Next, Part 2: Next

…With expectations shooting high enough to punch a hole in the ozone layer, we passed through the vestibule connecting The Aviary to Next and entered the restaurant. Our chairs pulled ceremonially from the table, we settled into two of the most coveted seats in American restaurantdom and took in the scene.

A latticed appliqué covered the front windows, focusing all attention within, and a length of Eiffelesque metal undulated along the ceiling. Braced by ribs arcing to the walls, it looked like the spine of some steampunk cetacean. Above that, thick metal disks punctured by glowing circles of glass evoked manhole covers.

Beneath the industrial-age whale spine and sewer-chic light fixtures, luxury reigned, with padded silvery walls, immaculate table linens and gold-rimmed china plates. If you’ve ever fancied a seven-course gourmet meal in subterranean Paris, this is the place for you.

The expense may give you pause, but that’s the least of your worries. Securing reservations at one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country can be tricky. To get in, you must buy tickets through Next’s website, as if you were attending an opera or, more accurately, a blockbuster rock concert.

According to Next’s Facebook page, they received 1,000,000 hits on their website within an eight-day period, and tables are available on the website for an average of one second. It goes on to estimate that about 3,400 people compete for the restaurant’s 16 tables — 16 tables — each day new reservations are released.

If you’re lucky enough to obtain tickets, they already include the meal, tax and gratuity in the price (as well as the wine pairing, if you so choose). No money is exchanged at the restaurant, and the tickets are non-refundable.

I feel somewhat awkward about describing the rest of our experience, because we dined at Next the very last evening they were serving the “Paris, 1906 — Escoffier at the Ritz” menu, composed of recipes from Auguste Escoffier’s monumental Le Guide Culinaire, the bedrock of classic French cuisine. Grant Achatz and his team are currently fine-tuning a new Thai menu, with the first practice dinner reportedly happening tonight (July 5).

I’ll describe the experience of “Paris 1906″ nevertheless, as a record of the event and as an example of the kind of experience you can expect at Next. And goodness knows, if you want that experience, start working on getting tickets as soon as you can.

We started with a flute of Vincent Carré Brut NV (non-vintage) Champagne, with rich flavors of honey and yeast. I looked closely at the bottle and noticed my favorite two letters on a Champagne label: RM. This mark, usually printed in some ridiculously small font, stands for Récoltant-Manipulant. RM bottles are more terroir-focused “grower Champagnes,” made from the fruit of a single vineyard or limited set of vineyards. RM Champagnes account for just 3% of the market as of late 2008, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The most common alternative mark, NM, stands for Négociant Manipulant, indicating that the Champagne manufacturer purchased the grapes rather than growing them. The large Champagne houses often source their fruit from dozens of vineyards around the region to ensure their sparklers are consistent from year to year. RM Champagnes, many argue, offer more personality than the unchanging NM bubblies.

In any case, this Champagne paired beautifully with the gorgeous “Hors d’Oeuvres” course, a trove of jewel-like nibbles arrayed on a silver platter. (You can view photos of Next and all the courses in this slide show on Metromix.) Standouts included a tiny scoop of rich pork rillettes, a cheeky toad-in-the-hole presentation of decadent foie gras in brioche topped with fruit preserves, and an eye-rollingly lush cream of parmesan and black truffles served in an egg shell.

Our next course of Turtle Consommé with Madeira smelled of mulled wine spices, and it had a texture strikingly similar to that of the wine pairing: A very unusual 2005 Domaine de Montbourgeau, an Appellation L’Étoile Controlée from the Jura region (near Lake Geneva in eastern France). This bone dry, oxidized wine  is vinified in the same manner as sherry, except that it remains unfortified. Its relation to sherry showed through in the nose and flavor, but its texture was something totally different. One dining companion said the wine “…is what wild meat is to supermarket meat.”

Food critics have been falling all over themselves for the Sole Daumont (oddly listed on the menu as “Sole à la Meunire” [sic]), and I must admit it’s a spectacular dish. It looks like a big crème brûlée topped with a crayfish head, but the saffron-laced cream sauce and meltingly tender roll of sole tasted gorgeously lush. A perfect little potato croquette and a stuffed mushroom cap completed the dish. Little spoons were thoughtfully provided for those wishing to remove the ground crayfish from its shell in a dainty fashion, but we just sucked those mudbugs.

The 2006 Macon-Milly-Lamartine Clos du Four paired well with the delicate sole, but this more traditional wine was a bit of a let-down after the unforgettable Domaine de Montbourgeau.

The next pairing of a 2007 Domaine Leon Barral (Appellation Faugères Controlée), a Carignane/Syrah/Grenache blend, broke the white-with-chicken rule. This hearty, tight Languedoc red had a nose of olives and flavors of leather and black pepper. It didn’t overwhelm the Suprème de Poussin, a perfect diamond of chicken paired with two thick butter-poached slices of cucumber wrapped in salt pork. Our server described this dish as “The return of chicken to luxury,” and indeed, in presentation and texture, this chicken was undeniably luxurious. But the roast Bresse chicken I was fortunate enough to eat in a casual Lyon brasserie is still tops in my book.

There is no denying the glory of the Caneton Rouennais à la Presse, however. Chef Achatz managed to find an antique duck press, using it to create a marvelously rich sauce (fortified with Cognac) for the perfectly tender duck breast and crisp-skinned thighs. I can’t recall tasting better duck. The accompanying Potatoes Dauphinoise, paper-thin slices of Yukon Gold potatoes baked with Comté cheese and cream and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs, raised this course into the heavenly firmament.

The 2005 Domaine Brusset Gigondas “Les Hauts de Montmirail,” with flavors of cherries and white pepper, matched the duck’s heft admirably.

After a light salad of nasturtium, frisée, asparagus tips and translucently thin radish slices, we received a glass of Ramos Pinto 10-Year Tawny “Quinta de Evramoira” Port and our first dessert, a dome of crusted ice cream accompanied by rum-soaked morello cherries. “You’re the restroom ninja!” my dining companion exclaimed, as our server presented the desserts. “That’s correct,” he replied.

Earlier, when my dining companion excused himself to go to the men’s room, a server intercepted him. (It’s not possible to wander around Next without an escort. A server will never just point you to the restroom; you are shown to the restroom.) “You appeared as if from nowhere,” my dining companion exclaimed.

“Yes, I am like a ninja,” the server replied, with the charmingly bone-dry sense of humor many of Next’s staff seem to share.

Though it wasn’t the standout of the evening, we had no problem demolishing the ice cream hemispheres and moving on to the “Mignardises,” a final tray of little sweet bites. We paticularly enjoyed the salted caramels and beet gumdrops.

“Would you like a tour of the kitchen?” We gladly accepted our server’s offer and entered the immaculate (and oddly quiet) inner sanctum of Next. High priest Achatz was there, surrounded by a coterie of staff, all working with impressive focus. The kitchen’s expeditor showed us our ticket, which noted — to the half-minute — how long we took to finish each course and how long we waited to receive the next one. The precision was startling.

We returned to find our table completely cleared, leading another dining companion to remark that offering kitchen tours was Next’s subtle way of removing diners from their table so that they could seat the next group.

There’s no question that Next seeks to control every minute (or even half-minute) of your experience from the moment you set foot in the restaurant. In inexpert hands, this control could chafe, but the staff of Next knows exactly what they’re doing. Submit. It’s a dinner you’re unlikely to ever forget.

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France - Champagne, France - Jura, France - Languedoc, France - Rhone, Restaurant Reviews ,

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