Where Dining is an Event - Next: Tour of Thailand

Food is highly important in my life. I love everything about it. I love cooking. The process of turning separate ingredients into a dish that makes your head explode with joy...priceless. But I do love when others cook for me. So I enjoy a good restaurant.

We knew what to expect with Next. Paris 1906 was a glorious experience. While we knew we didn't need to go back to experience Paris again (we've already done that...and we don't need to lighten our bank account a second time...even though it was amazing), we knew we were going to go back to Next. We just had to wait for the team to announce the next menu.

And then, they did - Thailand.

The foodie community started rumbling. We all started running back to the Facebook page. When was the last Paris 1906 date?? When was the new menu going to start?? When would we get a chance to buy tickets?? Tickets!! We can't wait!!

First, the menu was released. We gasped at the menu. It all sounded great. But we didn't have tickets in hand yet. Then, Chef Grant Achatz tweeted pictures of their first test meal. Tickets!! Want!! WHEN?? Finally, we read that tickets for the first weekend would be released on Thursday. Yay!!

We lucked into tickets last time. Really, we were too dumb to realize what we had accomplished. It was more of a, "Here's a date, we could try it now if we wanted to" kind of situation. But we got our tickets right before the frenzy of the restaurant kicked into high gear. This time, we had no expectations tickets would be a sure thing. We knew it would be hard as hell to get tickets. But we also knew it was worth a shot.

Thursday morning, we were ready. We didn't know what time tickets would go on sale. We were logged into the Next website. We had the Next page open on Facebook. And we waited. At 345p, we learned tickets would be released at 445p.

Adele and I had a plan. We'd be on the phone walking each other through the process. We'd get to the calendar. I'd click on Sunday. Adele would click on Friday. If someone could get a table, the other would stop. So we waited.

By the time it neared ticket time, we were a mess. I was ready to dry heave. Adele had a headache. We were so stressed out about getting tickets, that I worried if we failed, we couldn't survive the stress to make another attempt on Monday. At 445p, my hands were shaking. It was finally time. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Finally, we both hit a calendar page. Yay!! The website was hit so hard by so many people, that it just kept timing out. Nothing was happening. Refresh. Refresh. Sold Out. What?? Noooooooo!!!!!!!!! It can't be!! After all of this time, it was over after a handful of seconds!!

I'll admit, I was disappointed. I said I wouldn't be, but I was. We were consoling ourselves ("That's ok, we'll try again on Monday") and during this time, I kept hitting refresh. Just to kill a few minutes. That's when the miracle happened...

The calendar. Calendar?? Calendar!! Hit the button. There's a table?? Hit the button. Drink option. Is that what we wanted?? Don't care. Confirm. Buy. Done. Wait. Done?? I have a confirmation number. I HAVE A CONFIRMATION NUMBER!! I literally bought the tickets on instinct and in about 15 seconds. I had to confirm what I actually did when I was done. When spending over $300 for two meals, buying on instinct is not an ideal situation. But screw that...we got tickets!!

Conversation immediately began about what we would wear on Sunday night. In between the talk of dresses, we kept saying, "Oh. My. God." "We actually got tickets!!" It became a completely surreal experience.

Sunday night arrived and it seemed like the fates were with us. No traffic into Chicago. Easy to get to the restaurant. We pulled the MINI up behind a car that we thought would be where the valet lived. But again with the fates, I think we actually just got a parking space. Crazy!!

Entering Next was the same as last time. Our confirmation number was in the system and our table was pulled up on the iPad (love!!). We ended up sitting in the same table as last time. Ahhh...memories.

Street Food

As the first course started, we were brought a plastic cup and a heavenly liquid. Guava (which we both fawned over on Easter Island), Papaya and Mango juice mixed with a Sparkling Rose and Cognac. If this was the only drink we were given this whole time, I would have still been a truly happy girl. While sipping on our fruit punch, the waitstaff took a newspaper from Thailand and spread it out on the table. Nice touch, as we're going to eat street food.

