Next’s latest menu, a retrospective look back at Trio, the Evanston restaurant that made a former French Laundry sous chef named Grant Achatz into one of the city’s—and eventually one of the world’s—most famous chefs, started this past weekend. But it’s one thing to serve guests the dishes of your younger self—and another to see your old friends from those heady days of youth. So last night Next and the Aviary threw a party for the people Achatz worked with at Trio from 2001 to 2004, and invited (for a price) assorted friends and good customers of his restaurants.

  • Michael Gebert
  • A busy receiving line: Achatz greets David Posey as Curtis Duffy looks on

Even though many of the people who showed up already planned on attending the actual dinner at Next, a substantial crowd turned out for just a taste or two of old favorites like Black Truffle Explosion—another guest told me that the event sold out well ahead of demand. In the Aviary’s lounge you could just circulate enough to see some of the Trio graduates and early Alinea alums who’d gone on to their own greater thing, like Curtis Duffy (Grace), Michael Carlson (Schwa, who gave me a bear hug, enthusiastically declaring “We’re all family, man!”), David Posey (Blackbird), Paula Haney (Hoosier Mama, I apparently passed her without seeing her), sommelier Scott Noorman and, playing the high school reunion role of the teacher everyone loved, Henry Adaniya, the owner of Trio who took a chance on the kid from the French Laundry with an idea for a 24-course meal made up of tiny bites.

Next was even more packed, with a line running most of the way down the room for the chance to pass through the kitchen and taste some of Trio’s most famous dishes. Along the way we had olive oil-parmesan ice cream cookies and some kind of coconut slushy to fortify us. One of the distinctive things about Achatz’s early menus was that he enjoyed mixing adult tastes with playful textures (you could almost build a whole menu around childhood!), though that was also one of the distinctive things about Trio, where one of Gale Gand’s best-known desserts in the 1990s was an upscale root beer float, back when you didn’t see such things at fine dining restaurants.

First stop in the kitchen was the bit of theater that everyone talked about when Achatz took over Trio: lobster served with sprigs of rosemary. You didn’t eat the rosemary; they poured boiling water over it, perfuming your table (the whole room, to be honest) as you ate the lobster. A literal example of deconstruction—the smelling part of eating entirely divorced from the tasting part—it was the test to see if you were hip enough to appreciate this new chef’s mind-bending food.

  • Michael Gebert
  • . . . and then Dave Beran drops the rosemary into boiling water

The next stop was another of Trio’s iconic dishes (in fact, I just put it on a list of Chicago classics next to deep dish and Chicken Vesuvio), one that’s still on the menu at Alinea to this day: Black Truffle Explosion.

Black truffle gel is sealed in a ravioli, which you eat whole and allow to explode in your mouth.

The last dish in the kitchen wasn’t one I remembered, but perhaps it was an evolution from one I do remember, which mixed oysters with lime juice: salmon roe with lime foam and avocado cream.

One thing I thought looking around the room as I passed from station to station was that the crowd was mostly old enough to have eaten at Trio a decade or more ago, but Next’s kitchen staff of earnest twentysomethings—could they really have gone to the place their boss was celebrating? I asked Dave Beran, chef de cuisine of Next, if he had been old enough to go to Trio when it was blazing a trail for Chicago food of which he is now one of the best-known practitioners.

“I graduated college in 2003,” he explained. “I applied there, when Grant was already on his way out. But I didn’t get in.”