#198 – 200. Eat an Incredibly Expensive Dinner

Margie, Jordan & I before our Alinea dinner a few years ago.
Margie, Jordan & I before our Alinea dinner a few years ago.

Three years ago, I hit I-94 toward Chicago with my bestie Margie and the actual most interesting man in the world, our friend Jordan. We were on a mission: to figure out what Bitcoin was (or rather, Jordan explained to Marge & me what Bitcoin was all about) and to experience Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz’s be-all-end-all modern cuisine mecca. “Modern cuisine” or “molecular gastronomy” basically means there’s a lot of science-y stuff going on in the kitchen and all the food looks like edible art. It’s not up everyone’s alley, and yes, a meal at Alinea is ridiculously expensive (and scoring a reservation there took some blood, sweat and tears). However, the three of us loved it! Jordan and Marge are, no contest, my most inquisitive friends. For four hours and 21-ish courses, we talked and laughed and ate lots of crazy, delicious food. It was so fun. We all left full and happy.

About a year ago, Jordan, Margie and I decided we should try to replicate that amazing Alinea meal with our significant others. NEXT, Achatz’s latest restaurant, opened in 2011 to rave reviews. The concept is a little out there: Achatz, with executive chef Dave Beran, creates an entirely new restaurant every three months. The first menu was Paris: 1906, the second was Thailand. From decor to platters and utensils and menu, every single aspect of the restaurant changes four times a year. In lieu of reservations, diners must purchase tickets to the restaurant. The menu is set and the only decision you need to make once you get there is whether or not you want the regular or premium wine pairings (or non-alcoholic pairings). Think of it like a Broadway show-style approach to fine dining.

Not only were we able to pull off a table of six last November, but we had the best seats in the house– the chef’s table, complete with a floor-to-ceiling window into the kitchen. How cool is that? I was pretty pumped! Jordan & his lovely/smart/hilarious girlfriend Sasha flew from New York to Chicago just for the occasion, while Margie, her bf Keven, the beyonce & I drove 6 hours from Minneapolis. We even stopped for lunch at Taco Bell because how hilarious is that?! It was an adventure!

Lunch at Taco Bell, dinner at Next. Whaddya expect from some hooligans like us?
Lunch at Taco Bell, dinner at Next. Whaddya expect from some hooligans like us?

Of course, because I am codependent and am constantly overwhelmed with anxiety, I couldn’t stop thinking about a few potentially uncomfortable things. First of all, I knew Marge and Jordan were all about this, but what about our significant others? What if they hated it? Or thought it was a waste of money? (#198)

Since we are on the subject of money, I am just going to go ahead and tell you how much we paid: about $300 per person… plus an extra $70-100 for drink pairings. Yes, I know. That is a lot of money. However, let me put this into perspective. NEXT is one of the best restaurants in the world and we essentially got to sit inside the kitchen, watching their team create our 15-course meal. This summer, Paul McCartney is playing Target Field. Seats hundreds of feet away from the stage cost $400. For that price, you and 50,000 strangers can listen to Sir Paul while only seeing him on a jumbotron. That doesn’t even include food or drink (one beer = $9, and you know you’re going to have a few of those). I do realize Paul McCartney is a Beatle and it’d be pretty cool to see him in concert, but tickets to Madonna/Elton John/Taylor Swift/Biebs arena shows fetch hundreds of dollars a pop… and often, these folks are lip synching. At NEXT, you get a front row seat, personal attention, a ton of amazing food and excellent wine… and you don’t have a teenager scream-crying “I LOVE YOU JUSTIN!!!” in your ear. Something to think about.

Where was I? Oh, yes, so I was scared that my friends would regret dropping that kind of cash on a meal. I was afraid I’d regret spending that kind of money, too (#199). I was also a teensy bit nervous about the menu (#200). We were to have the Bocuse d’Or menu, which I knew was going to include a lot of rich, French food. I don’t typically love French food, and I sometimes have issues with rich dishes. But I figured if Grant Achatz and Dave Beran couldn’t make me believers, then I’d just have to fly to Lyon and have Paul Bocuse himself make me dinner.

Here’s NEXT’s “trailer” for the Bocuse d’Or menu… which may or may not give you an idea of what was to come. It’s a little “conceptual” (?)

We arrived and were shown to our kick ass table in the back. The view:

There was certainly a wow factor, and I saw everyone in our group light up. Phew, they’re onboard and I can relax!

Our waiter asked if we’d like sparkling or still water, then basically told us (in kind words) that everyone who dines at the chef’s table must order the reserve wine pairings. This slightly annoyed me for two reasons 1) it was and extra 50 bucks a person (though I later did read on their website that it’s just their policy; my fault for not seeing that ahead of time), and 2) in order for me to not crash and burn in a wine-laden meal, I can only have three glasses of wine, max. So basically, I was paying twice as much for wine that would mostly be poured down the drain. Bummer, but hey, this is a once in a lifetime thing. Bring it on, I guess.

