Next Restaurant – Tour of Thailand, Not Bangkok 2060

July 11 2011 - 12:17 PM


I’m not sure where I had it in my head that the next concept from Next Restaurant was Bangkok 2060.  When I asked the waitstaff about what makes this restaurant “futuristic” they said that it’s more of a tour of Thailand, not futuristic. I’ll confess that I was disappointed. A big part of what really worked with Paris 1906 was the believability of that history in the food. The flavors were big and French but also conveyed authenticity and laborious techniques which are simply not done anywhere else anymore. It made it more than the Next Restaurant’s “take” on French food. A restaurant set in the future, in Bangkok, when the Bangkok Post states that “the planet may be unrecognizable by 2050” –what a concept! How do you cook with no abundance of fresh water? Half of Bangkok will theoretically be underwater by then… not to mention placesettings! In any case it wasn’t to be.

What is at Next now is a broader-stroke interpretation of Thai cuisine and while I’m sure I can get into a fight about just how good our Thai restaurants are in Chicago, all this said, I wasn’t looking for an authentic dish.

There’s a bit more showmanship this time around. The meal starts out with Thai street food; a Thai newspaper spread on the table and, like the initial course in Paris, a “set” of tastes comes out. Roasted banana with crisp garlic chips and little edible flowers and slight slices of chili pepper was a complex delicious sweet, the house-made and house-fermented sausage, with perfectly beautiful floral garnish (damn, no macro lens) had a great flavor. We were trying to figure out what was in it. The superbly educated waitstaff informed us it was pork shoulder and belly… they even gave us the percent. I think it was 20% belly. They actually use that French duck press on the sausage to boot. That appliance has really come out of retirement. The shrimp crisps, curry buns and sweet shrimp rounded out a plate that serves a range of flavors and sets the stage for the rest of the meal.

After the street food course, the paper is removed and we’re told that we’re now back in the restaurant. A red linen is set out and we get our plastic spoon and paper napkins replaced with more traditional silver. It bears to mention that the color of the linen changes per day, as you may find in Thailand (the colors representing different gods). The fact that Next does this when almost nobody will be there more than once, goes to show the attention to detail. The restaurant was actually quite warm as well, enough for a jacket to be uncomfortable, I would like to think it was also intentional.

The tom yum soup was one of those pour at your table courses. A supremely thin slice of tomato was at the base as well as mushroom, basil, chili slices and strands. What made it different was the pork belly. Wonderful crispy bits and tender pieces mingles with the lemongrass heavy broth. Occasional bursts of heat, or basil would fire. Where a traditional tom yum could be a pallate-killer, this dish achieved what I was hoping. Tom yum has the same menagerie of different flavors, but this is more of a tom yum consomme with the same notes coming in and out. the lemongrass almost a pallate-cleanser resetting you for jolts of spice, or herbaciousness, or unctous savory meat… which fade away almost as fast as they appear. It was the highlight of the meal for me.

Rice and condiments were the precursor to the 2 main courses. Three fingerbowls were filled with duck egg salad, a tart grapefruit forward citrus and vinegar bowl and a garlicky red bowl which was explained in detail, is very hard to find let alone order especially if, like me, you forgot what it was. Readers? Anyone? Line?!

The condiments also gave a nice range of pungent and potent but when the courses came, I didn’t want to muddle them all together. The catfish was served atop a smouldering coal which gave off no smoke and at the end of the course was warm to touch but not hot (not a suggestion to touch the coals). The flavors were very reminiscent of thai fish courses. Noteable were the small pickled onions which added a vinegar note and little green peppercorns which not only added a bit of sharp short heat, they brought the flavors out of the celery.

The beef cheek panang sounded awesome. I do love panang curries and have had dozens of different ones. What was missing here, thankfully, was the permeating sweetness that becomes more cloying the longer you continue eating it. Here, the heat was bumped up but also the salt. My theory is that the coconut cream is richer so more salt is added to offset it. The cheek was cooked sous vide for 6 hours in the panang. For some reason the flavor of the meat didn’t fit with the panang. On it’s own it had a nice beefy flavor, compressed but tender texture and also had a bit of salt on it and when combined with the rest of the dish came off tasting like a brine. Little touches like the grilled baby corn really underscored the amount of finesse present.

One of the most interesting courses was a shot glass of water.But of course it was not water… Far more complicated, it was watermelon and lemongrass puree that had gelatin added to it and then it was frozen and the water then extracted. At which point the concentrated flavors came right through. Refreshing is an understatement. Sip it a few times before you shoot it (if you must).

The course I saw ahead of time, and maybe a reason I was expecting a more molecular meal, is the coconut dessert. A coconut water (and simple syrup?) sorbet was spooned into the top of the shell. The bottom had freeze dried corn, mango strips, mint, licorice speheres… other stuff. It was a signature dish which is probably why they showed it off before the opening. It’s worth showing off.

The final bite was a split dragonfruit with a splash of sugared rosewater. Dragonfruit as little flavor but the rosewater adds a flavor you would expect to find. Chef Dave Beran’s family had rose gardens which adds some story to the nice touch. Considering the amount of edible flowers that helped bring color to their interpretation of Thailand in this meal, the rose tied things together nicely.

Lastly a baggie and a straw provided a Thai tea, black tea with a touch of condensed milk and coconut milk and you’re done. Welcome back to Chicago.

I kind of avoided the drink pairings here but it really bears to mention that while the reserve wine pairing is a given for Paris 1906… cocktails are perfect for Thailand. The non-alcoholic pairing was just as good. Very unusual juices even including corn broth, were quite intriguing. We had a few tastes of the wine options. A Rosé Champagne paired with the beef cheek panang was crisp and refreshing. A Tokai furmint paired with the tom yum was also spot on. No sweet notes but a touch of raw wood, it was reminiscent of the oxidized white they paired with the Paris 1906 turtle soup. As a counterpoint to the tom yum it kept a very awesome dish fresh.


The questions I’m already getting this morning are “Better than Paris?” and “Is it worth the money when I can drop $20 on Argyle?”. I liked Paris better because first and foremost the concept was richer. I found it to be more ambitious. That said, Thailand was awesome. You can’t get Thai food like this anywhere else in Chicago. And while it’s not cheap compared to Thai food… that’s the wrong comparison. If you love Thai food, you’ll love this even more. You’ll get it even more. With the amount of thought, technique, skill and effort that goes into meals like this, it’s not only a deal, it’s a great experience– provided you can get a ticket.

–Josh Brusin