953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 847-780-4862; nextrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Sous-vide and finished on a flattop
Short Order: Perhaps not a burger in the 20th century definition of the term, but this fun and delicious iteration is a treat for the select few who are able to try it
Want Fries With That? Sadly, no fries are included
Price: Part of a fixed price meal that varies from $35 to $110 plus more for drink pairings
When Grant Achatz and the rest of the team behind Alinea announced they were opening a new restaurant, it immediately became the most hotly anticipated culinary destination in the country. Among the segment of the food-obsessed who can afford to drop a few hundred dollars on a single meal, Alinea is widely considered one of, if not the best restaurant in the United States. Next, where the kitchen was to be overseen by Achatz but run by chef Dave Beran, promised not just great food, but an entirely new kind of restaurant.
The menu at Next undergoes a complete reworking every three months. The first menu featured interpretations of food from high society Paris in 1906; the second offered diners a tour of contemporary Thailand, and the current menu, called Childhood, was created to evoke memories of youth. Each menu is sold at a fixed price and diners pay different amounts based on day and time, and all "tickets" are sold ahead of time.
The lucky relative few who get into the childhood experience at Next are treated to a nine-course meal that features dishes ranging from innovative takes on childhood classics to totally invented dishes designed to evoke sensations the chefs felt as kids in rural Michigan. Of course, I would not be writing about this meal at all on AHT if not for my sixth (and best) course of the evening, the most nontraditional hamburger I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
The most eye-opening part of the plate was the bun, which actually comes in two totally different versions. Both start the same way; the kitchen makes a sesame seed bun from scratch that mirrors the processed sugary versions found in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and, let's face it, most American homes. The more prominent representation of bun on the plate is in a series of flat splotches. To get the bread component to that point, the artists in the kitchen cook down the bun with butter, puree it, spread it on an acetate sheet, and then freeze it. They then cut the reconfigured bread into random shapes, stand them up on the plate, and put the plate into a salamander before serving. The resulting splotches of burger have a flavor reminiscent of nearly every hamburger bun most of us ate as kids and the wonderful texture of slightly melted creamy American cheese.
The second iteration of the bun is in the form of small bun croutons. They weren't part of the dish when the Childhood menu debuted, but the staff constantly solicits feedback from diners and there were concerns about the dish's texture being too soft. I definitely appreciated the additional crunch.
The meat itself, which given its cylindrical shape and complete lack of interaction with a grinder, cannot really be called a patty, was one of the more impressive pieces of beef I've ever eaten. This 45—50 gram hunk of short rib is cooked sous vide to medium rare and then finished off on a griddle that's operating at around 1000 degrees. That's not a typo—that's a hot-ass flattop. The result was a beautiful crust all the way around fall-apart-tender beef. Making it even better was the sauce on top, a beef reduction enhanced by soy sauce, Worcestershire and butter
No detail was overlooked in putting together this burger. The housemade ketchup, a combination of Worcestershire sauce, sugar, vinegar, tomato and tomato paste, was sweet enough to evoke a time when I actually liked ketchup on a burger but tangy enough to please any adult's palate. The combination of housemade mustard and poached mustard seeds provided all the flavor of a good yellow mustard with added texture from the softened seeds.
A couple of veggies rounded out the burger. The pickles—actually thinly sliced dehydrated cornichons—were very cool to look at and tasted fine, but I would have liked some more dill flavor. The onions were slow-cooked for hours and lightly charred on the flattop, resulting in an impossibly tender ball of caramelized onion that I would have happily eaten by the spoonful. Finishing off the veggie part of the burger were lettuce and thick slice of Roma tomato; other plates also came with dehydrated button mushroom caps, but mine did not.
The real challenge was figuring out how to properly eat the burger. After daintily picking at each individual element, I realized the only way to get something like a true burger experience required mixing everything together. Not only did doing so allow me to relive the childhood thrill of making a gross mess on my plate, but this reconstructed deconstructed burger provided me with the highlight of a truly special meal.
The sad reality is that unless you already have a reservation for Next or are one of the lucky few to snag one of the tables released each day via Facebook, you're probably never going to get to eat this burger. Sure, the recipes are going to be released, first on iTunes, and then as part of a printed cookbook with other menus from Next, but the number of people with the will and the ability to cook this stuff is pretty limited.
Finally, I almost never mention service in my reviews, but I don't think it's possible to accurately describe Next without mentioning the staff. I have never experienced a restaurant with servers with the combination of professionalism, enthusiasm, friendliness, and knowledge than the group I encountered at Next. The food didn't need any help at all, but the service made every aspect of the meal better.