#1: Terrine of Veal with frisee salad and cipollini marmalade // Pairing: sazerac

I didn’t snap a photo of this first dish, but it was served family style in a fancy Le Creuset terrine. Our waiter said something along the lines of, “Pace yourself, there’s a lot of food!” The waiter placed a thimble of sazerac in front of each of us, along with a fancy Frenchie perfume bottle filled with absinthe which we were to spritz our cocktail with. Our table erupted into laughter as we spritz our cares away. Fun!

Absinthe in a perfume bottle.
Absinthe in a perfume bottle.
Only a tiny amount dispensed at a time... I wasn't prepared to hallucinate or anything. 
Only a tiny amount dispensed at a time… I wasn’t prepared to hallucinate or anything.

#2: Ostera caviar with whipped beurre blanc and pine nut

I don't even like caviar, but this was insane!
I don’t even like caviar, but this was insane!

I don’t love caviar and beurre blanc sounds like a gut bomb, but this light two-biter offered perfect contrasts– crunchy and soft, salty and rich. It was beautiful and delicious.

#3: Mousse of darden ham, and madeira aspic // Pairing: Domainw Maestracci E Prove, Corsica 2011

Aspic.... yum (?)
Aspic…. yum (?)

When I hear aspic, I think yuck. But this was pretty delicious, despite its gelatinous texture. I was happy there was a tiny salad served alongside. Our first three dishes were unbelievably rich and I needed some roughage.

Course #4: Souffle of prawns

Souffle = yet another type of food I’m meh about. I’d never in a million years order this in a restaurant, but this savory prawn souffle made me wish I could speak French.

#5: Custard of cauliflower with verjus rouge, rose, and foie gras // Pairing: Domaine Weinbach, Gewurztraminer, Alsace 2010

Cauliflower + Foie Gras = Delicious
Cauliflower + Foie Gras = Delicious
Hey, look! I got a photo of the wine label!
Hey, look! I got a photo of the wine label!

I don’t even understand most of the the words in the name of this dish, but this pink cauliflower mess was my favorite dish of the evening. The silky-smooth pink cauliflower-foie gras concoction was rich and addictive, especially when you added a bite of cauliflower chip (that’s those things sticking out like cream colored trees). I’d smear this stuff on crusty, French bread every day if I could. I tried to not finish the whole thing, but it was next to impossible.

I was loving this meal! Impeccable (but friendly and not at all stuffy!) service. Each bite of food was better than the next! The problem? After course number five, I was done eating. I was also done drinking. There were 10 more food courses ahead and five wine pairings. But I felt stuffed, nauseated and slothy-too-much-wine-drunk. Then, the next course arrived.

#6: Charred lettuce, bottarga, bonito, and peanut

A salad, but not really a salad.
A salad, but not really a salad.

My belly, full of fat and butter and whatever else is in French food, was so happy to see this “salad” appear. Finally, something light! Unfortunately, that orange-y bottarga/bonito/peanut combo was just another heaping tablespoon of rich, unctuous stuff. I took one bite and set my fork down.

#7: Ivory char with coddled eggs, celeriac, and cranberry // Pairing: Domaine de Marquiliani Rose de Sciaccarellu, Corsica 2012

I was feeling increasingly more ill, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what that weird egg shell was all about (see the above photo). Our waiter assured us it was edible, so I picked it up. It felt like a brittle egg shell, but when I went to break it, the piece folded– kind of like a stick of gum. I think I tried it. I don’t remember it having a distinct flavor, but regardless, it was totally impressive. I had one tiny bite of this dish and, after tasting the wine, slid the glass in front of the beyonce (who enjoyed every last sip).

I’d crossed from the fun zone to a dark place. You know that moment when you’re at a party, you’ve had maybe one drink too many and you “know” it’s time to leave or go to bed? That’s how I felt at this moment, except it could only be attributed to a lethal mix of alcohol and fat. Somehow, my brain remained 100 percent clear, but my body was done. I looked at my watch. We had, at minimum, an hour and a half left. The thought of being anywhere but a bed filled me with anxiety.

I excused myself and went to the bathroom, which THANK GOD, was a one-seater. I splashed my face with water an weighed my options: Can I physically stay in this restaurant for another 90 minutes or do I need to take a cab “home” (aka to our friends’ house)? I wasn’t sure, but as much as I wanted to leave, I couldn’t believe I was actually considering it. Would I feel better if I threw up? Probably. But then I’d have to sit through the rest of dinner with that disgusting taste in my mouth, plus the added bonus that for the rest of dinner and my life I would know that I barfed at NEXT. Not appealing. I decided to just not eat or drink any more food and hope that I didn’t pass out at the table while clutching my stomach.

