Next, El Bulli

The frenzy for people clamoring for tickets to one of Chicago's top restaurants, Next, never ends. Yes, I did say tickets. Even before Next officially opened its doors last year, it had already made headlines across the country by reinventing the dining experience where diners purchase tickets to dine at the restaurant. The concept is just like how someone would buy tickets to a concert or football game. Table prices differ based on the day of the week and time of seating. Owned by one of America's genius chef, Grant Achatz, Next features a changing menu that focuses on a different cuisine and experience that change every four months. Next prides itself for not only its exceptional food but the entire experience.

It sure sounds like a pretty doable system except that it is very very hard to get tickets to dine at Next. We were extremely lucky to get tickets for their first menu (Paris 1906) and second menu (Tour of Thailand) and were left extremely impressed. Unfortunately we did not score tickets for the third menu with the theme of Childhood. The fourth time's a charm for us and we were lucky enough to get tickets for the El Bulli menu.

El Bulli restaurant in Spain officially closed its doors in 2011. Run by the legendary Ferran Adria, his restaurant El Bulli made it to the list of World's 50 Restaurants no less than five times in the last ten years. If that wasn't enough credentials, Ferran Adria won the Chef of the Decade award and his restaurant was recognized as the Best Restaurant in Europe in 2009. He greatly influenced the art and science of cooking and dining, hence it was only fitting that there is a tribute to celebrate the best of El Bulli's past 29 years. With Ferran Adria's blessings, the genius Chef Grant Achatz decided that his revolving-themed restaurant, Next, was going to celebrate and recreate the sense of El Bulli. Ferran Adria's sous chef flew to Chicago to meet with the kitchen team at Next to provide advice during the process of Next perfecting the 29-course El Bulli menu which is meant to represent the best dish from each of the 29 years. Though it will never fully recreate the sense of El Bulli, it was nothing short of a very good execution from the Next team. Most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to experience vicariously El Bulli, especially for us who have never been and will never get to.

*Course #1: Liquid nitrogen Caipirinha with tarragon concentrate*

*Course #2: Hot/Cold trout roe tempura*

*Course #3: Avocado pear, anchovies, and green onion*

*Course #4: Olive juice*

*Course #5: Iberico sandwich*

These were added to our drinks pairing for added flavors

*Course #6: Golden egg*

*Course #7: Chicken liquid croquettes*
A bite into the croquette and chicken liquid burst forth

*Course #8: Smoke foam*

A drop was added to our drinks pairing to create another type of flavor

*Course #9: Black sesame spongecake and miso*

*Course #10: Carrot air with coconut milk and Madras curry*
This was what put Ferran Adria on The New York Times Magazine in 2003

*Course #11: Cuttlefish and coconut ravioli with soy, ginger, and mint*
Coconut juice wrapped in cuttlefish

*Course #12: Savory tomato ice with oregano and almond milk pudding*

*Course #13: Suquet of prawns*

*Course #14: Cauliflower cous-cous with aromatic herb sauce*

*Course #15: Hot crab aspic with mini corn cous-cous*

*Course #16: Potato tortilla by Marc Singla*

*Course #17: Trumpet carpaccio*

*Course #18: Red mullet gaudi*
The top of the fish was meant to represent a mosaic pattern as a tribute to the Spanish artist, Antoni Gaudi.

*Course #19: Nastartium with eel, bone marrow, and cucumber*

*Course #20: Civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly*

*Course #21: Gorgonzola balloon*
Made out of ingredients that would melt if we did not eat it soon enough, tasted like bleu cheese.

 *Course #22: Foie gras caramel custard*

*Course #23: Spice plate*
Our "task" was to determine each of the spices from taste, ranging from saffron to clove.

