ordinary brunch.
The deer loin, on the next plate, was gloriously veiled by a bouquet of crow’s garlic, clover flower, and powder of red vinegar. While the protein is typically the main player, Iliana’s loin was hidden in a forest glade. The deer was bloody delightful: undercooked and kicking, but it was the gathered tastes of the wild that made this Noma-esque dish inspiring.
Course seven is another gathered scene: a wooded pool. Chef Regan served wild onion, braised daylily, and electric green sassafras leaf (providing a gelatinous and startling texture). Daylily bulbs provide a unique and sweet crunch. This dish, more than most others had a New Nordic quality: Gastrinavia. Bright colors, dramatic vegetal flavors, and unexplored textures abound.
Lake trout in a salad of watercress, cattails, and milkweed was introduced by the chef, challenging us, “It tastes like Lake Michigan smells, which is not necessarily are bad thing.” Not at all. Here was her inverted parallel to the fried bluegill. Another simple dish, but with starch replaced by greens, and frying oil, but light heat. Excellent.
The ninth course was a transparent, transcendent “pasta”, and perhaps the best construction of the night. This pasta was sited in an overgrown garden: salvia, hyssop, cicely, pokeweed in a pheasant broth with house-made ricotta. This dish underlined the trust that we give our chefs. What might cicely, much less pokeweed, do to my innards? Carrots have a long history, but hyssop? Some weeds are “bad actors.” Do salvias save? As naïve diners we hope that chefs, like medicine men, do no harm with their physics.
Plate ten was our major protein: Canadian goose breast with morels in butter, pickled elm leaves (elm leaves?), fried maple leaves (maple leaves?). One is shaken by eating the forest floor. The maple leaves prove that everything is delicious if it is fried. This is another dish that demonstrates just how thoughtful and how poetic gathered cuisine can be, and why Chef Regan is among the leaders of this movement.
Iliana is known for her libations: typically mushroom tea. Tonight we were served a shot of chamomile, German thyme, and pepper along with a dollop of spruce ice cream. The shot was not entirely diner-friendly, but distinctive as refresher, and the ice cream kept us in the forest depths.
The sweet spoon was a reprise of previous ingredients, daylily shoot, cattails, and chamomile pudding. Short and vegetally sweet. A minor, if carefully plotted, taste.
The main dessert revealed was both perfumed and untamed: cicely ice cream, lamb quarters, milkweed, and sassafras root. Eschewing the traditional frostings and sugars, this dessert demonstrated that a wild meal can be honeyed.
A mint marshmallow smuggled onto a driftwood centerpiece ended the night with peace and pleasure.
As Elizabeth is becoming more proficient as a restaurant, it requires a laboratory in which experiments can be tested on willing white mice. As much as I appreciate what is served on Saturday night, Tuesday evening may be the more important. Yes, some of the flavors and textures require tolerance, but this was the most influential meal I have had in Chicago since the early, glory, molecular months of Alinea and Avenues and moto. A new culinary day is upon us: a dawn appreciated in a dappled dell.
4835 N. Western Avenue, Chicago
Noma: Going to Ground
The grazing maw of food snobs has over the past several years reached pastoral Denmark. Those who treasure lists note that the “we’re number one” restaurant has been Noma, even prior to the closure of perennial favorite, El Bulli. And number 49 is Noma’s cross-town rival Geranium. The two restaurants stand in contrast with Bulli, recognizing commonalities.
Within the restaurant biz there are three components of greatness: technique, ingredients, and vision. All astonishing restaurants do well on these three dimensions, of course, and vision is primary. But beyond creativity some styles of cuisine emphasize technique and others emphasize ingredients. Not short in its technique, Noma treasures ingredients. The more humble the plant, the better Rene Redzepi likes it. Weeds are us.
But those who live by ingredients, especially novel ones, can also die by them. I am not referring to toxic plants, although – god knows! – these foodstuffs do not have a long-track record. Noma customers have not been known to keel over, but who can say what we will face in twenty years. But the more relevant issue for gourmets is whether the taste of the ingredient can equal the idea of having gathered it. The danger with farm-to-table restaurants is that the food from a treasured family or boutique farm may taste no better than an industrial product if a critic was forced to taste while blindfolded. Often precisely the same ingredients are served – chicken, potatoes, carrots, lettuce. Close one’s eyes and can one tell what is what? But food in New Nordic Cuisine – gatherer’s cuisine – does not have the safety net of being no worse; it can be worse. Bleech!
