Rene Deleon presses squab for Next: The Hunt in 2013

When we last spoke about the economics of Next, the most interesting and forward-thinking of Chicago restaurants from a business perspective, it had announced its latest season by significantly lowering its entry-level pricing. Last season, one of their premium menus (Trio) had started at $245 per person, making it one of the most expensive restaurants in Chicago (along with Grant Achatz’s other restaurant, Alinea). This year’s first menu, formerly called Next Paris Bistro, was promised at $70 to $80 per person, and came in somewhat higher, but still significantly lower than what came before, at $100 to $120 per person. I took the positive view of this. They would still make a heck of a nice menu at what is, after all, a pretty significant tab, even if it included plenty of opportunities to jack it up even further with luxury add-ons. But a couple of people who know the restaurant scene scoffed at me, saying that they expected that you’d have to go for a significant up charge in order to make the meal feel substantial enough—and not go out the door still kind of hungry.

Well, Next Bistro (“Paris” seems to have dropped out of the name along the way, though there’s no mistaking which city is the focus) launched Friday, and the menu and the first few pics and reports have hit Facebook. And happily I think Next, which had gotten pretty overpriced if the menu wasn’t a slam-dunk (Trio was worth its price, most people seemed to think, but Steak and Chinese were not), looks like a high but fair price for high quality, classic French food at $100 to $120 per person. Though as you’ll see, that’s only the beginning.

  • Via Facebook
  • Next Bistro basic menu

Your C-note gets you six items—though I’d call it a five-course menu, since one of them is an amuse-bouche. (I’d say no bistro would do anything so gauche as listing an amuse-bouche as a course since it’s supposed to be a little treat at greeting, but actually I suppose bistros don’t serve amuse-bouches anyway. And, besides, these menus are more souvenir than bill of fare.) To judge by the few food pics online so far, they’re mostly substantial, hearty courses, so going out hungry seems pretty unlikely. If you go back and look at the very first menu, Paris 1906, it had nine courses (or eight; I wouldn’t count mignardises as a course, either), but several of them were quite small, in line with Thomas Keller’s philosophy of only giving you three bites or less of anything. So in sheer quantity, it seems roughly comparable—and considering how much more famous and in-demand Next is now compared to when it opened, the price creep (Paris 1906 went for $65 to $110) is not that great.

But there is a catch, which is to say, temptation lurks in the form of the chalkboard menu.

  • Via Facebook
  • “Chalkboard” menu for Next Bistro

This is where it starts to look like a dinner for Mr. Creosote. There are both add-on items and available substitutions. If the lentil and bacon soup (which sounds perfectly lovely) doesn’t appeal as an hors d’oeuvre, you can increase your bill per person by anywhere from $17 (a pork head terrine) to $65 (a seafood platter, $130 for two). Few things are better than a classic onion tart—but maybe you’re tempted for your Premier Plat (which is not the Plat Principal, your main meat course) to instead be lobster vol-au-vent ($21) or blood sausage with shaved black truffle ($27). (Australian truffles, I’d guess, by the price and the season.)

And If you have fond memories of the highlight of both Paris 1906 and the Hunt—a roasted bird, parts of which were pressed in the duck press to extract the bloody juices to make a rich sauce—you can have Canard a la Presse avec gratin Dauhpinois, and honestly, you’re here and it’s spectacular, so how could you not? At $126 for two, this duck course also costs only a little less per person than the entire Paris 1906 menu did. So, yeah, they’re banking on the idea that you’ll find it irresistible even at that price. And they’re probably right. We’re in the kind of economics by this point where it makes sense to spend three figures on the shavings of an especially fragrant fungus. On ne vit qu’une fois.

Even the less extravagant options like those above could easily push your $100 per person well over $200 by the time you’re done, without even adding in a side of haricots verts ($8) or a cheese course ($17), let alone anything to drink. At first, I thought the idea of having add-ons clashed head on with part of the philosophy behind the ticketing system and the tasting menu—that they removed the grubby business of handling money from the dining experience. It is certainly true that overdoing the high-end add-ons can cheapen the experience for the diner even as they prove lucrative for the restaurant—that was Ryan Sutton’s point in a fairly negative review of Thomas Keller’s Per Se recently.

But looking at the menus, it also looks more like an intelligent response to one of the main criticisms of the last season of Next—that in the Steak menu in particular, being served a preset menu removed an essential part of the steakhouse experience, which is getting to decide how much of a baller you are with the luxury choices. (This led to criticism in particular of an appetizer course where a party of four would receive a skimpy two shrimp and two oysters, say, with no choice in the matter.) Here, you can have a nice French dinner for $100-ish, which is roughly in the range of, say, the posh French food at Maude’s a few blocks away. Or you can have an increasingly nicer one, depending on how far up in the sky your limit is. If another criticism last year was that Next nearly cost as much as (generally posher and more comfortable) Alinea, well, now it doesn’t—unless you choose for it to. Which you probably will.