The waiter came with a tray of (mostly) finger foods. He described each bite and probably described them again. I was a little distracted by the smell of the steamed buns filled with green curry.
This was the dish he said should be eaten first, since it was the warmest. And it was a great start. A steamed bun is always wonderful (I say as I will begin to stalk Chad to have her mom show me how to make them). And adding curry to anything is a pretty good thing.

The next bite I went towards was the raw sweet shrimp in the mint leaf. Now I'm not a fan of mint and would have rather had this dish in a Thai basil leaf, but I'm also not the chef, so who am I to say??

The shrimp and the flavors were surprisingly good. The mint flavor was there, but wasn't entirely overpowering. We continued in the shrimp family with the prawn cake. This thin cookie-like bite was made with dried prawns that may have been reconstituted then dried again. The "cookie" was very crispy and had such a powerful shrimp-y and salty flavor. I was surprised how much I liked it. And the punch was really nice after the kick of salt with this bite.

The roasted banana was the next bite I went for and I did pause. It's a well known fact that bananas are one of my "Never Foods." I will never eat bananas. I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them with a mouse. Apparently though, I will eat them with an Achatz. We broke out the little plastic spoons and dug into the small bananas. And you know what...not that bad. It was a creamy flavor and not so much of an essense of banana. I wouldn't necessarily seek out the roasted banana in the future, but it was surprisingly good.

The final bite was a piece of fermented sausage. I saved this bite for the last, cause despite my flirtation with the possibility of going vegetarian (way to take a firm stance, huh??), I do love sausage. The term fermented did throw me a little, but this is all about trying new things.
As I popped the sausage into my mouth, I couldn't place any flavor. It was sausage (pork sausage). It was...rice?? (fermented with rice). It was...oh, I don't know. It was good. And I could have eaten more. Can't I have more?? Nope. Not when soup's on...


Soup

Adele began getting visibly excited for the soup. Ever since the beginning, she said, "They have to have Tum Yum Soup." "As long as they have Tum Yum Soup." "I can't wait for their Tum Yum Soup." And it was Tum Yum Soup time. But before we had the soup, we did go from the street into a restaurant. The newspaper was taken away. The juice was transferred into a long-stemmed champagne flute. A red table runner, white napkins and polished silverware were added to the table. And the soup was brought out.

The presentation of the soup was exactly the same as the Turtle Consume in Paris 1906. This is not a bad thing, because the presentation is glorious. The soup plate is brought out with a sliced tomato on the bottom and four pieces of pork belly stacked on the side. Another waiter comes by with the hot and sour broth and pours the broth into the soup plate. They leave as our mouths start watering and we're twitching to grab for the spoon. It's Tum Yum time.

The broth was lovely. Hot and sour and just smooth. I kept trying to slice up the tomato in a way that didn't have chunks of it hanging stupidly from my spoon. I was...moderately successful. With the first bite of the pork belly, I knew this might be my favorite course. The pork belly was just exquisite. It was so tender and so flavorful that I just wanted to continue eating the dish. I wonder what the restaurant would do if I called to ask for a serving of Tum Yum to go?? I can't imagine it would go over well. It was around the first bite of the pork belly that I had the run in with the chili. The chili was very thin and barely noticable. Unless you're a wuss with spices (me) and you take a bite with more of a chili than you're used to. Oh, there was heat there. It was all mouth based. And I did have to stop for a minute or two. I tried to cool down with the punch and the next drink on the menu. It kind of helped. But there were three more pieces of pork belly. Those babies were not going to waste.

I'll stop for a minute to explain the next drink. It was a gin-based drink with chrysanthemum, lemongrass and lychee. It wasn't bad, but I am not a huge gin fan. I did notice the lemongrass and that was nice. I could have stuck to the punch.

Our soup course ended way too soon. We tried desperately not to bring the soup plate up to our lips and slurp, but we wanted to get as much broth as humanly possibly down our gullet. And we pretty much succeeded on both accounts. Yay, us!!

