To preface this, sometime back I wrote about the highly anticipated restaurant, Next, that opened in Chicago by the genius Chef Grant Achatz along with his business partner Nick Kokonas. As the name suggests, Next embraces the bold move of featuring an evolving menu every 3 months with each next menu featuring a different cuisine or city at a different time line. Next said goodbye to its Paris 1906 debut menu, which we were lucky to score tickets for, and now the bravely unafraid Grant Achatz takes a totally different turn and delves into what had once been an unfamiliar territory to him in the kitchen and presents Tour of Thailand. Grant's inspiration on thinking-outside-the-box makes him who he is today and also brought his other Chicago restaurant, Alinea, to the rank of being #1 restaurant in North America and the #6 best restaurant in the world. And now, Next restaurant dominates food conversations and food news sites.
Not afraid to be experimental, Next has also reinvented the entire system of restaurant dining where diners purchase tickets for their meal. Tickets are sold only in tables for parties of 2, 4 and 6, with the latter being the kitchen table. From an economics perspective, this is quite an ingenius way of dealing with the nightmares of no-show reservations.
The ticket frenzy did not end at their Paris 1906 debut menu. In fact, on the day tickets were released for the current Tour of Thailand menu people were glued to their computers and hitting the refresh button for what may had seemed like a million times (thanks to the server overload) to purchase the tickets. On the day of the ticket release, we were in Las Vegas and were both on our iPhones trying to purchase our tickets. The 3G connection was slow and even by obsessively refreshing our Safari browsers we were not successful. The page eventually told us that tickets were sold. That was 1 1/2 hours from the time of ticket release. We were bummed. Later, it was revealed on Next's Facebook page that there were only 2,000 tickets for sale and based on the webpage statistics 16,000 people tried to purchase tickets. For the 14,000 disappointed people, Next announced that for the current menu they would try to release Same Night Tickets on most days, if available, as they wanted to give everyone a chance. The first three times we were not successful in getting same night tickets. The fourth time's the charm. Next responded to say they have a table for us that night.
The food and alcoholic pairings clearly did not disappoint and every dish that was brought out was excellent based on Next's interpretation on Thai cuisine. What impressed us the most, though, was how closely the execution of the entire meal mirrored and reflected the Thai culture. Growing up in Southeast Asia with many similarities to Thai culture, T and I had the advantage of drawing connections to the little details presented to us throughout the meal that could have been gone unnoticed if we were not familiar with the culture. Our meal was fantastic but if there was one aspect of our experience from Next's Tour of Thailand that we appreciated the most, it would be the opportunity for us to experience what we grew up being familiar with.
Tour of Thailand
Next's exploration and interpretation of Thai cuisine
Tour of Thailand begins with what is usually associated with street food. We were seated at the table; it was bare except or a thin stack of folded Thai newspapers that sat on the center of the table. The server opened up the newspaper and used it to line the table. Black plastic spoons and pink paper napkins were brought out.
1. Roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage, steamed bun
Paired with cocktail punch made from Batavia Arrack (Indonesian rum made from sugar cane), sparkling rose, guava, mango, papaya
The roasted bananas were served with its skin still intact and using our hands we folded the ends of the skin downwards to enjoy the banana. Topped with marigold flower petals, fresno chilli slices, and shallots, the natural sweetness from the banana was quite a delight to start off the meal.
The fermented sausage was made from pork shoulder and then mixed with galangal and peanut, and then topped with grilled scallion. The sausage was definitely a pleaser. The prawn cake (not pictured), made from a combination of white pepper, coriander, and lime zest, had the right amount of crisp and crunch to it.
The raw sweet shrimp was delicately placed on a fresh mint leaf and served with garlic and lime juice with just the right amount without turning the shrimp into ceviche. The mini steamed buns were filled with beech mushrooms and green curry. The buns were soft just like how they should be although the filling did not stand out to make an impression.
After the street platter, the newspapers used to line the table were removed making way for a red table runner to adorn the table. We moved on from street food to a more formal dinner presentation.