 *Course #24: Mint pond*
Dark cocoa, matcha (green tea), and peppermint powder on a layer of ice

 *Course #25: Chocolate in textures*

Alcohol-flavored coffee

*Course #26, 27, 28: Chocolate donuts, creme flute, puff pastry web*

The farewell.....
*Course #29: Passionfruit marshmallow*

953 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

2012 James Beard Nominee for Rising Star Chef, Dave Beran
2012 James Beard Nominee for Best New Restaurant
2011 Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, Grant Achatz
2011 TimeOut Magazine 5 Stars for Next
2011 3 Michelin Stars Chef, Grant Achatz
2008 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, Grant Achatz
2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes, Grant Achatz
2003 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, Grant Achatz
2002 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef, Grant Achatz


Alleyways and Cafe Culture in Melbourne

This makes the last entry of our recent trip to Melbourne and I saved our favorite part of Melbourne for the last. Alleyway cafes are very much quintessential parts of local culture, or to put simply, they are "very Melbourne". Wondering along the narrow strips situated between buildings in the Central Business District, one can easily get lost in the world of excellent cafes and forget about the hustle and bustle of city traffic.

Degraves Street

We start on Degraves Street, just off Flinder Street and right across the street from the monumental Flinders Street Station. Veer onto Degraves Street and one can see a strip of cafes lined with outdoor tables that are busy and vibrant. Any time of the day is a good excuse for glorious coffee in Melbourne. It is tempting to want to join in the cafe culture when walking along Degraves Street but we do not stop just yet. Instead, we continue on for more alleyway cafes. At the end of Degraves Street, we turn right onto Flinders Lane, another narrow street where swanky art galleries and chic boutiques set up shop.

Cathedral Arcade

Along Flinders Lane is also the Cathedral Arcade, one of the several historical arcades still remaining in Melbourne that dates back to the 19th century. Arcades were historically built as shopping malls in the early days and feature intricate cast iron and ceiling designs. Fortunately for us living in the present, the preservation of the arcades allows us a glimpse into the past. Any contemporary hints are the several modern day boutiques that have established themselves inside the historical arcade. Walk into the Cathedral Arcade and the stained glass ceiling is above. A popular local boutique here is Alice Euphemia. We exit Cathedral Arcade back onto Flinders Lane, trace our steps towards Degraves Street, and then turn right onto Centre Place.

Centre Place

And yet another alleyway, Centre Place is very much a narrower strip than the ones earlier which just adds tremendous character to the entire cafe culture that Melbournians so proudly embrace about their city. There is something about Centre Place that accurately says this is Melbourne. The vibrant and bright colors from the cafe signs and walls, pedestrian traffic, and Bohemian vibe make this an excellent spot for street photography. I could immerse myself in Centre Place and have a ball of a time fussing around with the camera and trying to capture the authentic local essence. At the end of Centre Palace, one will find graffiti that have been around for years and artistic murals that stand out. We leave Centre Place by walking through an indoor shopping mall that leads us onto Collins Street. We cross Collins Street, veer left, and walk into Block Arcade.

Block Arcade

Restored and preserved at a more detailed level than Cathedral Arcade which we just saw earlier, Block Arcade boasts intricately beautiful and arranged mosaic floor tiles. Above the walkway are cast iron structures that bring this place back to the Victorian period, a common era reflected in much of the Melbourne architecture. Blending in with the original period of Block Arcade is the Hopetoun Tea Rooms which features a Victorian-style dining room. Several chocolatiers are found here including the always-busy Haigh's Chocolates.

Block Place

Exit Block Arcade into Block Place, the final lane filled with yet more alleyway cafes. This time we decide to break for coffee at an Italian cafe located just across the lane from Haigh's Chocolates. It's true when people say that Melbourne has such a strong cafe and coffee culture that you really can't go wrong with any cafe you choose to step into. Australians take their coffee seriously and the standards are considered among the very best in the world. I had to concede when family and relatives from Australia came to the U.S. and repeatedly complained that coffee in America is just, well, crap. Cafes in Australia serve espresso-based drinks and it is difficult to find regular drip coffee unless if you go to, well, McDonalds. If you must have regular drip coffee (and I'm not suggesting you go to McDonalds!), your best bet is to get an Americano, or known as long black in Australia. Yes, it is an espresso culture over there which we love so very much and can relate to as espresso-based drinks our always our choice for coffee no matter where we are.

Visiting the alleyway cafes has almost been a pilgrimage to us when visiting Melbourne. It doesn't matter that it is our third time back in Melbourne within the last four years-- we have to return to the cafes each time and experience them all over again.