Noma with its food lab and guiding vision of Chef-Proprietor Redzepi and his Head Chef Matt Orlando have only rare missteps, but one can only fear for when other, less insightful visionaries follow in their footsteps. As with the followers of chefs devoted to technique, such as El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, there is much that can go wrong.
The great restaurants – and however we rank restaurants – Noma is a grand one, are able to combine ingredients, technique, and vision, and they have the customer support to permit them to do so. As I was chowing down on sorrel, wild berries, beach herbs, snails, and Danish ants, I mused about food costs. The restaurant employs a troupe of gatherers. Yes, they are paid, but do their finds suggest that there is such a thing as a free lunch?
But enough theory. How was the food?
It was about as delicious as it could possibly be, considering. In this essay I do not provide a dish by dish rundown (the pictures provide a part of the story), however, the food was very green, very herbal. The flavors were subtle, often surprising, even as they often lacked the savory punch found in more standard ingredients. Despite the sense that a gatherer’s cuisine has the whole world from which to select, it also gives up on a variety of more conventional flavors. Still, this limited register provides surprises and pleasures. No beef (only sweetbreads), no pork (only skin), no duck (only liver). Proteins are pushed to the side in a grazing diet. Still a smart chef can accomplish much with knives and roasting pans hidden from view.
Dried carrots, verbena, egg yolks, rocket, caramelized milk can be inspiring. Of the dishes, my favorites, the ones that I remember with the greatest fondness were the moss with mushroom powder; the cheese biscuit with rocket and parsley stems; the berries and cucumber; the brown crab with egg yolk and herbs; and the pike perch with cabbage, verbena and dill. Culinary modesty becomes Noma.
But what was most impressive was the vision thing. I truly could not say that any of these dishes were the greatest dish of the year, even if the meal was as impressive as any that I have had in many harvests. Like the food at Blaine Wetzel’s Willows Inn on Lummi Island (a modified gatherer’s cuisine, a step closer to traditional canons and two steps closer to farm-to-table dining), there is a sensibility: the recognition that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Here was one of the greatest meals I have had which lacked a dish that I thought was among the greatest. And this is Noma’s triumph and its limitation. Rene Redzepi’s cuisine is so thoughtful, so engaged, so environmentally noble that it is in the experience of seeing the ground through the plate that one learns about the possibilities of dining.
And now here are the photos:
Flatbred with Malt Flour and Juniper (in vase)
Sauteed Raindeer Moss with Mushroom Powder
Blue Mussel and Celery (one edible mussel)
Crispy Pork Skin and Black Currant (I think)
Apple, Smoked and Dried Cucumber
Cheese Biscuit, Rocket and Herb Stems
Potato Sandwich with Duck Liver Mousse and Black Trumpet Mushrooms
Grilled Dried Carrot on Ash and Sorrel Emulsion
Caramelized Milk and Shaved Cod Liver
Pickled and Smoked Quail Egg
Radish, Soil, and Grass
Aebleskiver and Muikku (Finnish Fermented Fish)
Sorrel Leaf and Cricket Paste (inside the leaf) with Nasturium
Glazed Snails with Parsley and Watercress
Danish Potato with Butter Sauce with Peashoots and Sorrel Leaves
Sous Vide Fava Beans and Beach Herbs
Wild Berries and Cucumber Salad
Stone Crab with Parsley Puree, Verbena and Seaweed Broth and Egg Yolk
Pike Perch with Butter Foam and Cabbage, Verbena and Dill
The Hen and the Egg, cooked with Hay Oil, Spinach, Nasturium, Oxalis, and Parsley Sauce
Sweetbreads and Bitter Greens, Celeriac and Chantrelles, Juniper Root
Open Ice Cream Sandwich with Ant Puree
Ice Cream Sandwich with Blueberry Sorbet and Ant Puree with Nasturium Leaves
Gammel Dansk (Bitter Danish Liquor) with Sorrel and Dried Milk
1401 Kobenhavn K, Denmark
There can be no doubt that the El Bulli meal, currently being prepared to the lucky few at Grant Achatz’s (and David Beran’s) stylish restaurant Next is an event. Perhaps too much of one, as museum retrospectives often are.
A word of background. A year ago – February 2011 – I was fortunate to dine at El Bulli itself, outside the Catalan tourist town of Roses, situated by a curving shoreline road in what seemed in the Spanish dark the middle of nowhere. Next is, in contrast, in the middle of everywhere: ground zero of culinary Chicago.