Relish

The waiter brought three small bowls full of relishes and a small container of jasmine rice. Oh, jasmine rice is so fragrant. Even before he took the lid off of the container, we could smell the jasmine joy that awaited us. As the waiter explained, in a Thai household, there would often be rice with various relishes to mix and match. We were given a salted duck egg relish, with green mango and white radish, a chili, shallot and garlic relish and a pickled fruit relish (I know watermelon was in the pickled fruit relish, but I don't know what else was there). And we went to town.

I started with the egg. I'll always start with the egg. It's my favorite in everything. Egg, then rice. Egg, then rice. There was no spice. It was just almost an egg salad. Excellent!!

The next relish I tried was the chili one. The waiter explained that this one is more difficult to find out in the restaurants, because it is a "stinky" one. I thought he said there was shrimp in here too, but even though I asked about this one twice, I couldn't actually hear the waiter due to my internal "What About Bob" monologue ("MMMmmmmm...MMMMMMmmmmm...MMMMMMMM...MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!"). Adele mentioned the heat on this dish, but I really didn't notice the heat. It was just a great flavor with the rice. I can't remember what this is called, but I need to find out. I need to find this in the world. Cause this was good.

The final relish was the pickled fruit. And this was a nice way to end the relish section. the pickled fruit cut through the other flavors and became more of a palate cleanser. This was a good thing, as our next course was already being brought out. Wait!! We still have relish on the table!!

Fish

It turns out, the relish and a continuing supply of rice would be a staple for the next two courses. I was pretty happy with that as I could have just continued to eat the rice and relish. But the waiter brought out a stand with a heated piece of coal (or wood...something combustable). Then he had a fish-shaped serving dish that was placed on top of the stand. Inside were two pieces of catfish with a caramel sauce, celery and coriander root. And this was the point where I began to sweat a little.

If you remember, the fish course was where I met my doom at Astrid y Gaston's 12 Course Tasting Menu. I can still feel the texture of the fish that I didn't really care for, but thought I needed to eat. I was not full at this point at Next, but I was concerned that even if the texture of the catfish was similar to the fish at Astrid's, I was going to have a little bit of PTSD and not be able to handle the rest of the meal. Luckily, the waiter came by with some white wine. Wine helps rest any fears.

We served ourselves, and then the waiter came by and asked if we wanted him to serve us. I thought we weren't supposed to do this ourselves and was a little mortified, but he explained that he wanted to make sure we had enough sauce with the fish. By all means, load us up!! The sauce was lovely. The catfish was tender and flavorful. And almost immediately, the waitstaff whisked away the fish plate and brought a new one. With beef!! Woah!! Head-spinning!!

Beef

The beef cheek was in a curry that had peanuts, nutmeg and kaffir lime. This time, we didn't wait for anyone to serve us and we didn't feel bad about digging in. At this point, we were eating the relish, the fish and the beef. Though I did have half of the catfish left by now and I just couldn't eat any more. I was not stuffed, but starting to feel full. I had tried to remember what I had read about the meal and thought we were near the end of the savory part.

The waiter brought some beer for this course. And I did try some. Yep. I don't like beer. So they refilled the wine. Wine!!

What can I say about beef cheeks?? The fact that the waiters never brought a knife has to say something about the food. The meat has been so tender that it's "like buttah" (and yes, the phrase and accent was used...and not by me). The sauce for the beef cheeks was my favorite of all dishes. It was coconutty and sweet and savory all at once. I loved the flavor of the beef and how it just about melted in your mouth. Just so good. But the same as the catfish, I did only eat half of the beef cheeks. I just worried about what was left. So I hung my head in shame when the waitress asked if I wanted to continue to work on this. No...I loved it, but don't want to go past the point of no return.

