What you think about Chinese: Modern, the latest iteration by the theme-shifting restaurant Next, may well come down to how you feel about The Coconut.
Nominally, it's a crab salad, bolstered by Cantonese-style green curry with sprouts, mushrooms, potatoes and charred lettuce, and sprinkled with shaved coconut ice (which nicely subdues the curry's heat).
But it's served in a coconut shell. And coconut shells, unless transported by migrating swallows, do not exist in China.
It was a polarizing dish among my tablemates. "You would never find this in China," declared one, who added, "and I don't want ice in my salad." I didn't have a problem with the dish, largely because it was really tasty — complex and refreshing at once — and because the occasional, whimsically inauthentic element is something Next executive chef Dave Beran often includes on his menus.
Beran, for his part, defends the dish's scholarship, saying nearly every element in the salad reflects ingredients and techniques traceable to Fujian, Hakka or Teochew cuisines. "Really, the only thing that's not Chinese is the coconut ice," he says, "but it's cool, and it adds a little finesse tableside."
By the time we had reached this culinary fork in the road, we were four courses into what would be an 11-course voyage.
We'd started with the hot and sour soup, which, unbeknownst to us, was on the table before we'd arrived. (This is another Next go-to move: the centerpiece as food element.) What looked like an upright succulent in a tall glass cylinder proved to be a large Chinese okra filled with broth; a waiter uses a French-press-style plunger to mash it all down (it took some effort), extracting a soup that's spicy but with a gentle, residual sweetness and prominent cilantro and tomato flavors. It's delicious.
Soon after came a dim sum-inspired trio with a porky theme: Scallop dumpling with Iberico ham and watercress, pork soup dumpling with cuttlefish and jujube (the Chinese date, not the candy) and cuttlefish congee with pork floss. What puts the Next spin on this course is that the dumplings are dough-free, made instead with scallop and pork mousses, respectively. And the congee, usually a thickened porridge, is a shot-glass of cloudlike rice foam, beneath which lurks shredded pork fortified with egg yolk custard. A half-pinwheel of Iberico ham and watercress sits on the plate as an uncredited bonus.
That's followed by a fish course — black cod or monkfish, depending on the market — arranged in a bowl with white asparagus, celery curls, radish, green chilies and nasturtium. Decanted around the rim is a broth made from roasted bones, white soy and lime juice and finished with aromatics: ginger, lemon grass and chili. This beautiful, delicate dish had some people at my table swooning. "I'll have another one of this," said one companion, joking only a little.
Another course includes pieces of "tingly" squab, so named because of the aggressive use of Szechwan peppercorns, which do tingle, or sometimes numb, the tongue; and skate-wing "chops," butchered to resemble a tiny rack of lamb and seasoned in the manner of Mongolian lamb with cumin and sesame. (The squab and skate would be overpowering as full-sized dishes, but as small bites, followed by a cool salad, they work fine.) Later, there was dual-textured shrimp (raw tail, crisped head), sitting proudly on a beach of duck-yolk sand.
The duck course is presented in a series of four or five stacked bowls (those at the chef table, which costs a bit more, get an extra course). It starts with steamed buns filled with duck rillettes, prune and fermented beans; continues with a mustard-greens and dandelion salad, followed by cabbage with a poached duck egg; and finally there are the beautiful, silken slices of lightly smoked duck breast. It's the most accessible course of the menu — even the casual Chinese-food fan will recognize every dish — and, in its family-style presentation, the most traditional one.
Beran manages some nifty plays on a couple of Chinese-American standards. A board of lightly glazed dried-beef slices and fried broccoli florets is a play on beef and broccoli, as is the accompanying mug of beef broth (basically a meat-rich, unfiltered consomme) topped with a layer of chive and broccoli oil. Pieces of fried sweetbreads, plantain and taro tossed in caramel set the stage for a do-it-yourself sweet-and-sour dish; diners dip the caramel-coated pieces into a shell.
Beverage options include regular and premium wine pairings, but Bobby Murphy's nonalcoholic pairings are particularly noteworthy, especially a knockout version of Suan Mei Tang (a salty and smoky plum drink) that pairs with the layered-duck course. There's also a riff on the Singapore Sling that balances the heat of the tingly squab and skate bites, and a goji berry, walnut and black vinegar drink with enough acidity to stand up to the sugary sweetbreads course.
It will be interesting to see what the Next faithful makes of this menu. Everyone has his or her view of what Chinese food is, and it's safe to say that Chinese: Modern will jibe with none of them. But as homage blended with innovation, the Chinese: Modern manages to delight and surprise, deliciously.
I expected the meal to end with a fortune cookie — some things are too irresistible to pass up — but I was unprepared for what arrived: an enormous circular cookie, folded to form two large cones, each containing keepsake menus, detailing each dish and drink consumed. Fortune indeed.
953 W. Fulton Market
Tribune rating: 4 stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday