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The wonder years at Next

With their third menu, Grant Achatz and Dave Beran revisit childhood

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"Well, I grew up in Michigan too, and this black-and-white truffle Oreo is bogus."

That's the kind of blunt, experienced feedback I look for in a dining companion. But it turns out my pal was only playing—trying on his own Anton Ego spectacles and poking fun at the modern foodlum's pedantic quest for authenticity. He was actually gobsmacked by this sweet fungal-smelling cookie. We all were.

My group of four was eating on the 12th night of Childhood, the third menu at Next Restaurant, the veritable reinvention of interactive dinner theater as brought to you by the midwestern-bred brain trust of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. I'm writing about it for the third time this year not just because it's one of the most important new restaurants in the country (world?), but because I have a selfish interest in understanding the collective creative process that makes something this fun possible.

But I don't think I've mentioned how easy it is to get hammered. When I listen to the voice memos I recorded during Paris 1906, the Tour of Thailand, and the current incarnation, I marvel at the patience of servers who each time put up with an increasingly voluble and slurred series of questions and enthusiastic outbursts from the table, all met with patient, benevolent indulgence. If the collective front of the house ever seeks to change careers, it could launch a world-class daycare. With this menu they take an extra step in that direction.

Yeah, the succession of wine and cocktail pairings at these meals have tended to make those I've eaten with regress to babbling ankle biters. If that degrades the quality of observation, at least it helps lower inhibitions, so that even the most jaded, self-serious guests won't dismiss an apple brandy-port wine fruit rollup served in a David Hasselhoff lunch box as hopelessly corny.

"Lunch Box" - ANJALI PINTO

For this, the seventh of ten courses, a vintage school lunch box is the vehicle for the Oreo, the fruit leather, a jarringly tender scrap of fatty Wagyu beef jerky, a banana-hazelnut-chocolate pudding snack pack, and a house-made Funyun. Each contains a handwritten note from mom or dad—"Grandpa's tractor is not a recreational vehicle" or "Come right home after school. You're dog sitting tonight"—and a thermos of mixed berry juice and port.

It doesn't have to be the Hoff on your box—it could be the Smurfs, Alf, or the Cabbage Patch Kids—but whichever it is, this course is one of the more direct references to the upbringing of Achatz and executive chef Dave Beran (also a onetime Michigander, though seven years Achatz's junior), and therefore the one most likely to baffle diners who came up in a different time. I'm at the right age to recognize the artifacts of that pop-culture era, and so was everyone at my table. But what about the other generations—the ones who remember carrying biscuits and beans in burlap sacks to school, or kids these days, who get their vegetables from school-lunch frozen pizza?

In this way Childhood is the most personal of the three menus that have run so far. Most people in this country have no idea what real Thai food is, which was an advantage for the kitchen on the last menu. Likewise, no one who ate at Paris 1906 ever ate in Paris in 1906. But everybody has definite, individual ideas of what a proper PB&J is. Beran addresses that sort of challenge with the first course, which arrives as a small wrapped present: a toasty Super Ball-size orb containing a molten squirt of peanut butter and pomegranate pâte de fruit. It's an auspiciously tasty bite, and the same sort of recontextualized mechanization of surprise that has by now become familiar from this team.

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