(Typically, I visit a restaurant at least twice before awarding stars, but inasmuch as Next features a fixed, themed menu that lasts only 13 weeks before morphing into an entirely new concept, time constraints keep me to one visit per menu.)
Instead, the 11-course menu is a progression of memory triggers with a decidedly whimsical bent. There are sight gags, such as drawn-on stick-figure children "fishing" for a piece of walleye trapped in a woven potato net over sliced cucumber waves alongside a deconstructed tartar-sauce beach. There is wordplay, as in the chicken noodle soup made with chicken mousse noodles (thus "chicken noodle" soup).
There's even a mom-inspired eat-your-vegetables side dish in which Brussels sprout cups have been filled with extras that might render them palatable, such as a buttery bearnaise "pudding," bacon rillettes and black-truffle puree.
Achatz and Beran, however, kept the obvious out of the mix. There are no Rice Krispie Treats, no homages to the Twinkie, no place mats to be colored, no root beer floats and, perhaps shocking to some, not a single s'more.
As the meal begins, you're confronted by three cocktail glasses, containing an olive, cherry and bit of celery, respectively, along with a corresponding tablespoon's worth of martini, Manhattan and bloody mary. I actually waited for the glasses to be filled before a waiter informed me that presentation was complete, and then I caught on — the presentation mimicked the sip-of-dad's-cocktail experience. Ideally, one would accompany each sip with a furtive, over-the-shoulder glance.
The sips are followed by a gift-wrapped box, allowing patrons to relive the joy of opening a present. Inside is a tempura-fried sphere containing liquid peanut butter and jelly (the latter actually pomegranate pate de fruit), atop a scattering of fried ground peanuts and pate de fruit bits. The flavors are the same in each instance, but the textures are radically different, and as a bonus, the scents from the box — peanut, salt, sugar, cardboard — brought me back to the Cracker Jack boxes of my youth.
There's a virtual forest of salad ingredients, suspended over a torched piece of birch that carries with it the aroma of campfire. A deconstructed hamburger, whose flavors are spot-on fast food. Mac and cheese, surrounded by a "merry go round" of complementary ingredients, including ham (Mangalitsa ham rolled around arugula), manchego custard, a "rock" that bursts with concentrated hot-dog flavor, and three tiny pasta tubes soaked in annatto-seed oil (for that yellow-orange color we know so well).
One course arrives in a lunchbox — Next acquired 40 vintage lunchboxes for this purpose (mine was "Knight Rider") — and includes beef jerky (Wagyu, naturally), an Oreo-inspired cookie (made with cocoa powder and dehydrated truffle puree) and pudding (Valrhona chocolate, roasted banana and hazelnut praline), among other goodies. And among the sweet finales are a couple of cider-apple doughnut holes alongside foie-gras "frosting," the latter presented on electric-mixer beaters.
What keeps Childhood from veering into Carrot Top territory is that, independent of their memory-nudging purpose, the dishes work. The noodles made from chicken would be mere wordplay if the chicken soup weren't terrific — but it is. The salad, apart from the walk-in-the-woods context, is delicious. And I'd order the mac and cheese again in an instant.
Service, so informative and correct on my previous Next visits, is positively giddy this time around, waiting for you to "get" the idea behind each dish (and ready to explain the gag if you do not).
I wasn't around when Achatz and Beran put this menu together, but I imagine there was a lot of giggling involved.
Boys will be boys, after all.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
953 W. Fulton Market, nextrestaurant.com
Tribune rating:Four stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday