Monday, June 18, 2012

Next: Sicily

Turning on a dime from 30-courses of molecular cuisine to a family-style Sicilian meal is certainly a challenge for a professional kitchen, so kudos to the Next team for pulling it off.  Because that’s what it’s all about, right?  We watch what we’re told are the greatest chefs in the world pull off the impossible!  We see a team of rising culinary stars push themselves to the limit without breaking!  Through playlists and handwritten notes, we experience the seamless transformation of a restaurant’s ambience from grade school cafeteria to Sicilian grandmother’s home!  I enjoyed much of what I ate at Next Sicily, but I just don’t value those other things by which I’m supposed to be impressed.  And without them, a meal at this price - with many service missteps and culinary failures – is not one to be lauded.

As is surely always the case at Next, the team serving our table was friendly and professional, if a bit overly rehearsed.  But polished they were not.  Our initial drinks were dropped off with no explanation by a runner who disappeared in a flash.  It took at least a couple of minutes for someone to come over and explain what we had.  After almost every course, my wine glass was removed while it still had wine in it, with no warning or inquiry about whether I was still drinking.  The staff seemed to be rushing to make sure they kept to a pre-determined pace.  One of our party received her dessert missing an integral component that everyone else had gotten.

While there were a number of food items I didn’t like, only one was a complete disaster.  The Bucatini in our first pasta course were unpalatably gummy, so while the flavors in the dish were fine, it was tough to eat.  Sometimes pasta texture is a matter of taste, but in this case I feel strongly that the kitchen simply produced something bad.  Not disastrous but still surprising for a meal with this price tag were the Panelle - light and crisp at the top of the serving bowl, but soggy and greasy toward the middle.  Garnishes throughout the evening generally disappointed me too, with big clusters of tough, tasteless leaves that seemed a better fit for rabbits.  They weren’t washed well enough either, as when I made the mistake of tasting one to see what it was (couldn’t tell, flavorless), I was left with a mouthful of grit.

To be sure, there was also some downright fantastic cooking.  I’ve never tasted a piece of swordfish cooked more beautifully, and I loved the lightly mashed chickpeas served with it.  The Cassata was a very special dessert – beautiful to look at with flavor and texture to match.  I loved that the kitchen dared to serve lamb tongue to a crowd with diverse culinary adventurousness, and it was delicious inside the light and wonderful arancini.

I paid over $200 for dinner at Next Sicily.  The magic these people have created is that for a fleeting moment, even I thought this was a bargain.  I’ve heard people laud Next as the future of dining.  I’ve heard them say that people who don’t rate it highly enough are simply living in the past, unwilling to see the way food is being redefined by Achatz and his team.  Call me a laggard, but I’m pushing back on a future where $200+ meals with gritty garnishes, gummy pasta, and rushed service are the pinnacle of dining.