After 42 courses and six hours I left astonished, astounded, and amazed. Chef Ferran Adria, a gracious and warm host, had created a menu of themes – prawn courses, Mexican plates, black truffles galore, a tribute to woodcock. The meal was a magnificent collection of gastro-symphonic riffs. In the final months of El Bulli, Chef Adria had managed to combine modernist techniques, incredibly sourced ingredients, and a style that reflected a recognition of the continuing importance of classical cuisine. The meal was an essay on the passions and theories of a chef in action. The courses represented a conversation with the diner as well as with the land. When I die the memory of that meal will be on my lips: my last exhalation.
And so we find Chicago’s Next – and Chicago’s Alinea. Dining at Alinea, one has a sense that is perhaps as close to dining at El Bulli as anywhere else on these shores. Through his cuisine Chef Achatz works through a set of themes. As in Catalonia, the meal in Lincoln Park is a conversation: techniques, ingredients, and theories of food. Dishes whisper amongst themselves in profound, harmonious, and sometimes jarring fashion.
Next is different: a museum, not an atelier. At $485 (tax and tip, added), 29 courses, and five-and-half hours (330 minutes), the meal is a rousing success. I do not regret being one of those internet groupies who purchased season tickets (I was assigned number 1049, only a very few after me were privileged to allow Nick Kokonas to hold their cash interest-free for the year).
Unlike meals at Alinea or at El Bulli itself, Next is a commemorative celebration. The twenty-nine dishes cribbed from the El Bulli playbook are selected from recipes stretching from 1987 to 2010. One score and four years. As each course was presented, the server meticulously noted its year of birth. Had the meal been organized differently this could have permitted diners to gain a sense of the development of Chef Adria’s cuisine, and it did develop creatively over a quarter-century. The early dishes were recognizably 1980s haute cuisine. It is easy to imagine the 1988 Suquet of Prawns (shrimp stew) being served – and being loved – at the opening of Charlie Trotter’s. Later shapes and colors explode, food architecture enters, and then modernist (molecular) techniques are common. One expects a genius to develop in a quarter-century of practice, and Ferran Adria is a genius.
The problem is one of balancing the type of dish against its historical moment. The dishes were presented in a higgly-piggly chronology: 2003, 1997, 1992, 2001, 2000, 1988. Logic was evident in ingredients and in size (snacks before appetizers, fish before meat, palate cleansers before dessert), but the discussion among the dishes was muted. In an early menu at Alinea, Chef Achatz brilliantly doubled the progression: savory to sweet, and then a reprise, savory to sweet again. It was as stunning intellectually as it was in gustatory terms. But here at Next one lacked this sense because the dishes were ripped from time. And the diner was left with a parade of courses: magnificent, fine, odd, and off. The grand thematic linkages – the compelling connections among the platters – that were so compelling at El Bulli were less evident on Fulton Market.
Although the food is, deservedly, front and center, it is the service that shaped the evening both as exhilaration and as frustration. The frustration first. We were informed that the meal was planned to last 3-1/2 hours. But by 11:30 (with an 8:00 reservation) we were nowhere close. Enough already. It wasn’t that we were slow eaters, but the gaps between courses were notable. Admittedly this was only the second week of public service and Next is known as a work in progress, but by the time that we staggered onto Fulton Market at 1:30, we truly staggered. This was compounded by the servers’ generosity with wine. A lot of vino spilled upon our shores as our cups ran over (the wines were well-chosen, mostly from southwest France or Catalonia). Three-and-a-half hours seem an unlikely goal, but four hours is a target. If El Bulli can pull off 42 courses in six hours, 29 in four should not be impossible.
Now the exhilaration. Perhaps it was still early in a long run that may become routine, but the servers were positively joyous, and helped to create a communal, convivial atmosphere (even sharing that Chef Achatz was sitting nearby: he arrived later, left earlier, but perhaps he chose the children’s menu). We were served by a team that seemed highly professional, but also congenial in a Midwestern way. With the exception of one dish that was not explained properly (more on this later), we felt warmly enveloped throughout the night.
As is true in Roses, one begins with a set of snacks, presented in rapid order, and which, taken together, revealed some of the techniques for which El Bulli has become esteemed. First was Nitro Caipirinha with Tarragon Concentrate (2004, Ferran in his chemistry days), a frozen (with liquid nitrogen) play on the Brazilian cocktail of cachaca, sugar, and lime with the addition of a small, but potent bit of emerald green tarragon concentrate. The drink, otherwise perhaps not so different than a frozen daiquiri, is transformed by the power of deep herb. It is an impressive reminder of how a powerful morsel matters.
Immediately after, we were treated to Hot/Cold Trout Roe Tempura (2000) a dish elevated by the light tempura batter blanketing the salty, cool trout roe. The combination was worthy of a fine restaurant, even if the snack seemed more a blind date than an integration of tastes.