2. Tom Yum Soup
Paired with cocktail made from London dry gin, chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee juice
The cocktail concoction was a perfect combination of flavors. At every sip, we noticed the individual flavors of each ingredient without the flavors getting meshed up into one confusing cocktail. My favorite part of this cocktail was the noticeable flavor of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea. It brought back memories of drinking homemade brewed tea made from pretty chrysanthemum flowers.
The tom yum soup was made from pork-based hot and sour broth. Steering away from the conventional, Next's form of protein for the tom yum soup was caramelized pork belly. The soup bowls filled with pork belly, heirloom tomato, ginger, and Thai bird's eye chilli were brought to the table and the broth was poured into the bowls at the table. The broth was light in nature and at first sip it gave the impression that it was a little too light in flavor but as we continued drinking the soup, the flavor of the soup started to build up.
3. Nam Prik Pao, Salted Duck Egg, and Rice
And the consumption of rice begins here. One thing worth noting was how much we appreciated that we were given a dinner spoon and fork to eat rice with, instead of just a fork. In Southeast Asia, it is common practice for people to eat rice with a dinner spoon and fork. The food goes on the dinner spoon and into the mouth; the fork is used to push the food onto the spoon. At Thai restaurants in the US, usually only a fork is given (and/or chopsticks) which means that the fork is used to "spoon" rice into the mouth. The only other types of spoons we have generally seen used in Thai restaurants in the US are soup spoons and serving spoons.
I can't think of a better way to introduce Thai cuisine than with nam prik pao, a thick chilli paste made with chilli, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce. Nam prik pao is said to be quite a quintessential feature in Thai cuisine. The flavor was intense from the combination of all the ingredients that went into it. The fish sauce definitely made its presence known in the chilli paste and yet without being overpowering in order not to overshadow the flavors of the rest of the ingredients. Nam prik pao is usually used with cooking other food items but it is commonly eaten as it is with plain white rice because of the rich flavor it carries. I found that half a teaspoon of the chilli paste with a spoonful of rice was enough to experience the complex and intense marriage of flavors.
The salted duck egg came in a form of almost-pureed savory egg custard. Though we have some familiarity with eating salted duck egg in Chinese cuisine and not Thai, this dish showcased an interesting and creative way of adding green mango and white radish to the dish. The less intense and more mellow taste of the duck egg was an excellent contrast to the intense nam prik pao.
We had two options to increase the heat of the nam prik pao and salted duck egg if we wished to. In fact, the spicier it was, the better it was for us. Brought along to the table were a petite dish of finely chopped Thai bird's eye chilli and another petite dish of blended chilli and garlic. Freshly chopped Thai bird's eye chilli as well as the blended chilli and garlic are both common supplements to increase the heat in Southeast Asian cuisine.
The pickled watermelon and papaya is also another popular form of salad usually eaten as a side and as a palate teaser.
4. Braised Catfish
Paired with white wine Itsas Mendi Hondarrabi Zuri, Bizkaiko Txakolina, Spain 2010
When the charcoal burner was brought out to the table to be used as a stand for the fish platter, it brought back fond memories of eating fish in restaurants in Southeast Asia. A very common and authentic way for restaurants serving fish in Southeast Asia is to let the fish platter sit on the burner so that the fish will remain warm throughout the meal. We were impressed that Next caught on with this traditional practice during the dinner presentation.
The catfish was braised in caramel sauce, coriander root, and celery. The fish was tender at every bite without being overly delicate. Another common practice in Southeast Asia which Next played out during the fish presentation was that the server helped dish out some fish from the serving platter onto our rice plates. I am not sure what is it about fish but generally servers restaurants in Southeast Asia do not dish out the food from the serving platters for diners but fish is the exception. The server holds a spoon and fork with the same hand and position both utensils so that they can function like a pair of thongs (some good finger dexterity would be helpful!). Next caught on to that practice too. Our server at Next held both spoon and fork with one hand so that they became a pair of pseudo-thongs and dished out the fish for us onto our rice plates. We were impressed by these little details that are so reflective of the culture.
And of course, just like the true Asian way of going through a dinner meal, more rice was brought out with the catfish.
