“Vegan” is Not a Theme: Thoughts on Next Restaurant’s Vegan Menu

I flew to Chicago last week to eat Next Restaurant’s vegan menu.

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It was the most expensive meal of my life, which is saying a lot, because in the past decade or so pretty much all of my disposable income has been devoted to furthering my culinary education by eating vegan tasting menus in high-end restaurants. Alinea, Per Se, Charlie Trotter’s, Brushstroke, Craft, dozens and dozens of long meals at Kajitsu—my only hobby is eating fancy food.

The funny thing about being a vegan chef is that even though the food industry at large makes fun of vegans relentlessly, it’s surprisingly easy to go to a high-end restaurant as a vegan.

Just call to make a reservation and ask if they can make you a vegan menu. That’s it. Most times they’ll say yes—the only place I’ve been turned down was Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and they didn’t reject me, actually, I rejected them. I knew that Blue Hill serves only what they grow and kill, and since I live upstate and eat farm-fresh vegetables prepared well (not as well as they are prepared at Blue Hill, surely, but still pretty damn well-prepared) all spring and summer and fall, I wasn’t particularly interested in lightly steamed baby zukes for $100+. I politely emailed them and asked if they grew beans, for tempeh or tofu, or wheat to make seitan, or nuts—or if I got a vegan tasting menu if it would indeed be 100% vegetables. I received a polite response that that would be exactly the case, so I declined to go.

But otherwise I’ve been surprised, and no more so than at Alinea. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Grant Achatz for years, and went to the special vegan tasting menu we’d booked at Alinea a few years ago with butterflies in my stomach, wanting most of all for it to live up to the hype and my ardent ardor. It did, completely. Most of all, it was fun. Serious but playful, gorgeous but not overly prettied up, weird and bizarre and flavorful. We left the restaurant after four or so hours, gasping with pleasure at what we’d just eaten.

Since then I’ve learned more about the techniques used at Alinea, and though I’m no molecular chef I’ve found it’s fun to wow people with anise-scented smoke pouring out of a soup bowl, and that even easy(ish) avant-garde techniques like the now-ubiquituous spheres and caviar are deeply thrilling to the diners (and me!) at the modest little savory dinner series we do once a month in the back room at the shop. Wandering through the Alinea cookbook always gets my gastric and creative juices running.

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When Next, Grant & co’s new restaurant in Chicago which presents themed menus for four months at a time, announced a vegan menu, my tiny little circle of vegan foodies went insane. We prepared ourselves to scramble for the reservation tickets which are released online in bundles, like coveted concert tickets for the most hyped band of the year. We made our airline reservations before the tickets were available and had to just hope we could get tickets on one of the days we were in town.

We signed up for Twitter alerts whenever Next tweeted, and one day—when I’d just come from the woods where I had been mushrooming for two hours and only had two sad morels to show for it—we got the alert that the tickets were on sale. Jacob was traveling and couldn’t get to a computer. I feverishly got online and navigated the reservations system, wishing that, like Jacob, I’d tooled around the site previously in order to practice for this rushed moment. I finally got my party of six people tickets at 9:30 PM (the last seating on sale) on June 13, at the chef’s table in the kitchen. Amazing luck. I didn’t want to spring for the alcohol pairing, $100+ per person with a mandate that everyone at the table get the pairing, but I opted for the juice pairing, at a more modest $60 per person.

And so we assembled. My mom, Jacob, our family friend Harriet and I got to the restaurant half an hour early because my mom and Harriet, native Chicagoans, weren’t sure they’d know how to get to the restaurant, way off on the in the meatpacking district (ha). I was wearing a hot pink suit. (My brother, pictured, didn’t go because he lives off hot dogs and would have hated every second of it. Please note also that my brother is a human giant who must be about 6’5″, something I appear to have just noticed although he has been this height for a decade. This is unrelated.)

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Our friends Ruby and Alex pulled up on their bikes perfectly on time. We were led to the chef’s table, which was both in and not in the kitchen—it had a glass wall through which you could see the goings-on, but it was shielded by the noise of the restaurant and kitchen by walls on three sides.

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The juices began.

The juices were all delicious. But I’m not sure a juice can be exactly earth-shattering. And here I made a fatal mistake: I assumed that once I had drunk the juice, that particular juice would be over. But, without me quite noticing it, the juice was replenished. Over and over. Until the new juice came, and the cycle repeated. And so I filled up on juices. This generosity of juiciness certainly wasn’t a fault, but my overindulgence on juice did contribute to an increasing unpleasant fullness as the meal went on.

