August 16, 2011
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Next Restaurant

Last weekend, I had a chance to visit Next, the new restaurant from Alinea’s Grant Achatz.

It’s a fascinating idea. Next serves one menu: you have no choices. Every three months, they close for a week and reopen with a new concept. The first menu was Paris 1906, with everything from Escoffier. Now, they’re doing a Tour of Thailand, and it’s quite a tour.

I’ll discuss the meal in a separate post.

As I’ve written before, I think no-choice meals are going to be one of the key new trends for serious restaurants. Choice is great, but when Mr. Achatz or Next chef Dave Beran is cooking for you, he knows more about the food than you do and you’re there to see what he’s doing. This is about smart, interesting food, not about having everything just the way you usually want it. We don’t need all those choices, and paring down the options lets restaurants prepare more intelligently and concentrate on exactly what you’re going to be eating.

The no-choice regimen also lets the front of the house concentrate on serving the food and on talking about it. There’s no need to sell, and no need to worry about what’s 86’d and what’s running out.

(The other big trend that’s coming is the bar-restaurant, where cooks serve the food without much fussing with servers.)

As at Alinea, the service is wonderful and wonderfully informal. Where most restaurants make a point of highlighting wonderful ingredients and complex preparation, Next underplays. Before the sweets, for example, we were brought shot glasses of “a watermelon lemongrass clarification”. The waiter set them before us. As he left, I was thinking to myself, “That’s interesting…classically, a clarification is the technique for making a consommé, using egg whites to filter out suspended particles in the broth. Could they really mean that?”

So I asked, “A clarification?” And, yes, it is a clarification: the ingredients are puréed, and then mixed with gelatin and chilled. The gel is put in a cloth bag and allowed to warm back to room temperature where it melts into a sol and the precious, clear liquid gently drips through the fabric. This process actually recalls the “divine droplets” sake we enjoyed at Alinea, which is gently extracted from the must in an ice igloo. It’s very clever, and you wouldn’t have known this wasn’t “just juice” if you didn’t ask.

Along with no choices, there are tickets rather than reservations. You pay in advance, and the restaurant knows exactly who is coming and when they will arrive. Again, this lets the cooks focus on the cooking. I understand Next has a brigade of 15, plus 6 morning-shift prep cooks. The waiter volunteered that the AM crew is the hardest-working prep crew he’s ever seen.