Third was a nifty little coca of avocado pear, white sardine, and green onion (1991). This was early Ferran, where the wise combination of ingredients was central to gustatory pleasure. At most restaurants this would be a very successful amuse, tonight it was a very pleasurable throwback.
The fourth dish, iberico sandwich (2003), was a bit of a disappointment. A fine slice of iberico ham was draped over a cracker. The ham was a taste of Catalonia, but the dish was a moment to catch one’s breadth in the hopes of greater excitement ahead.
The next snack provided that excitement: El Bulli’s canonical spherical olive (2005). The label is perhaps startling: aren’t all olives spherical. Yes, but not all spheres are fully liquid, contained within a thin bladder of alginate, another innovation from Ferran’s molecular moment. The juicy olives are liquefied and placed in an alginate bath, and – boom! – reverse spherification. Here is the discovery of a quark, and culinary inspiration marches on. Granted that this is (necessarily) a liquid one-bite wonder, and it tastes, after all, like very potent olive liquor, but it is the zenith of molecularity.
The Golden Egg (2001) is a quail egg yolk in a caramelized shell. Here the texture was the star of the dish which otherwise was slightly sweet and slightly unctuous.
Lucky Seven. The star snack was surely Liquid Chicken Croquettes (1998) from a moment at which Chef Adria was playing with the possibility of textures. These tiny croquettes were filled with potent liquid chicken: not chicken soup, but intense chicken syrup. To this point, this small dish was the heroic moment of the evening.
Liquid chicken was paired with Black Sesame Spongecake and Miso (2007). Black sesame has a powerful, nutty flavor, and this flavor was nicely matched with the airy texture of the floataway cake. Only a bite or two, but a very beautiful, rich combination.
We moved into more substantial dishes, including Smoke Foam (1997), a dish that our server described as a provocation, incorporating leaves, twigs, and bark: gelatin and water, flavored with wood smoke. Chef Achatz has also embraced smoke as provocation (as in several dishes at Alinea and in the Childhood menu at Next). The goal is not to create a dish that is easy to like, but that is important to think. Perhaps it is a paean to toast or to marshmallows, but the glass was more successful as idea than as a beaker for a pleasure potion.
Ten was textured stunner. Carrot Air with Coconut Milk Curry. With today’s foamy overuse, this concoction reveals the power of the foam form. The flavor of carrot and coconut was intense, the orange color was luminous, and the pleasure of slurping air was palpable. This was one of the most exciting and memorable presentations of the evening, revealing that even what has subsequently become a somewhat dull technique can be brilliant in the mind of a master.
The 1997 Cuttlefish and Coconut Ravioli with Soy, Ginger and Mint was one of those moments in which dishes spoke to each other. The coconut reprised the soupy air of the previous dish and also had an Asian inflection. The texture was powerfully distinct, chewy and smooth, rather than evanescent. The pairing of the dishes echoed in the gullet.
Dish 12 could have been 13 for all the luck it brought. Tonight the colder the dish, the less successful. I reject Savory Tomato Ice with Oregano and Almond Milk Pudding (1992). Too salty, too icy, and too bland (the milk pudding). A trifecta failure with a set of textures than lay uneasily in the same martini glass. Perhaps 1992 was an off-year in Roses.
The real dish 13 was far more successful. Hot Crab Aspic with Mini Corn Cous-Cous. The corn cous-cous was rather plain, but the crab aspic was heroic, the gelatin had just the right textural give as visually the crab provided a dark intrigue.
The next dish, reconceptualizing the idea of cous-cous to better effect, creating vegetable pearls surrounded by a garden ring, was the most inspirational dish of the night: Cauliflower Cous-Cous with a Solid Aromatic Herb Sauce (2000). Perhaps this was the moment that Ferran Adria became a genius. Not having it in Barcelona, I can’t assess whether Next’s version was identical, but the Next kitchen deserves warm regard in creating or recreating a dish that was simultaneously savory and sweet with enough lamb jus to give it a meaty aspect. Its complexity was astonishing: creating a dish that must have drawn from every domain of aroma and texture, creating a plate in which to eat was to engage with a wealth of choice. Adria reconsidered the relationship between liquid and solid, sweet and savory, and meat, vegetable, and grain. This wreath is a moment of breath-taking circularity in culinary history.
The fifteenth dish was our halfway point: Suquet of prawns (Spanish shrimp stew) (1988) was an early and elegant dish, one that might have been served at Trotters or other grand restaurants from a quarter-century ago. It was beautifully designed and conceptualized with a powerful oceanic taste matched with dancing herbal and vegetable textures.