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I’m used to these kind of long tasting menus, but in my everyday life I’m a nibbler. I eat tiny meals all day long, but I rarely sit down and eat a large amount of food at a time. I knew I’d be full by the end of the meal, but I was so incredibly unpleasantly full that by the last three courses I was taking tiny bites in order not to throw up. Again, the extravagant profusion of deliciousness cannot exactly be a flaw of the dinner, and as stomachs go mine is a rather small one, but the last quarter of the dinner was pretty much a wash for me because of the extreme fullness.

Let’s move on to the menu itself.

OK, first of all, here is what I think the menu gets wrong: “vegan” is not a culinary category.

Veganism is an ethical system, not a way of eating. People who eat the Adkins diet, or that weird stupid paleo diet, or eat a strict locavore diet, tend to have some commonalities in their eating patterns. Vegans often do not. There are junk food vegans, locavore vegans (me!), low-fat vegans, high-fat vegans (me!), fruititarian vegans, raw vegans—hell, there are even paleo vegans. Vegans are defined, for better or worse, by what we don’t eat.

And thus the problem.

One cannot plan a menu around an absence.

Tasting menus at fine restaurants are about lavishness, deliciousness, beauty, creativity—and a personal vision. They need an anchor. Next’s other menus—”Paris 1906,” “The Hunt,” “Childhood,” “Kyoto,” “El Bulli,” “Thailand”—provided them with the guidelines and restrictions that are necessary for creativity to truly flourish. “Vegan” really doesn’t. I can see how stripping away animal products could seem, to a mainstream chef, to be enough austerity to get the creativity flowing, but the truth is, as any vegan with a sharp knife knows, there’s an entire world of deliciousness to be cooked out there with nary a dead or tortured animal in sight.

The types of vegan restaurants in New York City alone attest to this: Thai (Pukk), Korean (Hangawi), Japanese (Kajitsu), Chinese (Veggie Dim Sum House, etc.), Hippie (Caravan of Dreams, etc.), high-end (Candle 79, etc.), avant garde (Dirt Candy, etc.), sushi (Beyond Sushi), Indian (dozens), bakeries, donut shops, ice cream parlors, diners—OK, so maybe NYC is an exceptional vegan paradise, but you see my point, right?

Without a doubt, no vegan restaurant in the world (with the exception of Kajitsu, my heart-restaurant) has the amount of money, toys, high-quality ingredients, and sheer cheffy talent that bounces off the walls of Next. My experience there was exciting and pleasant and gave me inspiration and ideas to play with for months to come. But it also left me oddly depressed.

One factor was the attitude of the wait staff. Supremely polite, interested, interesting, and knowledgeable, they nonetheless exuded a pride in the vegan menu that sometimes veered into egotistical arrogance. The servers constantly praised the menu, telling us before we could taste the dishes how much we were going to love them, how much effort went into them, how unique and special they were (my editor mom’s one complaint about the menu, apart from her own painful fullness, was the server who referred to a dish as “super unique.”). “We really outdid ourselves,” “We’re going to have a lot of fun tonight.” “You wouldn’t even believe it’s vegan,” “We actually made it all in-house.” Lots of superlatives, lots of excitement. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. It’s just not exactly my style, or what I expected from the House of Grant, who (in my limited experience consisting of eating once at Alinea and obsessively rereading his autobiography and cookbook) always shows, never tells.*

At one point a server mentioned that a battered swiss chard leaf actually included “beer in the batter, instead of the sparkling water we’d usually use, because we like to drink beer.” I’m not sure if he’d ever eaten at one of the thousands of bars, pubs, fast-casual restaurants and high-end establishments in the country that tout their beer-battered this or that, but a visit to one such tavern might be useful in order to understand why maybe bragging that you sprung for the beer batter instead of the water batter in my $300 dinner might not be all that thrilling. Was the beer vegan? Was it made in-house? Now there’s information I’d have liked to have.

The impression one was left with was that the staff was so incredibly proud of the menu being vegan that the actual cohesiveness of the meal was somewhat secondary. It was as if by daring to cook a vegan meal they’d already scored so many points in the food world for cutting edge transgressiveness** that the hard work was done the day they decided to go temporarily vegan.

