2/26/2013 12:00:00 PM

Photos: The Hunt at Next

There is a point in every foodie’s career when they must make a choice, the choice to suck up their pride and spend weeks battling the Next ticketing system. When chef Grant Achatz and Dave Beran announced their 2013 menu at their ever-evolving restaurant, we knew The Hunt - a meal focused on Midwestern game meat - would be the menu to take our Next virginity.

We remember the morning with a ping of nausea, when that ominous message appeared on Next’s Facebook page, “Tickets now on sale for The Hunt.” Did it matter it was in the middle of the morning on a Tuesday? No, we dropped everything and spent the next two hours refreshing the ticketing site that bounced us in and out of a virtual waiting room. Once in the waiting room two numbers are displayed – how many tickets are available and how many of those are on hold by people who claimed tables but not yet purchased them. The only way to claim a table is with lightening speed and perfect timing. Needless to say, our first try was a failure.

Two weeks later Next released more tickets onto the site, this time it was a Tweet viewed before shutting down our computer for the day. Retiring the idea of getting out of the office at a decent time, we settled in for another frustrating battle with website. Miraculously, we snagged a four-top before all of the tables were put on hold. With a few clicks we were going to Next…a month later.

Is it the press, the hoop jumping or the promise of culinary greatness that makes dining at Next such a highly anticipated experience? Either way, when the night of our meal finally arrived, we were more than a little exited. We walked into the grey room with that signature unmistakable metal beam running across the ceiling. We expected the room to feel cold, but fur pelts on each table along with dramatic music that made us want to pick up a musket and head out to the forest.

Instead we were presented with thirteen courses. A meal that began with foraging mushrooms out of a glass box filled with bine needles and progressed to charcuterie served on the cross section of animal horns. The beginning of the meal was rustic with dishes presented on glazed ceramic plates but by the sixth course there is a tangible shift. An antique candelabra is placed on the table, the following courses of sturgeon in its own caviar and pressed squab were plated on gold-rimmed china. Aside from being instructed to suck the brains out of the squab’s head and then gnaw on the bones, it was an elegant part of the meal.

The candelabra was taken away and suddenly the meal was cold. The final courses of bison cooked at the table on a heated stone and charcuterie of vegetables served on tree bark returned to the more earthy tone. The meal transitioned into sweeter offerings with one of our favorite courses: bone marrow brûlée. A sort of DIY parfait followed it with Maris Otter – a barley rice budding – with an assortment of toppings and finally a trough of ice that resembled snow. Hot maple was poured onto the ice. The maple set and each diner collected it with a stick.

Overall, we enjoyed sticks, snow, bark, animal fur and horns, game meats, lots of poultry and local fish. Can’t say we didn’t get what we paid for. Like birthdays and New Year’s Eve, its difficult for something so hyped to live up to lofty expectations. The food was perfectly prepared and thought provoking. Transitions from one course to another not only presented new flavors but a new experience. Was the meal transcendent? No. Are we curious to see what the team at Next has up their sleeve for the following menus? Absolutely. Was it worth it? We answer that question with a shrug and a "yes."

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