Subtlety—An idea that can be difficult to find, especially in a world of networking, numbers, and suits. So often we search for clarity, impact, and the big picture while small, seemingly inconsequential details float by us. The people who appreciate it should be applauded, but the people who understand it and create it should be given the spotlight.
Enter NEXT, a restaurant project from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Chicago dining legends. Their major project, Alinea, has remained in the top 10 restaurants in the world since 2008, and has no intention of dropping rank any time soon. NEXT is their pet project. It is a restaurant that changes completely—and I mean completely—every three months. Furniture, plates, menu, and style are all up for grabs every quarter. The current incarnation is titled Kyoto, and is a testament to the Japanese culinary tradition of Kaiseki.
Kaiseki, though relatively ancient, is experiencing something of a renaissance today. Kaiseki's ideals include being in the moment, and using whatever ingredients the season brings you. NEXT: Kyoto attempts to capture the spirit of the Midwestern Autumn with traditional Japanese ingredients, and the results can be miraculous.
An infusion of burnt corn husks was like the holier version of the high-fructose corn syrup we've been taught to fear. It was deeply sweet and rich but offset by vegetal aromas and acidity from the charred husks. A reinterpretation of tofu made with chestnuts served with miso and apple was profound, melding the waxy and creamy textures. My favorite taste was dashi, a Japanese stock made with seaweed and dried tuna, enriched with maple. It played a supporting role to a delicately cooked piece of eel, but I would have rather just had the broth!
To marry these flavors and study this tradition requires passion. Not just from the chefs, but from the servers as well. They know every detail about the history of, provenance of, and proper approach to ingesting every bite. Unfortunately, in mastering the pronunciation of the 8 sakes we had that evening, some servers seemed to forget warmth. They derived great pleasure from properly explaining a dish, but less satisfaction from whether or not we enjoyed it. To perform in a role of masterful knowledge on a rotating basis is extremely difficult, and staff and management alike should be commended. But, to me, that can't be an excuse. The team at NEXT should take pride in not only their knowledge, but in their ability to translate their passion to guests; the difference would be profound, even if the changes were subtle.