A signature Alinea move (one I’ve copied more than once, one I love) is the centerpiece that becomes part of the meal, and it was repeated at Next: a large heavy square glass dish filled seemingly with a random assortment of rocks, pond water, and aquatic greens was dramatically spooned onto plates with the explanation that the water was actually a light vinaigrette and the greens were salad greens.

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“No frogs in here though…” said one waiter. “I guess that wouldn’t be vegan!” said another. “No wait, I guess frogs would be OK…as long as they weren’t being eaten.” said the first waiter. Their tone implied…something. Something having to do with the hilariously weird rules—rules like, “Hey, let’s maybe not kill so much!”—vegans bizarrely follow. We played along, good-naturedly. But it put something weird into the air.

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Also, what as up with the tablecloth change? I just honestly do not get what that was about. At Alinea the white tablecloth is often (always?) removed near the end of the meal and a neoprene one unrolled so that the chefs (swoony Grant Achatz, crush o’ my heart) can dramatically go all Pollock on the table itself, painting it with swirls and dots of sauces and nibbles, liberally dropping liquid nitrogen frozen things that explode and shatter with infinite beauty. If Sylvia Plath had eaten at Alinea, she would have written “what I love is / the piston in motion— / my soul dies before it” about their dessert course. How she wrote it without eating dessert at Alinea, I have no idea.

At Next the first few courses were served on rocks, tree stumps, and in tree branches on a beautiful bare wood table. As the menu progressed we saw more china plates, more silverware, and finally the table was cleared to make way for a heavy white tablecloth. To what avail aside from making some sort of point about a progression of dishes from elemental to avant-garde…I can’t quite figure out. It was just a weird break in the flow of the dinner, really.

OK, let’s get to the food already.

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“Starter and burnt avocado” —served on a rock, with a “kale bouquet” (hilariously immediately fulfilling Jacob’s and my joke earlier in the day that the dinner would be just kale, to mess with vegans who are so obsessed with kale), this dish was unctuous and luscious and salty. Real salty. I love salty, so I didn’t mind. But as dish after dish came out with the salt level turned up to the max, I started not to love salty so so much. And started to drink more juices. And we’ve already talked about that.

This dish celebrated umami flavors, and I, for sure, certainly appreciated this. I was thankful it wasn’t a “light” meal, the spalike steamed vegetables like most people think vegans eat. My culinary philosophy is to prove to the world that vegans can create rich, deep flavors as well as flesh-eaters, and this feeling clearly steered this menu as well. Which was gratifying, even when it went too far into shoyu/sea salt/miso land.

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Here’s my one catty I’m-more-vegan-than-you point about the dinner: the next dish had house-made “sprouted tempeh,” and the kidney bean/chickpea tempeh we make at the shop is just plainly better. The tempeh didn’t have much of a mycelium, which is my real sticking point with tempeh. It was a bit of a mush. But maybe they wanted it that way, and maybe we just have different tempeh tastes. That’s fine. I know I should be giving them kudos for making their own tempeh in the first place.

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The “frozen baked potato,” a crispy sweet potato shell filled with sweet potato sorbet, possibly likely made with their fancy-pants anti-griddle (a device, if memory serves, that Grant invented), was one of those dishes that makes you realize that you just mess around in the kitchen for kicks and sometimes people trade you money for what you make, while these guys are COOKING. Cooking dishes you’ll remember the rest of your life, like sweet potato sorbet in a frozen sweet potato crispy shell. Like that.

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No one else seemed to adore the “nori dumpling” as much as I did. My friend Adrienne, who ate at Next a few days before we did, called the dish “fishy,” but I didn’t get such a fishy flavor…I just loved the fresh green color, the nice clean nori flavor, and the springy texture. I loved that goddamn nori dumpling.

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“Leek and banana” How is it possible that I have no memories of this dish, apart from an appealing crispiness and bite-sized nature?