Palate Cleanser

A shot glass of clear liquid was placed before us. Normally, I would look at this and think of a few instances where I drank from a shot glass of clear liquid and ended up in bad shape. I started to have flashbacks until the waiter explained that this liquid was an essence of watermelon and lemongrass. No alcohol involved. Whew!! I was a little worried there. The liquid...amazing. You don't need a lot, but it just completely was this wonderful flavor. It was so pure. Just wonderful. (I thought about adding the picture, but really...it's a shot glass of liquid...nothing too earth shattering)

Dessert

I know Asian dining is not necessarily known for their desserts. Which, as a fan of sugar in all forms, is a bit disappointing. So I had no expectations when it was time for the sweet course. And if you haven't noticed yet, I'm kind of making up the names of the courses. They're listed in Thai. And until I see Chad on the train and hope she can translate for me, they're going to be listed as what we ate. So there...

The waiter came by with two coconuts and handed them to each of us. While we held the bottom steady, he took off the top half and we set them next to each other. The bottom side was filled with coconut, corn, egg and licorice tapioca. The coconut, corn and egg were...I don't know...freeze dried?? While the waiter explained what we were eating, another waiter came by to spoon coconut sorbet into the top half of the coconut. They said to eat a spoonful of the freeze dried items, then a spoonful of the sorbet.

There is no way to explain the taste of this coconut dessert. The freeze dried items were sweet, but not overly so. I liked that every bite was a little different. One bite could be the egg with a few tapioca pearls, then the coconut and the corn husks. And since there were a few of the same shades of yellow, I had no idea what I was eating. The sorbet was fresh (though a little melty). And it was great to have the flavors and textures and temperatures all together. This was easily one of my favorite dishes in the entire meal. It was just so unexpected. I adored it and was very sad when I was finished.

I also have to mention that this is the time when we were given the wine dubbed "Liquid Candy" buy our waiter. It was a red Moscato that basically tasted like someone melted a cherry jolly rancher and added alcohol to it. It's not something you'd want to drink often, but dang...it was good stuff...

Fruit

Our waiter came out with a rose. Awww...Chef...you shouldn't have...oh...you didn't?? Well, looks like I have egg on my face. The waiter explained that the human tongue could discern six different flavors, but that the nose could smell 70,000 different scents. So he had us smell the rose, then eat the dragon fruit that was placed in front of us.
I've never had dragon fruit. And this one has a rose glaze on the top to make it a little sweeter. I wasn't sure at first about this. I mean, I smelled the rose, then tasted the food and could taste the rose better than I'm sure I would have had I not deeply inhaled the rose at our table. But it wasn't until about halfway through that the flavors all began to meld. The sweet. The fruit. The rose. It was a very interesting final bite. Nicely done.

Tea

The waitress came by and asked if we were interested in a beverage before we left. She mentioned caffinated and of course I got all defensive, "Well, I don't drink coffee..." Dumb. She explained that they would be serving Thai Iced Tea, but that they could bring a decaf version. Meh...caffinate me up!!

Chad has served me Thai Iced Tea before. I'm pretty sure I need to try hers again, cause this stuff was good. This was where the sugar lived. The tea was made from rooibos, palm sugar and milk. And it was just sweet and cold and refreshing. I also loved the packaging. We could have walked out the door holding our bags of tea. But we didn't. Because Chef was in the house.

We had been looking to see if Chef Achatz was around. I mean, this was opening weekend. If there was ever a time for him to be here, it would be now. Midway through the meal, we looked and saw him working away plating a meal. So we kept looking. Near the end of the meal, we saw him in the doorway of the kitchen. And as we were finishing up, he was in the doorway, basically standing behind Adele. There were some cool moments. The volume of the restaurant went down drastically (people were still talking, but there was a lot of silent "There he is!!"). And no one made a move. No one took a picture (though I wondered if I could). No one got up to shake his hand (though Adele wanted to). No one asked for an autograph. It was just a shared moment of seeing the chef who made this meal so memorable. It was a nice touch.

But soon, it was over. We finished our tea. The water was done. And we had the keys to the MINI again. It was parked where we left it, which obviously means I handed my keys to someone for no particular reason. The Tour of Thailand was complete and we were satisfied. On the drive home, we wondered what would be next. No one knows yet, but we do know one thing...we'll be there, smiling away and waiting for another grand culinary adventure. Thanks, Next!!

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