Reinventing the theme restaurant

By Scott Mowbray
September 01, 2011
Matthew Gilson

Trust America's most innovative chef to open a place called Next by taking a culinary gaze back 105 years, with a themed menu called "Paris 1906: Escoffier at the Ritz." Each of the seven courses served when Next opened on April 6 was an interpretation of one of the 5,012 numbered recipes in Auguste Escoffier's bible of French cookery, Le Guide Culinaire. One dish, recipe 3,476, required squeezing roasted duck carcasses through an antique duck press to make a concentrated sauce. Another, recipe 907, called for turtles. What cutting-edge young chef serves turtle soup in 2011? And pairs it perfectly with a sherry-like Jura wine, making sense of a dish that most of us have only read about in old English novels? Grant Achatz, of course.

When Achatz, already a superstar, revealed last year that he would follow his Chicago restaurant, Alinea, with a restaurant that would feature a different, themed menu every three months, Web foodies were all abuzz. It sounded risky, though: Beyond theme lies theme park, and the approach arguably made Next a distant cousin of those "Olde Medieval Inn" sorts of places.

Yet nothing about Next is quite what you'd expect: The room itself is a neutral, modern space, somehow cool and warm at the same time. The service is as meticulous as at your fanciest joint, but without puffery. The food on the Escoffier menu had the precision you only get from hypertrained cooks (a small army buzzes about at one end of the place, in the open kitchen), yet it was quite restrained. Within days of opening, Next seemed to have found its feet and was remarkably relaxed, almost casual: high-style cuisine in comfortable shoes, from the new prince of "modernist" cooking.

Another Achatz innovation is how you get into Next. Ruing that he was paying phone jockeys "$175,000 a year to tell people that they couldn't eat at Alinea," Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas devised an online "ticketing" concept in which diners pay up front to reserve their table. As with airline seats, prices vary by demand: Saturday night at 7 is going to set you back more than Wednesday at 10. You can't cancel, but you can privately sell your ticket. (Needing tickets fast, we found ours on eBay, at a 250% markup). Achatz says the system means he can charge less. Tickets for the Escoffier menu ranged from $85 to $130, tax and service included—far less than you might expect to pay for food from the country's hottest chef.

For Achatz, Next was about moving forward rather than sideways. He could have cloned Alinea and had lucrative offers to do so in Dubai, Las Vegas, and Tokyo. He only says, "I don't want to be monotonous."

Currently, Next features Thai cuisine, with a nod to street food. Future menus could get wacky. Achatz told us that among the "explorations" he is mulling are Kyoto in Spring, Capone-era Chicago, and Mad Men-era New York (presumably fueled by reinvented cocktails from his adjacent bar, Aviary, which boasts a dedicated ice room churning out 20 different kinds of ice).

The ticket system has a strange side effect, by the way: When you're done, you pay no bill, leave no tip, just get up and go, happy and slightly off-kilter from the whole experience.