“Earl grey rambutan.” OK so I have to confess that I just have a Thing with Fruit. Like: I fucking adore fruit. And as a chocolatier, I make a lot with fruit, but truthfully I think fruit is so goddamn good that it’s just a little bit of a sacrilege to make fruit into anything, when really what you should be doing in order to bring about total human liberation and possibly even the coveted Revolution Grrrl Style now is just eating fruit. That’s it. Done. Eating fruit is pretty much the closest I get to a religion, and adding fruits to my Fruit Life List is my only other serious passion other than eating in fancy restos. So when I eat dishes made with fruit, I’m kinda touchy. And this earl grey rambutan thingie—well, have you had rambutan? We eat a lot of rambutan in Hawaii that we buy from dudes in pickup trucks on the side of the road. Eating a rambutan is like having an orgasm while eating an ice cream cone on top of a ferris wheel. I’m not being flowery here, that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of what rambutan tastes like. And “earl grey rambutan” was kind of weird and hard to eat because it didn’t slide into your mouth, like actual rambutan does, and you couldn’t really get at it with any utensil, so you sort of had to pick at it with your finger, which I certainly didn’t mind and which explained the nearby moist towel, but the earth didn’t move or anything when you finally got the one-bite morsel into your mouth.

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“Baby artichoke” made me sad.

I once told my BFF Maresa that I had to be alone when eating artichokes because eating artichokes was a deeply personal activity involving about a quart of really fatty vinaigrette and about one thousand napkins, accompanied by curiously and horrifyingly sexual noises. Then once when I found some artichokes on sale and invited her to share with me while we were both working late one night she was awed and honored to be invited into my weird artichoke ritual. But she declined because she knew that I secretly wanted all four artichokes by myself.

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“Baby artichoke” was teenaged artichokes, firstly. Babies can be eaten entirely, but these had to be scraped. Except that they were so charred (“Up the umami! Char ‘em!”) that the scraping didn’t result in much. This was all offset by the luxurious delicious white artichokey sauciness that dwelled within the heart of the artichoke—some sort of mousse whose flavor was so delicious that the fact that you were only given tiny mouthfuls of it and had to suffer through the rest of the charred leaves once you’d wolfishly wolfed down the buttery richness seemed like some sort of grand statement about the vacuity of the universe.

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“Fermented apples and lichen” I loved this one. I was excited to actually eat lichen after reading so many articles about all these Scandinavians lichen-ing it up in their fancy restaurants these days, but the fermented apples seemed to have been fermented about five minutes before and were coated in such a thick layer of saltiness as to make them fairly inedible. New ferments can be like that—in time the lactic acid fermentation eats away at some of that salt, but if you want to dig into your fermented deliciousness before it’s gotten good and rotten you might want to scrape off some of that salty salty salt. This was served with house-made apple cider vinegar, really more of a supercharged apple cider, strained and spooned into sipping cups table side.

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I know I’m coming off like a real shithead here. What do I know about food, me with my vegan chocolate shop in a town of 10,000 people, me about whom no New Yorker articles have been written, who went to a crappy culinary school and who’s been vegan twenty of my thirty-five years and therefore probably has no palate at all? I dunno. I spend every minute of every day reading about food, foraging for food, touching myself inappropriately while thinking about watermelon, and eating and making food. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve just got my own palate, and my own thoughts, and here they are. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.

The next dish was “lily pond,” which I discussed a bit above.

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“Rice yogurt and white asparagus” was house-made rice yogurt and white asparagus cooked three ways.

Not to get ludicrously vegan on you, but I always feel bad for white asparagus. While its green friends are happily photosynthesizing, gorging themselves on the deliciousness of sunshine, white asparagus lives in little tents, or underground, or somewhere where sun can’t get to it. But who cares, I still love its pale soft flavor. And this dish was one of my favorite of the night. It felt like what you’re supposed to feel when you think of the words “a sophisticated menu.” A white meal on a white plate. White yogurt, white crackery thing, white spargel. Some bits of perfectly brunoised compressed pear mixed in with the asparagus, just to mess with you. Single-tone dishes really impress me, who knows why. Maybe because in culinary school I was always taught to garnish each dish with a damn sprig of something green or a little dice of red pepper or something to “set off” the food on the plate, and flaunting this feels fun. This dish was garnished with some purslane, which fit the flavors, but it did mess with my dream of a 100% monotone plating. Ah well. The sweet smooth flavors of good old “rice yogurt and white asparagus” knocked me out. Excellent.

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“Salsifies with oyster and dandelion.” We were given a heavily italicized speech about how this dish would blow our minds because salsify tastes like oysters and one preparation of it was served with oyster lettuce which is lettuce which tastes like oysters, and the other side of the plate showcased the earthy side of salsify by pairing it with dandelion and how we had to eat the oystery side of the plate first. Both halves of the plate tasted nice, but I have never eaten an oyster so I guess I can’t comment on this dish much.

