From its opening in spring 2011 through the end of its third season in late 2013, Next was the wunderkind of Chicago restaurants, selling out all its seats well in advance, whipping out a radically different menu theme every four months, and pioneering a new model for how you get into hot restaurants. It replaced the old methods—i.e. knowing a guy or palming a $20 to the maitre d'—with a sternly technological, you're-in-or-you're-out ticket system. No run like that could last forever. Going strong for three years was pretty remarkable, and the fourth season, which ends in December, showed the wunderkind reaching middle age, more expensive and not as irresistible as it had once been. But the new season of menus, announced yesterday—consisting of "Parisian Bistro," Tapas," and "Terroir"—looks like a bid to recapture the excitement of Next's beginnings, and not just because it kicks off, as the entire restaurant did, with French food.
As in Hollywood, where the third sequel costs four times as much as the original, Next's ambition and desire to top everything it had done before, not to mention its popularity, had steadily driven the price of dining there up. Next opened as a more experimental alternative to chef Grant Achatz and owner Nick Kokonas's Alinea, and the prices initially reflected that philosophy, running in the high two figures but including some bargain seating at early hours for as low as $55. By the current menu, dinner was running around $245, with a standard wine pairing at $138, and a service charge of over $75—putting Next in contention for the most expensive meal in Chicago.
The problem was that reviews, which had been largely ecstatic for the first three years, were notably less so for Bocuse d'Or, Steak, and Modern Chinese. Nor did those themes seem as inspired and creative as some of the earlier ones; only Trio this season enjoyed general approval—but even that was a throwback to Achatz's own history. And with three-star Grace opening nearby and setting a stellar example for service and comfort, it was ever more apparent that the physical comforts at Next, built for the midpriced experimental place it started as, weren't as grand as the prices. (This seems to have been Michelin's issue with Next, which has never received Michelin attention and is the subject of a fairly dismissive review in the actual book.) For the first time, this year Next regularly had open seats—and tickets were reselling for less than face price.
This was a problem for the other thing to spin out of Next—the ticketing system, which just was relaunched as its own venture, Tock. Steak's numbers weren't going to help sell the merits of ticketing to new clients. So the new menus for 2015 give off a definite, and for me encouraging, whiff of getting back to basics at a relatively affordable price. If we're still analogizing to movie sequels, Next decided to retire Roger Moore and fat old French actors who liked to talk a lot as the villains, and get back to tough, streamlined action. (I've always thought Timothy Dalton was underrated.)
Some people on Twitter found the new lineup a little lacking in ambition, even at a lower price ($70 or $80 for the first two, which can go up quickly with add-ons). It's true that Parisian Bistro circa 1910 doesn't sound as ambitious as Escoffier in 1906, that Spanish food is something you can already get in that neighborhood (at Vera or Salero), and that terroir as the organizing principle of a wine dinner is like, well, duh.
But there's the bare theme and then there's what Next does with it. By all accounts Paris 1906 remains Next's best-loved menu (and the Hunt, which resembled it a lot, ranks highly as well), so a return to classical French, even in more casual terms, is an obvious winner for them. Tapas may not sound interesting if you imagine them just making, well, tapas, but you may recall an earlier Spanish menu that consisted of a lot of unusual, avant-garde snacky things—El Bulli. I expect something that looks like that more than I expect a Fulton Market version of Cafe Iberico. And as for the higher priced Terroir, the very obviousness of the theme, its centrality to fine dining, ought to push them to a genuinely fresh take drawing on their peerless connections in the world of food and wine. They haven't really done a conceptual menu since the Hunt, so perhaps this will be it again.
Or not. Who knows? It's almost a year away, so I'm sure they don't really know yet, either. But at least two 2015 menus play to Next's undeniable strengths—and do so for less than it cost for this year's. Next didn't seem as exciting a year ago when the current season was announced, but at least the anticipation for the future part of the system looks like it's working again.