5. Beef Panang Curry
Paired with microbrew Half Acre, Horizon Ale, Chicago, IL
Next's attempt to reflecting the essence and culture of Southeast Asian dining was shown once again here. The beef panang curry (and more rice) was brought out when we were midway enjoying the catfish. What some people might have thought as a kitchen slip-up for bringing the next dish out before the first dish is finished, we thought it was intentional on Next's part. We wanted to shout, Yes, this is how it is supposed to be like! A common practice at restaurants in Southeast Asia is that the dishes, enjoyed family-style, are brought out from the kitchen as when they are ready. This allows the early dish to be enjoyed by itself for a little bit before the next few dishes are gradually and individually brought out to the table so that all the dishes at the table can finally be eaten together.
Served in a beautiful copper pot, the beef cheek panang curry was prepared with peanuts, nutmeg, and kaffir lime. The beef cheeks were incredibly tender and the curry, though thick, was not too heavy.
6. Fruit "palate cleanser" consomme
After a rich and flavorful meal, we were served a drink made from watermelon and lemongrass which was very much needed as we transitioned to dessert.
7. Coconut Dessert
Paired with Planta Passito di Noto, Moscato, Italy 2009
The whole coconuts with the husk still attached were brought out on a wooden platter and we were asked to slowly open up the top part of the coconut. Inside were various ingredients of coconut, egg yolk sweet noodle, licorice, and corn with the latter prepared with liquid nitrogen. When the "lid" of the coconut was removed, a generous scoop of coconut sorbet was placed on it. The taste of the sorbet stayed true to the pure taste of coconut juice without any distracting flavors. With each spoonful of sorbet into my mouth, it felt like I was tasting real coconut juice but in sorbet form.
8. Dragon Fruit
Paired with a shot of Banks "5 Island" Rum
Before the dragon fruit made its appearance, a stalk of fresh and sweet smelling rose was brought to the table. We were encouraged to sniff the rose petals before delving into the dragon fruit. The surface of the fruit was scented with rose syrup which gave a sweet character to the dragon fruit.
9. Thai Iced Tea
As an end to our Thai meal, this was our favorite part of the night: drinking the iced tea out of clear plastic bags. Next once again presents one of the most distinct feature of the culture. Sipping the tea through a straw from the clear plastic bag, it brought back memories of the days when we were in elementary school drinking soda or iced tea out of these plastic bags at the school cafeteria. We still like to indulge in this unique little practice when visiting Southeast Asia and buying drinks from local stalls. Sadly though, many drinks establishments are gradually doing away with serving drinks in these plastic bags and are moving on to paper cups. When the table beside us at Next received their iced tea in the plastic bags, we overheard one of the guys saying to his friends, "They have this in Singapore too". Ah hah, someone else also understood the connection with the Southeast Asian culture.
The iced tea was made from brewed rooibos tea mixed with palm sugar and milk. Ending the meal with another piece of what we grew up with i.e. drinking out of a plastic bag was priceless.
There are people who will come away with the thought of why pay more for Next's Tour of Thailand when you can get decent Thai food for xx amount at xx. I think this takes away the whole point of experiencing both Thai cuisine and culture. We have our favorite local Thai restaurants that we frequent in Chicago but often the authenticity of the culture has gotten lost for the purpose of being accommodating to the majority of diners. Thus, what makes Next's Tour of Thailand special is that it offers something that the other Thai restaurants do not. Next incorporates the essence and authenticity of the little cultural details throughout the dinner presentation. Aside from learning to incorporate the complexities of flavors in Thai food, Next has proved that it researched on what makes Thai culture the way it is and then successfully incorporating it into the dinner presentation, no matter how seemingly trivial but important it is.
T and I left Next that night feeling lucky that as someone who understands the Southeast Asian culture, we had the advantage of being able to draw connections and make little observations throughout our meal on how closely Next reflected the culture. We enjoyed the well executed food but being able to experience the essence of the culture was the highlight of the night.
Grant Achatz and his executive chef Dave Beran clearly got it right. Here's looking forward to what may come next.
953 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
2011 Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People
2011 TimeOut Magazine 5 Stars for Next
2011 3 Michelin Stars Chef
2008 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef
2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes
2003 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef
2002 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chefs