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“Swiss chard and douchi.” I discussed the beer-battered swiss chard above. It was delicious. Underneath was a mixture of fermented black beans and black garlic, which was described as “fermented,” and, because I am a huge giant asshole, I had to smilingly interrupt and, with what I hope was the interested mind of the obsessive foodie and not the jerkishness of a jerk, said that I had been emailing with a friend of mine, Sandor Katz (total name drop, which the server totally responded to—I win!), about black garlic because although it seems fermented it’s actually a microbial process or something I couldn’t quite remember that makes it black, and anyway, the dude who invented it in the modern sense holds a patent on it, and isn’t that weird, and on and on until the server politely explained that this actually was fermented, together with the black bean, and there we were. I wonder if he meant that the black beans were fermented, since “douchi” is the name for those delicious Chinese fermented black beans? I wonder if they made their own fermented black beans. Probably. That’s awesome. I’ve only bought them. I wonder where you even get the culture for that? Hmm.

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Moving on! Before I stop writing this report and go spend an hour Googling to find douchi starter.

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“Kombu atoll:” A beautiful plate, a beautiful plating, this dish reminded me so much of beloved Kajitsu that my heart hurt. I once read in New York Magazine how Grant Achatz went to Kajitsu and adored it, and I could see the influence of my beloved Masato Nishihara (who has since moved on to cook at a non-vegan restaurant in London, breaking my heart for good and leaving with boxes of chocolates I showered on him at the last dinner we ate by his gentle quiet hands) in the dish. It was a beautiful broth with a cloak of yuba (homemade? We were not told. Fun fact: my Pig Out Bar research has told me that if it wasn’t homemade or from Hodo Soy Beanery in San Francisco [from which Jacob FedExes me some whenever he travels to SF for work] it was probably made from GMO soy beans.). I’m just being a snot again. I love kombu, I love yuba, I loved this dish.

This one came with a tamarind, aloe, and pea juice that I adored. More pea juice in my life, please.

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“Cherry blossom and almond” was delightful mostly because it included an exceptionally tasty cherry which, fruit fetishist that I am, was the highlight of the latter part of the menu for me.

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I hated “spaghetti squash Bolognese.” Mostly because it was an idea literally out of one of those dreadful 1970s health food cookbooks that veganism is trying to hard to purge from its system these days. Everyone in the world with access to spaghetti squash has taken spaghetti squash and mixed it with a tomato sauce. Everyone. And then everyone has realized that it’s actually better slathered with brown sugar and olive oil and salt and eaten for breakfast on the half shell. “Spaghetti squash Bolognese” came with a jokey speech about how clever it was, and marked the turning point in my stomach capacity from “oh man, I’ve been drinking a lot of juice,” to “I wonder if $300 means we can put this shebang on hold while we all take several rapid turns around the block in order to free up more stomach space,” so maybe I just resented valuable real estate being rented out to such a lousy roommate as those bites of lukewarm spaghetti squash with decent tomato sauce.

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The “mushroom cart” was this thing that was a play on a cheese cart where they wheeled in a cart with a bunch of mushrooms and showed you how pretty they were, then they came back to you a few courses later in the form of a truffled mushroom farotto that was perfectly mushroomy, perfectly tasty, even delicious, but certainly nothing to dream about for the rest of your life, like I’ll be dreaming of the “transparency of raspberry” I ate at one Alinea, one fine day when Next wasn’t even a gleam in its daddy’s eye.

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The juice accompanying this dish was simultaneously my favorite and least favorite of the night, and that these can both exist side-by-side is sort of a metaphor for the whole dinner, is it not? It was huitlacoche, blueberry, and bell pepper. I adore all kinds of weird rotten food, so I love the huitlacoche, the “corn smut” virus that attacks and deliciously digests/ferments corn. I asked if it was homemade and they said they bought it, and now that it think about it—is it even possible to make huitlacoche outside of a lab or spontaneously in a cornfield? I wonder. Hmm. On top of the huitlacoche layer was a vivacious bell pepper foam, which I goddamn straight up loved. I’m sure it was just bell pepper juice run through an iSi whip, but who cares? Truffles are just mushrooms, and no one argues with the fact that they’re the best thing on the planet. Good is good. This juice was good.

