With the excitement of the Alinea-Eleven Madison Park switch-off, and speculation about the menus for the 2013 season, the last menu of Next's 2012 season, Kyoto, has been a bit overlooked (relatively speaking for the phenomenally popular restaurant). But dining at it almost exactly midway through its run, we feel not only that it's one of the more interesting menus, but one that shows Next achieving maturity as a concept, capable of replicating world cuisines faithfully in the spirit but not the letter, via local ingredients that adapt their techniques to the midwest's seasonal offerings. If Sicily was Next going rustic in one part of the world, this is Next at a level of refinement that demonstrates the affinity between the minimalist precision of Japanese kaiseki dining and the equally painstaking perfectionism of Grant Achatz. There are dish by dish slideshows out there on various food sites, but we'd like to share one that demonstrates our point about the precision and minimalism of the meal and since tickets pop up regularly on Facebook and Twitter, you still have the chance to go (it ends December 31).
A centerpiece, which early on is briefly lit aflame so that it offers a hint of smoke in the air. Surprisingly (but fittingly for a fall menu), smokiness would be a theme throughout the meal, starting with a marvelous broth made with burnt corn husks and figuring in such things as the slices of wagyu in the soup at the end.
With chopsticks so often a commodity item, it was a pleasure to use instruments of obvious, tactile quality for a change.
Classic American ingredients get a Japanese treatment with chestnut tofu and apple slices.
Next Childhood introduced the concept of a dish plated as if it were a pile of leaves to be hunted through; the same concept has been used at Alinea, but it seemed to reach its apotheosis in a beautiful plating which began with deep fried shrimp heads on a stick...
...and came down to a forest floor of finds like this duck prosciutto wrapped around something like daikon.
A series of sashimi courses followed. This was an education in abalone— that's it sliced and fanned in back, but that's also it as green "noodles" in the middle, and somewhere, one of those tiny sea grapes is its liver.
Another technique Achatz has used for years— we first experienced it at Trio— is heating aromatic herbs at the table to permeate the air as you eat. As a server pours sake, the very hot rock released the odor of pine needles.
Japan has maples (as we will see at the end), but maple is an unmistakably American flavor— and that contradiction was at the heart of this chawanmushi with a slice of matsutake mushroom.
Brook trout arrives in two forms; over a warm grill on skewers...
...and fried to an entirely edible crisp, which could be dipped in a wasabi leaf puree, a real eye-opener among the many interesting sauces served alongside different courses.
A small assortment of fried items, very salty, including Japanese eggplant and shiso leaf.
Wagyu beef in a rich, soulfilling broth. By this part of the meal, fall is giving way to winter, as the crumbled egg whites on the peak of the mound in the middle suggest.
Snow is falling in the form of a maple powder. There's persimmon gelee tucked into the persimmon section, the crisp is actually the skin from the process of tofumaking, flash-fried— and the maple leaves are, in fact, edible (especially with a little help from the sweet maple powder).
The final course and, as one of our companions noted, a daringly uncompromising end— a bitter matcha tea lightened with a bite of the toasted soy-coated mochi jelly.
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