#8: Quinault Rover salmon with beets, browned butter, and parsley

I returned to the table as the salmon and beets arrived. Presented on a charred log that was still smoking (!), I didn’t even really need to take a bite to get the gist of what was going on. Smoke and beautiful presentation. As I stared at the mini smoking forest before me, I realized our group– boisterous and giddy at the beginning of dinner– had become mute. The guys were all still managing to dig into their food, but with much less enthusiasm. Marge was gazing off into the distance. Sasha was kind of just whispering to Jordan, but I have no idea what they were talking about. I could barely keep my eyes open and was trying not to face plant into my food. Literally, I had the head bobs.

#9: Consomme of roasted mushrooms – Paul Bocuse // Pairing: Matin Calme Mano a Mano, Roussillon 2011

Paul Bocuse's Soupe V.G.E.
Paul Bocuse’s Soupe V.G.E.
It was pretty. 
It was pretty.

You might see a brothy soup covered with some pastry cap. I see one of the most famous dishes of the 20th Century, created in 1975 by Chef Paul Bocuse (and still served at his restaurant in Lyon, I might add!). Anyhow, there is a whole elaborate story of how this dish came to be one of the food world’s most celebrated, and here at NEXT, they probably made the perfect replica. I smelled it, but I did not eat it. The wine, again, went directly to the beyonce.

#10: Pheasant smoked in hay with grilled baby leek, caramelized onion, sauce blanquette

Didn’t have one bite, but the beyonce said it was pretty good (though he, too, could barely eat this course).

#11: Ribeye of beef with boudin vert, roasted carrot, sauce bearnaise, and potato marrow // Pairing: Chateau Fourcas Hosten, Listrac 2003

Nope. Didn’t even take a photo.

#12: tete de moine with chashews, pear, and milk skin // Pairing: Chateau de Montifaud Pineau des Charentes

Stared at this beautiful cheese terrarium for 15 minutes until some kind waiter finally ushered it away.

#13: Ice cream bombe in the style of apple pie // Pairing: Domaine de l’Alliance, Sauternse 2009

And this, FINALLY, was where things finally started turning around for me! After skipping seven courses and waiting nearly two hours, I could finally eat again. This was all the components of an apple pie, plated as a work of art. I ate half, and smugly set down my fork, feeling a slight victory over the French.

#14: A cube of squash with huckleberry, butter pecan ice cream, and pecan oatmeal cookie

Wait, there is a third dessert? Well, that’s kind of overkill, but does mean that we are SO CLOSE to leaving! Yay! I took a few bites.

#15: Mignardises // Truffle of chocolate and hazelnut // Lime macaron // Bitter chocolate taffy

This tray of treats arrived and so did the bill for our wine pairings (we paid for the meal a month earlier when we bought the tickets). After we settled up, I would’ve sprinted to a cab had I been able to move that fast. The ride home felt like forever. I peeled off my tights and dress (in that order) and feel asleep.

The next morning, I woke up in a stupor. Not really hungover (I’d only had three of the seven pairings), but more like my insides were now completely sculpted in butter. I felt that way for three days.

The service at NEXT was impeccable and approachable. The people waiting on us were young, knowledgeable and not snooty in the least. And the food? Everything was absolutely delicious! (or at least all of the things I tried). The restaurant was beautiful, the dishes were gorgeous and watching the kitchen was so much fun.

However, the menu was relentless. No light courses to break up the heaviness. Every plate was butter/lard/fat served in sheep’s clothing. I realize the portions are not designed to satisfy a 135-pound woman; the kitchen needs to ensure their hungriest patron (probably a large dude) will walk away satiated. But the fact of the matter is that plenty of people my size with my appetite eat here, and I only enjoyed 30 percent of my meal and wine. The remainder of the time was actually torturous, and of course what added insult to injury was the fact that I’d forked over a mortgage payment to feel that way.

I know this is First World Problems at its finest, but NEXT was sad experience for me (I don’t think my dining partners felt as strongly… Jordan/Marge/Kev/Sasha/Josh, I am curious as to what you really thought). I left completely disappointed, sick and overwhelmed. I’d love to know how anyone leaves NEXT in one piece. It literally has taken me seven months to write about because I don’t even like thinking about this dinner. I guess I am glad that I tried NEXT for the experience. I do wish I’d gone for one of their other menus (maybe the Vegan or Thailand menu would’ve suited me better). But when you get a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, you take it. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible and sometimes it’s just a lot more than you bargained for.