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But then Ruby said it reminded her of pizza, and it suddenly reminded everyone at the table so completely and totally of pizza that we knew we couldn’t drink any more. She was perfectly right, and it sort of perfectly ruined the juice. It would have been a great thimbleful of deliciously pizza-y liquid, but it was an entire cupful, and none of us made it even halfway through. (Let it be known that I harbor no ill will against Rubez, and wouldn’t have finished it anyway. Let it also be known that Ruby was wearing the most adorable blue Betty Draper vintage dress of all time and looked, as usual, amazingly dapper.)

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The next dish was randomly and insistently Thai, a sort of larb with a “quinoa wire,”*** in a meal that had heretofore been devoid of many cultural references. It was tasty, as was the juice served with it, “mango, galangal, kaffir lime.”

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Then “curry roasted cauliflower,” which was literally what you make for dinner on Friday night when you get your CSA. Cauliflower. Roasted. With a nice curry sauce. Roasted cauliflower happens to be one of life’s best pleasures, and had I had this dish at a takeout veg place in the East Village I would have gone to bed happy that night. As it was, it made me slightly uneasy, like I was missing something. Or not getting something.

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This dish came with some garnishes, including a sprouted chickpea with lots of greens attached, in a glass cylinder you had to take from its spot in a hollowed out log, à la To Kill a Mockingbird, then poke out onto the plate with the single chopstick provided. This seemed to me gimmicky, and since I am a person who adores culinary gimmicks I’m surprised I was as jaded about it as I was.

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The cauliflower was served with—oh man, I don’t want to say it. Ugh. Naan. Naan which was stale and thick and not tasty. Ugh, it gave me a stomachache to say it. Sorry!

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And onward, to desserts.

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“Olive oil jam and bitter chocolate” with Sichuan buttons. Sichuan buttons (Szechuan buttons? I dunno, it’s 4 am and I have to work tomorrow and I’m not Googling around to check how p.c. my spelling is at this point) are these weirdo rare flowers which make your mouth nicely numb. They were almost invisible on the silver spoon they were sitting on, and we were instructed to eat them first and wait until we felt the buzz to eat the dish, which was 99% Vahlrona and a powder of e.v.o. jam. Half of our table didn’t get buzzed on the buttons, but I did, and was supremely pleased because I sort of think flowers are fruits-to-be and so maybe I could add them to my Fruit Life List. The dessert itself was interesting and deep and roasty and tasty.

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“Hibiscus and pistachio.” And we are back to serving food on tree stumps. Everything on this stump was delicious, except that the “pistachio butter” that enclosed a delicious cube of some sort of pudding wasn’t buttery, it was waxy, probably just pistachio paste mixed with enough cocoa butter to give the treat its square shape, and while it was tasty, it didn’t have the fatty luxuriousness promised by “pistachio butter.” The rest of the dish was a firework of yum.

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Everyone at the table loved the juice that accompanied this dish, “malt, bitter chocolate, black sesame.” It was cold-brewed cocoa powder mixed with malt and black sesame. Maybe something’s wrong with me. I liked it…I don’t know. Maybe at this point in the meal my palate and stomach were just sort of done. It did get me thinking about cold-brewing more than just the coffee we serve as iced coffee in the shop, though. Cold-press extraction. Lots of possibilities there, for sure.

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I loved the last dessert. I’m going to steal it as soon as I can. It was a little round of moss (inedible) topped with a sweet nest of fried sweet potato, topped with the best marshmallow, vegan or otherwise, anyone on this planet has ever eaten. Lightly charred and perfectly marshmallowy. Perfection.

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The mignardies were “steamed crepes” and everyone at our table and everyone I’ve read about online universally emitted a collective “meh” when taking their tiny bites of them. They reminded me a lot of these gross gummy little wheat-free cupcakes I used to have to make when I was a pastry chef at a horrible rat-infested macrobiotic restaurant by NYU, once upon a time in a land far far away.

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And we tumbled out into the night through the almost empty restaurant at 1:45 am, exhausted, fattened up, not quite exhilarated.

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I’m glad I went. I learned lots and I ate some truly astonishingly delicious bites.

But from now on, when I am in Chicago with money to burn and an appetite to be schooled on how to cook a dinner that will change your life, I’ll head to Alinea.

The next night, back in New York, we went to M.O.B. in Brooklyn because we were seeing friends play at the giant arena around the corner before we headed upstate. I was still full from the dinner—seriously. I never really get salads when eating out because I love to make salads, and a badly made salad kills your soul, especially when you pay a 1000% markup for it. But I got a small side salad and a small artichoke mac and cheese, and wanted to weep with the perfection of both. The mac and cheese had a cashew béchamel, with smoked artichokes and…it just all came together so nicely. Simple. Elemental. The salad had just the right amount of dressing, the greens were farmer’s market fresh and juicy, the whole thing was garnished with two perfect rounds of watermelon radish. The service was friendly and nothing more.

