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Nov 5, 2012 11:20 AM

Next -- August 2012 report

Next has of course moved on to a new theme, a new game to play. So take this simply for what it is: a retrospective report of a disappointing experience in a restaurant that technically no longer exists. I sincerely hope that Kyoto is better. But here is what I thought about Sicily... (And should you wish to see photos, they're here:

All I really need to know I learned from Juan López.

Juan washes dishes, offers relationship advice, and bolsters morale in the restaurant where I work. He is far better at his job than I am at mine. And he displays an uncanny ability to sort the entire human race into just two categories — flaco and gordo.

Skinny and fat. Good and bad. Yes and no. Juan López sees the world in binary, and I sometimes wish I did, too.

Searching for greener grass, I’ve glued these fifty states together as a flyover country — more likely to explore Paris than Portland; Bangkok than Boise; Jutland than Cleveland. For this, there is no good excuse. Despite this, I recently visited Chicago in order to revisit Sicily, by way of a restaurant called Next.

When I got back people asked me what I thought. Propriety had me clutching for qualifiers. Blunt honesty is clearer: it was no bueno.

But what do I know?

I know I learned to speak Italian because I once had a plate of pasta that I thought was pretty tasty. I once moved clear across the country to chase a Sicilian girl I thought was pretty gorgeous. And I know arancine ends with an “i” only in Palermo.

I close my eyes and they sound like sandpaper scratching past my front teeth. I break into one and expect the rice grains to hang together just long enough, like a piece of nigiri sushi. A rice ball is to be eaten standing up, in slight haste, for waiting for it to cool is an exercise too cruel for any man, and allowing it to cool would disrespect said rice ball.

This was our first snack at Next: Sicily, seated at an unremarkable table in an unremarkable room, so very far from the sights and sounds and smells of an island I find wholly remarkable. But while the arancine and the flotilla of other antipasti weren’t enough to assuage my eventual disappointment with the overall meal, they were at least enough to delay it.

“The fennel is fried,” said the runner when he set down the gemelli. I mumbled a half-assed acknowledgement. Still he stood there, waiting. Did he want a nod of approval instead? A handshake? A lollipop? I don’t know.

I do know that a cursory glance at the bowl showed me pasta with bad posture. Just looking, I could see it was overcooked. You’re telling me nobody picked up a twisty little noodle and ate it before they reached for their goddamn tweezers to garnish? I’m sorry but that’s disrespectful.

The bucatini beforehand was also blasted, by the way — and that… well, that takes a special breed of negligence, something I didn’t expect to encounter in this restaurant, the sibling of one with such stature. Both pasta sauces were fine, I should mention. But me? I was not.

“The garnish is completely edible,” said the waiter as he ceremoniously crowned a fillet of swordfish with a handful of incinerated mint. I’m the idiot who took his word for it.

It was as edible as a half-spent cigarette and tasted, I imagine, much the same. Painfully acrid, drawn out like a bad divorce. The fish beneath it had the texture of a stress ball. That’s called well done.

I gave up, attacking only the side dish with any vigor. Chickpeas: some fried, some fresh, all tasty. A few spots here in New York serve something similar as a bar snack for five or six dollars. Dinner at Next costs over a hundred.

Braised pork shoulder was the last savory course. It was tender, redolent of oregano, and so salty that it hurt. We sat and stared at it. We had run out of constructive criticism, run out of hope. The smiling gentleman that swiped the plate away, three-quarters full, commented on what a large portion it was. “Don’t feel bad,” he told us. “Nobody is finishing this tonight.”

Desserts didn’t suck, nor did they shine. Nobody seemed to care anyway. Our relationship with the service staff was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — they weren’t asking if we liked anything, and we weren’t telling them that we hated just about everything. The fault, then, is shared.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read over the printed menu after the suffering was over. Misspellings and grammatical corrigenda aside, my eyes were fixed on just one word: cassata.

Change one letter and it explains, in a single breath of Italian, what I thought of dinner: cazzata.

The quasi-homonym shows itself to anyone with an ability to understand Italian, not merely research it. And cuisine, to my mind, is not information; it is culture. Will any iteration of this perennially-changing theme restaurant ever be more than a superficial academic exercise? I don’t know.

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  1. Harsh, but fair - and a great read as always. I didn't attend Sicily and won't attend Kyoto - the moment the "foodies" made this place a pinnacle of dining as opposed to simply a unique place to eat it lost me - I'd rather spend a few extra bucks and eat at Alinea.

    3 Replies
    1. re: uhockey

      It's funny because I think the concept is (or perhaps initially was) quite cool, especially the time element -- Paris 1906, Hong Kong 2036, Sicily 1949, Sao Paolo 1968, Tokyo Edo period, etc. That makes it more of a whimsical interpretation of what a particular cuisine MIGHT have been at a particular point in time, rather than an irrational attempt to master any particular cuisine AND understand its history. But you'll notice that over time they've scrapped that element, and all we're left with is the latter attempt...

      1. re: tupac17616

        It seems like now it's just an exercise in self-indulgence for the chefs. Exploratory cuisine to be sure, but for the kitchen and not the diner.

        I had an opportunity to go for the Kyoto menu, but decided against it despite my love of Japanese cuisine.

        1. re: cocobinga

          I have not been back to Next since the earlier days. I had found it pretentious, deficient in its food - and wine pairings, for that matter - and not sufficient value-for-money even taking into account its "high-end dining" status. I have posted about its shortcomings in my personal view before on these boards.

    2. What a great report. I appreciate the time you took to write it. I appreciate your way with words and your sense of humor.

      And I agree with you. Our experience at NEXT left us with the question of whether the emperor really did have any clothes on. Attractive space. Great service. Well-trained, knowledgable staff and (mostly) competent albeit not brilliant or memorable food.

      We dined at the first iteration of Next: Escoffier - Paris 1916. The food was mostly reminiscent of any one of a variety of fine French restaurants in Chicago in the 1960s or 1970s. Nothing we hadn't eaten before. And we are voting with our feet;: we haven't been back since. We have no plans to go again.

      1 Reply
      1. re: chicgail

        Thanks for the kind words, chicgail! We had a great time in Chicago, enjoyed several restaurants and bars including Alinea and The Aviary. But I don't see myself ever wanting to revisit Next.

      2. Thanks for taking the time to share your review with us. I have to admit I've been a bit of a Next hater and swore I wouldn't spend any money there. Nevertheless, I somehow found myself sitting at a table for the Sicily menu.

        Unlike your experience, most of our food was perfectly delicious. Italian grammatical mistakes aside, our pasta was not overcooked, nor our pork over-salted.

        That said, however, I found the service tedious and the scripted delivery monologue pretentious and nauseating.

        I agree with uhockey's sentiment - it would be far more attractive and successful if Next were simply a unique place to eat. A little sincerity wouldn't hurt either.

        1. I agree, having been to all of the menus at Next I found Sicily by far to have been the worst menu. The amount of food that was served was too much for two to finish and it was just lacking something, what I cant put into words but it just wasnt there. I will say, however, that Kyoto was a very masterful meal and one that I would highly recommend, in the limited time left.

          The restaurant is fun and it presents a great way to experience various cuisines in a comfortable, and extremely hospitable, setting. The aspect of the endless pours of wine makes the night enjoyable and the price point is reasonable.

          1 Reply
          1. re: hoso

            I too was least impressed by Sicily out of all the Next menus I have consumed (Paris was the only I missed); I still enjoyed Sicily, but it was clearly my least favorite. Childhood remains my personal favorite.