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Comments (9)

  • marge 6 years ago Reply

    In reading your account I can honestly say it wasn’t quite as intense for me but around course 6 I was making it through 1-2 bites per serving; which was disappointing because there were SO MANY flavors to try on each incredible plate. I think Keven managed to basically eat it all – so it’s definitely do-able. I think we all went into our own zen-zone as the dinner went on, explaining the silence at the table – each contemplated the careful balance of wanting to enjoy the flavors and how our insides were feeling. All in all the trip was super fun due to the company but that meal was intense to say the least. If I’m not mistaken I think Jordan literally "trained" for this meal in some sort of over-eating exercise to get his tummy ready…that was the way to go. In the end, I blame Taco Bell.

    molly mogren 6 years ago Reply

    Oh, yes Marge… take the easy way out and blame Taco Bell, a meal we ate 8 hours before dinner!

    You are right, though. Jordan did train for the meal FOR 1 MONTH and had some sort of graph to show this progress. I hope he chimes in as to how he achieved this.

  • Jordan Husney 6 years ago Reply

    Molly if it wasn’t for you, this experience would have never happened. Thank you.

    Destination eating is one of my favorite pastimes. If I heard there was a not-to-miss noodle cart in Phuket, I would fly/hitchhike/bicycle my way there ASAP. Going to NEXT was all I could talk about for months before.

    I do want to dispel the myth that I trained. I did not train. I merely dieted (thank goodness that little pot belly I am sporting in exhibit A is gone) and I chose not to eat that day before going to NEXT. Based on the menu, this ended up being a good strategy.

    Last weekend was my birthday. I was with my father and stepmother in LA when my brother called – his apartment had caught fire and his losses were heavy. I flew back immediately to help him clean up and get sorted. Was it a happy birthday? Not exactly. Memorable? Sure. When I look back from a safe distance, that’s how I feel about dining at NEXT. It was a memorable meal.

    The menu composition was just plain off. One can only eat one stick of fat after another for so long before feeling like they themselves are about to be harvested for fois gras. It altered the mood at our table. You went silent. I got nasty. Others became morose. Only Kevin remained his beautiful, buoyant self.

    The trouble was, everything was so artful. The service was impeccable, the preparation flawless, the wine parings exquisite. It was theatre. I was happy to pay the ticket price. Only, the plot was unrelenting, heavy, and baroque.

    If I have the opportunity, I’d try them again if I felt the theme would show off their more sprightly side.

    Thank you for making it happen for us.

    molly mogren 6 years ago Reply

    Aside from your point regarding our being fattened for foie gras-ing, this was my favorite:

    "The trouble was, everything was so artful. The service was impeccable, the preparation flawless, the wine parings exquisite. It was theatre. I was happy to pay the ticket price. Only, the plot was unrelenting, heavy, and baroque."

    100000 percent agree!

    How is your dad/stepmom?! That’s awful.

    Alyssa 6 years ago

    I must say, I also loved this line. Something about using the adjective "baroque" just seemed perfect!

    molly mogren 6 years ago

    Just reread this… IT WAS YOUR BROTHER’S APT! How is Evan? Dammit!

  • Alyssa Tuma 6 years ago Reply

    Interestingly, this was definitely one of my fave Eleanor reads!! It was just kind of weird and trippy and ambivalent and very, very… uh… what’s the word/phrase I’m looking for here?… "assault on the senses"??? It really clicked with my senses (not necessarily in a good way always). I sort of felt like I how I feel when I watch a David Lynch movie: Things are normal–and then they’re not. And it’s glorious and genius and maybe highly upsetting. What an experience.

    molly mogren 6 years ago Reply

    Things definitely took a hard, weird turn! Then this happened: I had a trip to heaven. And well, heaven is such an amazing place and you just want to be there for a long time… there were a bunch of colors, even more than we have here on earth. And then, I watched Braveheart with Jesus.

    Wait, that wasn’t me! That was the kid who wrote Haven is for Real. Nevermind.

  • Sasha Wright 6 years ago Reply

    Yeah, Molly, for me this was such a treat. I was so insanely excited about it beforehand and when we walked in and saw that chef’s table it definitely felt like we were the coolest kids in school.

    Like you already said, the meal itself was pesado and relentless. Every course was heavier than the course before. I made the crazy proud decision to eat some (most) of every dish that came, and at least taste some of every glass of the insanely delicious wine. I have only ever eaten such a rich enormous meal once before in my life. And both times it gave me meat dreams: this is where you wake up in the middle of the night and it feels like you are still eating meat, but just the thought of this makes you feel sick.

    Anyway, one word to describe this meal: emotional.

    The word I expected: joy.

    That being said, it was really gorgeous and they treated us like hip foodie royalty. And I’ll never ever forget it. THANK YOU!

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