It was exactly what I was in the mood for.

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*Fear that this review of Next will kill my life’s goal chances of someday making out with Sir Grant: extremely high.

**And let’s be clear here: with a foodie culture that bows down to bacon like so many culty Asian vegan restaurants worship the Supreme Master Ching Hai and spend countless hours waxing poetic over nose-to-tail this and happy-meat that and making vicious fun of vegans as cheerless ascetics who eat cardboard for dinner and like it—a vegan menu at such a revered restaurant truly is a transgressive act.

***I’d like to throw something out here: no matter what you call it, and no matter what it’s made from, anything cooked in a deep fryer is automatically delicious, and nothing deep-fried is better or worse than anything else deep-fried. Basically, everything you fry in hot oil is as good, and no better than, a McDonalds french fry. This restaurant in my town fries woody herbs alongside their fries: rosemary and sage and everything. It’s delicious, everyone loves it. Salty, and you get the illusion of freshness from the herbs. Sometimes they don’t even strip the herbs from their woody stalks, and you find yourself eating handfuls of sage twigs. Sure, fine. Take quinoa and make it into a batter, fry it up and call it a “quinoa wire,” OK. Shove it in my mouth. It’s all good. Really.

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13 thoughts on ““Vegan” is Not a Theme: Thoughts on Next Restaurant’s Vegan Menu

  1. Loved reading this; thank you so much for sharing this kind of thing. I’d have to live a full other lifetime or two to have the dining-out experiences you have had. But I often wonder, Is it ok that I think that the fact that this is where culinary greatness has come to stinks? Does that screw with my aspirational identity, and possibly all sorts of other things? Ok, I know home food and out food are supposed to diverge sharply. But I still often wonder when my stomach aches from the overfeeding out and the excessive attempts at “creativity,” What’s wrong with a scoop of avocado and some pickled turnips for dinner? And why is using a log as a plate innovative? Ever tried camping, Chef? Ok, maybe your disappointment, Lagusta, is just catching.

    At Kajitsu, I’ve wanted, always, to eat every single bite. But even there, it’s too much. My stomach hurts. So much awesomeness means that by the end, I can’t remember–or revel in anymore–what so astonished me in, say, course #2. And this makes me so sad. Because I was so astonished and wanted to remember and enjoy that for a long, long time. I’ve always felt I was failing, not the meal. That’s no way to feel. Don’t get me wrong, please: Kajitsu is extraordinary, a truly amazing place on so many levels–food, people(!), skill, care, treatment, and so many things I cannot put words to (and the words I have used don’t come close).

    For tastings menus, though (ok, let’s put Kajitsu aside; I don’t want to bunch it in with anything else, actually), could we have just, maybe, 5-6 small courses? They could all still amaze, no? And then, maybe, just maybe, the price could come down somewhat. Paying so much but then being given so much that it’s no longer enjoyable or good for mind or body to justify the price seems, in the end, like a mean trick. And do I really need directions on how to consume a dish for it to be a great culinary creation? Small directions now and then are cool, fun, something new to enjoy/learn, especially if it’s cultural or about how to eat a new-to-you food (a great example is the finger lime on your, Lagusta, own sorbet dessert at one of your meals–I loved receiving direction on eating that, and the lime was a highlight, a wonderful new experience, fun, tasty, and more). But just something made up to create complication, prove skill and innovativeness? Sigh. All so confusing. Boy, you sure make me think!

  2. As a foodie and a former transitional vegetarian and vegan chef and restaurateur, I greatly appreciate the manner in which you articulated your culinary experience:) What this “review” ensures is that when I visit New York City again, I’ll not only be visiting your shop, but I’ll be seeking your advice on where to eat;) Bravo!

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  4. You’re a hilarious. Seriously, hilarious. And this review is great. I understand 100% the strange pretentious energy you picked up from the waitstaff as I have experienced that frequently at non vegan places dishing up vegan food here in Philly. Like it’s a novelty that a human could possible create something edible without animal products and we should just be an awe because of that.

