Very little about the Next Sicily menu has gotten out so far, so we are pleased to bring you the first first-hand account of the meal, plus the complete menu. Both are courtesy of Grub Street Chicago reader Charles Hetzel. When Next decided to auction off a table a night for the El Bulli menu to benefit the University of Chicago cancer center, Mr. Hetzel was the one who had the idea of organizing Next fans on Facebook to buy tables for current cancer patients to enjoy. They ultimately raised enough money to buy four tables for current patients; you can read the account of one of them here. He actually offered us two accounts of two meals: Mr. Hetzel and his family were guests of the restaurant for a practice run on Thursday night (where, among others, Grant Achatz spent the evening in the dining room as a diner, not in the kitchen), and he returned Saturday night as part of his season tickets. So his accounts after each dinner are from someone who's had more of a chance to think about this latest Next menu than just about anyone... who wasn't involved in cooking it, at least. Read his descriptions and see the complete menu below.
Carciofi Alle Brace
Bucatini con Bottarga
Gemelli con le Sarde
Pesce Spada con di Ceci
Spalla di Maiale Brasato
Granita di Arance Rosse
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Charles Hetzel after Thursday night:
Overall it was a great change in pace for the diner and the Next team. Quite the departure from the El Bulli menu, one where Chef Achatz and Chef Beran could really hone in on the flavors and cuisine of such a niche culture as Sicily. In my opinion, the Sicily menu seems more driven by Dave Beran's vision. In fact, when I dined on the first friends and family night Thursday it was refreshing to see Chef Achatz don a sport coat and ditch his chef whites to go dine on the entire meal with Friends and Family.
As for the meal, its so hard to compare to the others and I can't pick a favorite, as it's akin to picking your favorite child or relative. I personally feel it's more like Thailand in that it's casual and the opening antipasti is street food. However the entire meal does replicate the experience of dining in your Sicilian Grandmother's home with all the fresh vegetables, fish, meats, pastas— and of course, the desserts. It's much different from Paris 1906 which replicated a specific chef's cuisine recipes and era, and very different from the Alinea-like Childhood.
The pastas were truly outstanding and the best I've eaten anywhere. The Bucatini con Bottarga was mind blowing, especially with the presentation of the Bottarga. The swordfish was so fresh tasting it was as if I was eating it right at the dock in Sicily. But the highlight of the meal was definitely the pulled pork with all-day-cooked tomato sauce ... perhaps rivaling the pressed duck of Paris 1906. Chef Beran has truly upped his game here.
I have to mention the roasted vegetables, especially the opening charred grilled artichokes. The flavors evoked really open up your palate to prepare it for the abundance of flavors, all very rustic and home prepared.
I do think they continue to deliver superior food that evoke emotions... while I have yet to visit the island of Sicily, this did transport me to that land and cuisine through each course.
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After Saturday night:
I spent considerable time with Chef Beran last evening and he has already amped up the Sicily menu. This meal is in fact his entire creation— I think it is important that everyone know that. While Chef Achatz provides input and feedback, this is Dave Beran's menu.
I asked Dave what was most challenging or different on this menu, and I was surprised to hear his answer: "It's hard to cook this way when you are not having to use tools like tweezers to plate the food— it's just a very rustic old-school cooking style." They actually have a Weber grill outside Next's kitchen cooking the grilled artichokes. Which by the way were ABSOLUTELY amazingly good; you are given a tiny spoon to eat the artichokes with— they are charred to a crisp and thank goodness for wet warm towels afterwards. My family and I loved the 'chokes so much I begged Chef Beran for the recipe for the vinagrette to which he complied on a paper napkin.
Even the tomato sauce that accompanied the arancini (deep fried lamb tongue risotto balls)— the word arancini is Italian for orange since they are rolled up in a ball and are very large, has improved over the course of two days! The swordfish literally melted in our mouths and was my wife's favorite dish, but the highlight for me is the pulled pork which was mouthwatering tender. The aroma of the pork permeates through the Next dining room, leaving you begging for more. My only recommendation is that since it is served family style, they should provide more than one serving utensil— all four of us were ready to dig in promptly.
We loved everything about the meal again and Chef Beran says as the season progresses he will use more herbs and flowers in some of the dishes. In fact he suspects the tomato sauce for the pulled pork and the arancini will even improve as tomatoes ripen this season.
As for the desserts, it's tough to give feedback— I think the Cassata (a traditional Sicilian Easter cake going back to the 1700s) is very sweet and we loved the ricotta whipped cream on the side. But they have a tough act to follow after the pork and the Granita. I did enjoy the wine pairing with it— the 2008 Planeta Passito di noto which reminded me of a Sauternes. But the better pairing was the watermelon, white balsamic, pinot noir juice non-alcoholic pairing our kids had with their Dolci— out of this world good.