“Well, I grew up in Michigan too, and this black-and-white truffle Oreo is bogus.”
That’s the kind of blunt, experienced feedback I look for in a dining companion. But it turns out my pal was only playing—trying on his own Anton Ego spectacles and poking fun at the modern foodlum’s pedantic quest for authenticity. He was actually gobsmacked by this sweet fungal-smelling cookie. We all were.
My group of four was eating on the 12th night of Childhood, the third menu at Next Restaurant, the veritable reinvention of interactive dinner theater as brought to you by the midwestern-bred brain trust of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. I’m writing about it for the third time this year not just because it’s one of the most important new restaurants in the country (world?), but because I have a selfish interest in understanding the collective creative process that makes something this fun possible.
But I don’t think I’ve mentioned how easy it is to get hammered. When I listen to the voice memos I recorded during Paris 1906, the Tour of Thailand, and the current incarnation, I marvel at the patience of servers who each time put up with an increasingly voluble and slurred series of questions and enthusiastic outbursts from the table, all met with patient, benevolent indulgence. If the collective front of the house ever seeks to change careers, it could launch a world-class daycare. With this menu they take an extra step in that direction.
Yeah, the succession of wine and cocktail pairings at these meals have tended to make those I’ve eaten with regress to babbling ankle biters. If that degrades the quality of observation, at least it helps lower inhibitions, so that even the most jaded, self-serious guests won’t dismiss an apple brandy-port wine fruit rollup served in a David Hasselhoff lunch box as hopelessly corny.
For this, the seventh of ten courses, a vintage school lunch box is the vehicle for the Oreo, the fruit leather, a jarringly tender scrap of fatty Wagyu beef jerky, a banana-hazelnut-chocolate pudding snack pack, and a house-made Funyun. Each contains a handwritten note from mom or dad—”Grandpa’s tractor is not a recreational vehicle” or “Come right home after school. You’re dog sitting tonight”—and a thermos of mixed berry juice and port.
It doesn’t have to be the Hoff on your box—it could be the Smurfs, Alf, or the Cabbage Patch Kids—but whichever it is, this course is one of the more direct references to the upbringing of Achatz and executive chef Dave Beran (also a onetime Michigander, though seven years Achatz’s junior), and therefore the one most likely to baffle diners who came up in a different time. I’m at the right age to recognize the artifacts of that pop-culture era, and so was everyone at my table. But what about the other generations—the ones who remember carrying biscuits and beans in burlap sacks to school, or kids these days, who get their vegetables from school-lunch frozen pizza?
In this way Childhood is the most personal of the three menus that have run so far. Most people in this country have no idea what real Thai food is, which was an advantage for the kitchen on the last menu. Likewise, no one who ate at Paris 1906 ever ate in Paris in 1906. But everybody has definite, individual ideas of what a proper PB&J is. Beran addresses that sort of challenge with the first course, which arrives as a small wrapped present: a toasty Super Ball-size orb containing a molten squirt of peanut butter and pomegranate pâte de fruit. It’s an auspiciously tasty bite, and the same sort of recontextualized mechanization of surprise that has by now become familiar from this team.
That’s echoed in a soup with extruded chicken-mousse noodles, the textural clones of the sodden Campbell’s variety, in an amber broth depthless in its richness (the stock bones are first roasted in butter), boosted by a swirl of hollandaise foam, a word that does no justice to the fatty opulence it contributes. It’s one of the richer courses on the menu, as is another early one: pasta slicked with Parmesan, Manchego, and white cheddar surrounded by classic mac ‘n’ cheese garnishes: say, a reprocessed chunk of Nathan’s hot dog, or a Mangalista-ham-and-arugula pinwheel.
There are more abstract, Alinea-like courses on this menu than the previous two. The best of these has no direct referent to any particularly iconic American kids’ food: the Autumn Scene, an evolving salad of roasted mushrooms and fried carrot (log), fried Swiss chard (leaves) and leeks (hay), and creamy polenta boulders rolled in powdered puffed black rice and mushroom powder (dirt) and fattened by mushroom-butter puree, all garnished with nasturtium, sorrel, sage, and thyme. This landscape, which may be subtitled “a walk in the woods” by your server, is plated on glass over a hollowed half log that emits, in our case, aromas of roasted chestnut, toasted hay, and apple. It’s probably the most delicious thing on the menu.
Arising out of Beran’s penchant for plating dishes on forestware, which dates back to his time at Alinea, it’s not dissimilar to the “campfire” dessert: vanilla-and-cinnamon-stewed sweet potato logs set alight with powdered grain alcohol, then placed smoldering atop apricot puree, marshmallows, ginger pâte de fruit, and bourbon-barrel ice cream with pecan streusel and caramel sauce.
These stand in contrast to the fish-and-chips, the menu’s most deconstructed dish, which takes the form of a child’s drawing composed from slivers of cucumber evoking waves, tartar sauce gluing down a beer-batter shoreline, a fried potato net ensnaring a walleye fillet, and balsamic and Meyer lemon sauces illustrating a stick fisherman under a shining sun. At the kitchen table, guests plate it themselves as Beran walks them through an art lesson complete with paintbrushes and Elmer’s glue bottles filled with sauces. The most theatrical course in the meal, it’s also the least harmonized and the most physically difficult to eat, its success dependent on a guest’s willingness to play with his food.
Oddly, my least favorite dish on this menu was its most successful in terms of transporting me to some other place, subjectively at least. A fast-food hamburger—the final savory course—arrives detonated on the plate as if it’s spent ordnance from a food fight, ketchup, mustard, and cheap white bun splattered across a figurative restaurant floor. It’s one of the funnier portions of the meal, and it’s spooky how faithfully the junky sweet and savory flavors and gummable textures of fast food are replicated. Apart from the delicious, tender braised short rib—the “burger”—which has an appealing griddle-crisp texture, this course tastes almost exactly how you’d remember a Big Mac if you’d never had a fondness for them.
As thrilling as each of Next’s productions have been, maybe that’s why this was my least favorite. Childhood isn’t all happy memories, and the eating during my own was frequently unhappy (I was picky and unadventurous). Maybe I’m too close to the subject matter to be fully transported back to that place. A willingness to play along is essential at Next, and if you can’t or won’t, you just won’t get it.
But I wouldn’t tell anyone attempting to score tickets through Next’s Facebook page not to try to get to the remaining days of Childhood. It remains the most consistently imaginative and entertaining of dining experiences anywhere. That this crew continues to turn on a dime every three months and execute on this level demonstrates a kind of consistency that the doddering fools who failed to award it a Michelin star are too old and hidebound to understand.
Disclosure: I tried to sneak into this version of Next on someone else’s ticket, but I was quickly marked.