"I'm jealous that you're about to experience this from the beginning," one Next patron, nearing the end of her 22-course vegan journey, gushed to my dinner partner and me as we settled into our seats for what would be a damn near exhausting three-plus hours of meat- and dairy-free eating. Her words brought to mind something a TV critic once said about the HBO series The Wire. The critic admitted his envy of those who hadn't seen any one of the five seasons, because the amazement upon watching it for the first time was something he couldn't relive.
As a vegetarian who spends much of his Chicago existence at veg staples like the Handlebar and the Chicago Diner—the types of places that offer vegan burritos and country-fried "staek"—I wanted that. I wanted Next's experiment in meat-free fine dining to transcend my expectations as a vegetarian. And that was pretty dense of me.
Executive chef David Beran and his crew—whose previous three-month menus at the "rotating" restaurant have included Paris: 1906 (an interpretation of dishes served more than 100 years ago at chef Auguste Escoffier's Ritz Hotel), Childhood (a modernist throwback to the snack packs and lunch boxes of yesteryear), and El Bulli (an ode to Spain's mecca of deconstructionist cuisine)—haven't necessarily created a menu to wow vegans. They've built one to impress meat eaters—particularly those who might revel in the challenge of finding a vegan meal that lives up to its exorbitant price tag.
Years ago, I had a vegan roommate who couldn't cook for shit and had to get, well, "practical." That sometimes translated to him eating Oreos, Pepsi, and frozen, Target-bought bags of broccoli in a single sitting. Though his eating habits fell far (far) below what's considered nutritious or inspired, they still managed to reflect the philosophy shared by most vegans and vegetarians I know: eating meatless is an intentionally modest affair.
Not long after my visit to Next, Reader food writer Mike Sula asked if the experience made me rethink what a vegan meal can be. I tripped over my answer. It did, but not in the way I expected. Though the "creamy" purees and "meatier" dishes—like the mushroom cart, which had an earthy warmth and comfort-food heartiness, and the Swiss chard and douchi (a battered and fried mini chard leaf served with fermented bean paste and house-made seitan)—could easily elicit a "No way is this vegan" reaction from a blind taste tester with a taste for flesh, it's Next's trademark pageantry and its over-the-top flavors and executions that made the marathon meal, to me, inherently unvegan. Simply put, a $225 (with wine pairings) vegan vision quest is a little too much for my more . . . sparing lifestyle. The courses were more like facilitators to the overall spectacle of being a beans-and-rice vegetarian in a foreign land of fine dining.
That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I did. The menu's initial flurry of dishes was made up of nicely disorienting small bites. The opener, a burned avocado puree, was served on a rock the size of a small child's head and was meant to be scraped off with thin, crackerlike pieces of flatbread scattered within the decorative treelike arrangement on the table. It was adventurous and maybe a little roll-of-the-eyes precious. While I appreciated what I heard about the way Next's Childhood menu went wistful with its presentations—an apple brandy-port wine fruit roll-up was delivered in a David Hasselhoff lunch box—I wasn't too keen on picking through foliage for a meal and digesting anything smeared across a rock (I barely made it two weeks in Cub Scouts). And while my own childhood brings to mind Hasselhoff lunch boxes—my older brother would've kicked a kid in the shins for that thing—I don't typically equate veganism with scavenging through the wilderness. (Note: We had pregamed at Aviary—where I was witness to one drink delivered in a smoke-filled treasure chest, followed by another in a sealed plastic bag. So it's on point to say that I was given a heads-up.)
The early courses also featured a spongy nori dumpling and a leek and banana globule served on a tree branch, both of which failed to leave an indelible mark, as well as house-made cider vinegar ladled tableside out of a hollowed log and paired with a fermented apple and reindeer lichen dish, which revealed a bright but fragile tartness. Devoid of servers sporting cutoff jean shorts and half-sleeve tattoos, the kind who sidle up to your table with your tempeh Reuben, Next employs an impressive cast of theatrical pros who explain each dish with subtle dramatic gestures and pristine articulation that nearly makes you forget someone just set a giant fucking log on the dinner table. Their thoughtfulness and talent—particularly evident in the way one server skimmed tiny lilies from the pondlike centerpiece and gingerly deposited them onto their coordinating dish—is a charming embellishment to the show happening on the table. The insular experience of hyperfine dining in a windowless room that's decorated like a mix between the inside of a limousine and a set from The Matrix may be overwhelming for a health-food-store simpleton, but the serving crew does help bridge the gap—and make you feel like less of an imposter.
So maybe I'm painting myself as too much of a rube. I have eaten high-end vegetarian meals at Green Zebra and Karyn's on Green, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each, but my loyalties still lie with the local taqueria that uses Upton's seitan as a veg substitute. I grew up veg in a midmajor midwestern city before moving to Chicago, so I was forced to eat simpler—and grew to enjoy that simplicty.
Printed on the back of Next's Vegan menu is a kind of philosophical statement that explains the impetus for the creation of the 20-plus courses. A portion of it reads: "On many plates vegetables can be but an afterthought or quite literally a 'side dish'—the supporting actor. For our team vegetable driven dishes have always forced us to be more creative. Maybe, we thought, it's time for vegetables to take the lead."
And when the mushroom cart was rolled over to our table so we could view the lavish array of shrooms that were to be included in our next dish—one of the night's best, by the way—it was apparent that vegetables (and, in this instance, fungi) were killing it in the lead role. It's just a bigger-budget film than what I prefer.