After a 2012 season in which Next presented the ethereal flavors of El Bulli, the seafood-centric family food of Sicily and the infinite subtleties of Japanese kaiseki, chef Dave Beran and company are getting assertive in 2013. "The Hunt," Next's opening menu, is a flavor powerhouse, a parade of bold ingredients, colors and textures.
I'd be tempted to call the menu "beefy," had there been any beef on the plates. But there are plenty of other animals to enjoy.
Five of them, in fact, arrive in a single course, lined up along a tree branch. The "charcu-tree," as the menu calls it (I called it "Five Bumps on a Log"), offers tastes of soft rabbit pate, chewy elk jerky, a 45-day-aged boar salume, surprisingly light venison-heart tartare and predictably heavy blood sausage. Before that, a wooden Lazy Susan presents a tribute to preserved fish, with discrete piles of smoked trout, potted walleye rillettes, cured salmon and smoked sturgeon arrayed around toasted pumpernickel planks (stacked like campfire logs) and matchsticks of pickled kohlrabi.
One easily could dub this the "Hunter and Gatherer" menu, as several components embrace foraging and preservation. The first course arrives in a glass box, a mini-terrarium filled with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, garlic, shallots and herbs, and guests are invited to spear the edible prey using silver French walnut picks (alongside, in wooden bowls, is a fragrant cremini-mushroom consomme with a sweet hint of Madeira).
A subsequent course offers cellar-preserved local carrots (with a murky carrot sauce that I would happily drink by the cupful), and later there's a vegetable composition, served in a curl of birch bark, that may well serve as a prelude to Next's upcoming vegan menu in the spring.
Then chef Dave Beran breaks out the big guns, as it were, with four consecutive knockout courses. First, a bacon-and-eggs composition of radicchio-wrapped scrambled duck eggs alongside smoked duck tongue, with splashes of apple cider vinegar on the plate — a re-imagined applewood bacon and eggs. Then pure-white sturgeon arrives over crisped sunchokes with a take-me-now caviar-butter sauce, followed by woodcock medallions stuffed with its offal (minced liver and heart, with a bit of truffle) and topped with microplaned slivers of unsweetened chocolate.
The squab is the menu's centerpiece, and a delicious lesson in beak-to-tail preparation and consumption. Squab breast, leg and even head are on the plate (the brain is rather tasty), along with a dough-wrapped package of innards (think offal en croute) and a sauce of squab jus, cognac and red wine. It's deliriously good.
On the table is a bowl bearing roasted carcass pieces — not a lot of meat on these bones, but tasty to gnaw regardless — which you are encouraged, nay, expected, to plunder. On a side plate is a savory oatmeal porridge with more squab bits, some foie gras and duck fat and more of that sensational sauce.
The hidden joke is that while the squab is the most elegant course — served on gold-rimmed plates, candelabras brought to each table — it's also the course that invites the most hand-to-mouth eating.
The meal concludes with a little more audience participation. Guests cook small coins of bison tenderloin on a heated black rock, choose garnishes (tart cherry jam, candied pecans, brown-butter sugar, English toffee, mint) to blend into a risottolike sweet barley pudding and, finally, employ twigs (Japanese maple, remnants from the kaiseki menu) to twirl maple taffy from a bed of shaved ice.
Regular, premium and nonalcoholic beverage pairings are available. The more expensive wine pairing will pay off when the big Burgundies roll out, but the regular pairing offers some terrific food matches. And Next is known for the complexity and depth of its nonalcoholic beverages.
Service was, as always, exemplary on my one visit (the short duration of Next's menus makes multiple visits impractical), but inasmuch as I've been to every Next iteration to date, I can no longer maintain anonymity, unless I were to engage the services of a skilled or very sloppy surgeon.
Next changes its menu theme thrice yearly to adopt different times, places and cuisines. "The Hunt" runs through April. Reservations, in the form of prepaid tickets, are sold online only and are notoriously difficult to obtain, though same-day seats become available with some frequency, announced via Twitter.
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: Dinner 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.