    Some of those dishes sounded and looked amazing, but some just seemed uninspired. I myself am not a vegan, but I do cook at a really great vegan restaurant and I think that unfortunately maybe this menu just missed the point. I know many people who ate that menu probably weren’t vegans, but I feel that the point of modern vegan cuisine is not to mimic animal proteins, such as oyster, but to celebrate the specialness of vegetables.

    To be honest, this sort of made me sad.

    • Aww, thanks!

      It sort of made me sad too.

      Is the really great vegan restaurant you cook at in Philly Vedge? I was just there for the first time a few weeks ago, and it made me feel so much happier about life than Next did. I keep meaning to write a blog post about it, to balance out this one! Cherry-horseradish ice cream!!

      • It is Vedge, that’s amazing and wonderful that you’ve been there and loved it! The chef there just cares so much about every detail of everything that happens. I mean it isn’t crazy and molecular like Next but I think it’s what vegan food should all be like. Also, that ice cream was really good, but our brown sugar and miso ice cream still is the clear winner in my book.

      • I agree, Vedge is pretty idealthe care really came out in the food. Yay for great vegan food made by vegans (and those who care about vegans)!

        Brown sugar and miso ice cream–yes please!

  5. Hey Lagusta,
    Let me start by saying you are a very entertaining and marvelous writer. I really enjoyed your description of the dinner. My wife and I have tried vegetarian/vegan/raw in many upscale restaurants some but mostly here in Chicago though we have been to some places for travels as well. If you like the molecular thing, you should also try Moto here in Chicago.

    We went to Next last night for the Vegan menu. Our dinners were a bit different that yours so I guess it changed with what was in season. Our experience was also a bit different. While there were dishes (tastes?? not really dishes) we loved there were a few that were meh as well. We went with two other friends.

    While my wife is as beautiful and in as terrific shape as you, she must be a much bigger eater than you. She left hungry. I was ok but the other two were fine. I got the juice pairing and that must have changed a lot as well. The juices were good but I only got the one pour and never a refill even though my glass was empty for courses. Really disappointed there. Definitely was not worth the upgrade.

    I was torn on whether to go or not. It is a once in a lifetime thing since it was vegan and may never be again, but I am sick and tired of how pompous this place is. No phone number to call, if you do get it, it is just a recording. No substitiutions (REALLY? REALLY, I am paying all this money and I can’t have a substitution?). Trying to get tickets is a joke. We purchased a 4 top the day before and had to find two friends to go. They do not let you use internet explorer browser, you have to use an alternative browser. Should I go on?

    The service was good and not stuffy but to me not four star stellar.

    One of the best parts of the dinner was reading YOUR dinner description and comparing it.

    If you ever come to Chicago and are looking to go to dinner, look us up, I think that it would be fun to do and I think that my wife would love it. Especially with someone that knows so much about food as you. I think that our NEXT adventure will be Grace.

    Thanks for the entertaining, thoughtful and fun review!

    • Wow! Thank you for an excellent report! I AM ASTOUNDED THAT YOUR WIFE WAS STILL HUNGRY! I am thinking they must have cut down the quantities a LOT! My party of six good eaters were all so painfully stuffed. Wow wow wow.

      Grace—I’ll look it up! And I’ve been meaning to try Moto. And yes, the next time I’m in Chicago I’ll send a message so we can have some dining adventures together. Lovely.

      • Let us know when you are coming in. My wife is excited to meet you and discuss all your dining adventures! We have eaten in many upscale and many down-scale restaurants as well. She LOVES going out to eat.

        We both think that you have a great blog and are an interesting writer!

        Please do let us know when you will be in town. My wife can give a run down of places that might be interesting and not quite as expensive.

        We have a meetup group that goes to restaurants, typically traditional restaurants that make us a vegan meal and typical at very reasonable prices. Of course, most of them are NOT the gourmet experience but usually very good food. The closest one that was gourmet was Mia Figlia and Italian restaurant. I have included a link for you so you can check it out. We are trying to go back to Mia Figlia so if you are planning to come to Chicago it might be good to come when we have this one planned as one of your nights here.

        Taste of VEGAN Chicagoland

        Chicago, IL
        980 Vegan Foodies

        This is a group that has dinners in restaurants. While there is a number of vegan and raw groups, our focus is a little different. We are looking to have events at restaurants…

        Next Meetup

        See a Movie – Cowspiracy: The Sustainabiliy Secret

        Thursday, Aug 21, 2014, 8:30 PM
        11 Attending

        Check out this Meetup Group →

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