'Next' hottest ticket in town

July 8, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The looks on the young chef's faces say it all; as they work their tweezers, knives and scissors, there is an intensity and a focus to get everything just right. For the past three months, they've been faithfully recreating dishes inspired by Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who catalogued his cuisine a hundred years ago. There are petite hors d'oeuvres of foie gras-stuffed brioche and egg custard cups filled with brandade, or salt cod; beautifully sliced duck breast that's draped with an intense cognac sauce, made from the extracted juices from the duck carcass, courtesy of an antique duck press.

"What was also interesting is because it was so old, it felt new. Because it's not available," said Grant Achatz, the co-owner of Next.

And as of Friday, the entire French menu is no longer available, because that's the premise of Next: everything changes every 12 weeks.

"We can go into the future and go 2050 Hong Kong, we can go New York Mad Men," Achatz said.

Imagine the challenge for Dave Beran. As he puts the finishing touches on a French menu filled with desserts like bombe Ceylon - that's coffee and vanilla rum ice creams encased in chocolate - he has to simultaneously look ahead to the next menu.

"The initial goal is that for the first month you implement the menu, the next month you really sort of refine that menu and then the third month is all development for the new menu," Beran said.

"We consciously wanted to go the exact 180 from this drippy, luxurious, rich, dairy-based menu which was Paris 1906, so we went completely the opposite direction. We went to southeast Asia; basically went to Thailand," Achatz said.

So in the mornings, while the staff prepared that French meal, Beran and Achatz had to work out their Thai dishes: in this case, a meticulous presentation of the classic hot and sour shrimp soup called tom yum. Young ginger and shallots mingle with Thai basil and the purplish opal basil. It's decided the fatty, rich broth will be poured tableside. For Beran and his staff, the research is the toughest part.

"Being in Chicago, we have a bunch of great smaller Thai restaurants to try, but we don't really have, it's not like going to Thailand. So you rely on a lot of reading and you know videos and talking to the people about their experiences," Beran said.

Reservations are tough at Next, but they do hold one table a night for walk-ins. You should also check their Facebook page for updates. Now next door, Achatz and company have also launched "The Aviary," a cutting-edge cocktail lounge. And we're going to get an exclusive peek behind-the-scenes there, next Friday night.

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