Potato Tortilla by Marc Singla (1998) reflected Adria’s borrowing of the idea of hot foam in what was essentially a potato soup. I found this more of a pause in the progression than an occasion for merriment.
Trumpet Carpaccio (1989) is another early dish, a tribute to fungus. Its elegance is stirring and, so long as one enjoys mushrooms (as I do), this carpaccio is a memorable construction. This was an earthy preparation of the very best sort.
Unfortunately I seemed not to have taken a picture of the prettiest of all of the dishes. It was late, I was tired. Red Mullet Gaudi (1987) was the earliest dish recreated and was a tribute to Ferran’s fellow Barcelonan, the visionary architect Antoni Gaudi, creating a dish that was reminiscent of his lizard-like mosaics in the breathtaking Parc Guell in Barcelona. Here mullet was covered by tiny mosaics of tomato, shallots, red peppers, and other delightful vegetal nubbins. The taste was impressive, and the decoration was remarkable. The fish was placed on a warm bag of watery shells adding to its visual and tactile complexity.
The next plate (again no photo) combined land and sea, flower and meat: Nasturtium with Eel, Bone Marrow, and Cucumber (2007): a triptych. Certainly a sturdy dish, but not a show stopper.
Dish 20 was the big protein: Civet of Rabbit with Hot Apple Jelly (2000). The grand combination of fruit and game proved successful, and the style of presentation reminded us that before the molecular style hit these shores there was Ferran working his magic. The dish typified what we have come to know as modernist presentation, full of lines and dashes, smears and dust.
We moved toward dessert, but with a hiccup. Chef Adria is known for his “balloons” – icy, hollow spheres capturing some savory or sweet flavor. Tonight’s sphere was a “gorgonzola balloon” (2009): a little blue cheese goes a very long way. After a nibble or two, it was time to move on. Another balloon might have hit the spot, not tonight.
The next step toward dessert was the foie gras caramel custard (1999), which fortunately Next can now serve in Chicago: no airfare necessary. The dish was pleasant, but tasted as its name revealed.
Dish 23 revealed the chef at play: Spice Plate (1996). We were served a ramekin with a thin green apple gel and with a dozen bits at the points of the clock around the edge. And we were presented a card that listed the hour and the ingredient. Unfortunately – and here is the staff gaffe – we weren’t told that we were supposed to figure out which ingredient belonged where, and we were puzzled that the listings were wrong or that we were so exhausted that we couldn’t tell mint from curry. Eventually we were presented with a key, and all was well, even if the dish itself was more of a jest than a classic.
Mint Pond (2009)(not pictured) was peppermint powder, green matcha tea, cocao powder, muscovado sugar over ice. No photo. This was another failure. A bowl of ice was presented with a thin layer of ice on top on which powders of mint, tea, cacao, and sugar sprinkled. It was supposed to be a palate cleanser, but on this Chicago winter night, it seemed like just more ice.
Much more impressive was the Chocolate in Textures (1997), a complex architecture of cacao. The presentation was deep and dark, and surely the finest dessert of the night. Here was architectural food, never forgetting that dessert must build on the foundation of the sweet and smooth.
Three quick desserts were served together – and as one a.m. had passed, we were grateful indeed: liquid filled chocolate donuts (2010, a dish that I was served in Roses), a crème flute (1993), and a beautiful and complex puff pastry web (1989), revealing a true sensitivity to pastry as a form of construction. They were a nice way to edge toward closure.
Finally – 29 – the mignardises – luscious passion fruit marshmallows with latex hands to wish us b’bye.
It has taken me almost as long to compose this essay as it took Next to serve the meal on which it is based. True enough. But I could have been more efficient as well. The clock is a tough master.
But ultimately time spent slides into forgetting, and the food remains. And how was it? Worthwhile without doubt. For me Next’s El Bulli dinner did not match El Bulli’s El Bulli dinner. The focus was more respectful retrospective than startling immediacy, but there were astonishingly great dishes and many excellent ones as well. Excluding the icy claptraps, I was grateful and delighted and impressed with Chef Beran’s mastery and Chef Achatz’s inspiration and Chef Adria’s genius. There is, however, a danger with a survey; often it is the surrounding dishes that spotlight the acts of brilliance.
For those who have not had the fortune to reach El Bulli, Next is a very excellent Next-best-thing. For those who have, Next’s showy creation captures much of what was remarkable about that now-shuttered bulldog of a place. At Next flaws, yes, but also an abundance of astonishing vistas of texture, vision, and, always, taste.
Next Restaurant 953 W Fulton Market Chicago, IL 60607 http://www.nextrestaurant.com