Chicago has seen vegetarian restaurants before, and vegetable menus before, but nothing, not even the vegetable tasting menus that Charlie Trotter offered during his long career, compares to the Vegan menu currently featured at Next. In more than 20 courses across four hours, Next dazzles diners with one inventive vegan creation after another.
People who are vegetarians or vegans probably believe they have an idea of what to expect. They're wrong. All the usual vegetable suspects, all the easy choices are either absent or invisible here. Hummus? Humbug. Tofu? Fleetingly present in a couple of dishes, but so low-key you could easily miss it.
Instead, think hollowed rambutan shells filled with a custard made from thickened juice and a touch of Earl Grey tea, a Jell-O shot for the healthy set. Crisp-fried purple majesty potato skins stuffed with potato sorbet, a frozen potato bite that tastes like a baked potato with sour cream. A dimpled white plate bearing white asparagus, wine-poached compressed pears and rice yogurt, over an undulating rice-cracker blanket.
This sort of revelatory experience is getting to be old hat at Next, which since 2010 has presented three limited-run, themed menus each year; productions (for this is the culinary equivalent of repertory theater) have included Paris 1906, Kaiseki (Kyoto) and a salute to El Bulli. Each year, Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas and executive chef Dave Beran come up with audacious challenges for themselves, and every time, they and their army of chefs meet them.
And because dinner at Next costs about $250 per person (wine, tax and tip included, though premium wine options and chef-table menu upgrades are available), the challenge this time is magnified. It's not difficult to command $250 for a menu full of luxury ingredients. But a menu featuring kale?
But that's what launches the experience. To a table decorated with a leafless, lichen-covered tree branch and a glass-lined lily pond, servers present a dark rock topped with flowers. The flowers are actually fried kale, rolled and pinned to resemble blooms, the centers filled with raw avocado-lime puree. The dark topping on the rock is a thick blanket of avocado puree, torched for a deeper, darker flavor. To scoop up the avocado, look to the tree, where long, brittle crisps of flatbread are hidden among the branches. This is followed by a snack-attack of nibbles, served one or two at a time, including a sprouted tempeh bite that will change your mind about tempeh, and a slow-roasted artichoke with artichoke puree (brightened with lemon) lurking between its charred leaves.
Then the meal progresses into more composed plates, among them a dish that essentially spans the life cycle of an apple from tree to fruit to fermented juice, and an absolutely brilliant salsify composition that, in one aspect of the dish, mimics the flavor of a mignonette-dressed oyster.
By now, the table has been cleared of its tree branch and lily pond and adorned with heavy cloth, and the menu takes a more formal tone with stacked plates and more ritualized service. A cheese cart rolls by — except it bears a cornucopia of mushrooms, a teasing display for what is to follow. Curry-roasted cauliflower over harissa sauce, the orange sauce contrasted by the black plate, would be at home on the cover of a magazine; a cherry-blossom and almond dish arrives on a stack of gold-rimmed china, as you might find at a top-tier hotel dining room. And a play on Thai larb, which usually features ground pork but instead gets its texture from raw cabbage, shaved Brussels sprouts and charred onions, is sharply contemporary, caged in by crispy wires of toasted quinoa (this dish is credited to Alex Stupak, one-time pastry chef at Alinea, now a star chef in New York).
As you scraped avocado in the first course, so you'll scrape hibiscus, crumbled shortbread and other treats in one dessert course, served on a charred log circle. And a somewhat priapic sweet-potato nest, topped with a bourbon and brown-sugar marshmallow, arrives on a square of Irish moss so vividly green you might wonder if it's edible. (It's not.)
Vegan proves to be an intriguing follow-up to The Hunt, this year's winter menu, which celebrated all manner of feathered, finned and foaled protein. The Hunt was a pretty rich-tasting menu, but, if anything, Vegan is richer still. Before my visit, I joked about eating an all-sausage breakfast the next day, as compensation; instead, I skipped breakfast entirely.
Vegan will prove to be the most dynamic menu in Next's relatively brief history (this is Next's eighth menu). Beginning in May and continuing through August, the Vegan menu spans two full Midwest growing seasons, the available bounty progressing from spring's white asparagus and morel mushrooms to August's tomatoes and sweet corn. Adept as I am at telling others how to spend their money, let me suggest that those who visit Next in the coming weeks would find a strikingly different menu, should they return, in late July.
As it is, executive chef Beran says he has written "30 to 35" courses, which will cycle in and out as the season progresses. That white asparagus dish, for existence, soon will disappear, but return later as a white-peach creation.
The only downside to Vegan is that this menu might spoil you for most other vegetable options in Chicago. Indeed, if you are a serious student of vegetarian and vegan food, from either side of the chef's counter, this menu should be required reading.
The art of the possible is on display.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
953 W. Fulton Market; nextrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Diner with wine, tax and gratuity approximately $250
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Tickets sold online only
Other: Wheelchair-accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Twitter @philvettelCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun