These frustrating idiosyncrasies can make the task of pinning them down with words a hopeless task. The same goes for critiquing food, which is why I’ve also avoided writing about culinary experiences where possible. Perfect example: Next Restaurant and its sister cocktail lounge, The Aviary. I’m staring at the photos I took of our drinks and dinner there and everything looks delicious and inviting. Why then did I leave the table feeling underwhelmed and dissatisfied with that night?
The evening began at The Aviary, a high-end craft cocktail “experience” run by the same ownership group as Next, as well as The Office (an exclusive nouveau speakeasy that sits underneath The Aviary). The doorman outside checked our names off the reservation list and opened the door for us to enter. We were ushered back to our table, where the lighting was dimmed, the décor postmodern, and the music downtempo, then presented with The Aviary’s cocktail menu. Our waiter spent considerable time going into detail about the alchemy of the drinks listed and how the drinks were grouped and listening to him discuss the approach to each cocktail, while watching these same drinks being delivered, prepared, and showcased at nearby tables, left us salivating. It seemed a magic show of the highest order, and we were most willing participants.
Because we had a long dinner ahead of us next door we kept our drink order to a minimum, making sure that of the four drinks ordered one was their iconic The Hollow. Served in what can only be described as a cross-sectional slice of an old Boy Scout canteen that’s been overgrown by a motley assortment of delicious vegetation, The Hollow is a mix of fennel, ginger, corn whisky, saffron, and honeybush, and like all the drinks here as much a feast on the eyes as it is on the palette. While we were savoring our first round we started chatting with our waiter and upon learning Kim and I were in town to, in part, celebrate our anniversary, he passed us a business card for The Office downstairs, telling us to make a point of contacting them for a drink as it’s an invitation-only affair there.
And that’s about the time the song at The Aviary changed, turning our sweet and savory experience somewhat sour. Armed now with The Hollow, our waiter disappeared for the better part of the next hour, not stopping by once to check in on us. We’re not demanding people (at least, I hope we aren’t) but it seemed odd to have such a brilliant lead-in to all things Aviary, by an ostensibly great waiter, completely evaporate in the interim, and the most important role of waitstaff — customer service — disappearing alongside it. With dinner awaiting us next door we didn’t want to get too deep into Aviary’s drink menu, but given the menu’s steep price-point for each, along with the difficulty in obtaining reservations both here and at Aviary’s sibling Next, it felt odd. Not to mention offputting, as we still had an hour to go before our reservation time.
If you scan reviews of The Aviary on Yelp you’ll notice similar, though not-too-common, threads about their service. We’ve all been there, we’ve all been treated less-than-considerate by waitstaff, but what made our experience at The Aviary feel abnormal was how great everything was for the first half and then how flat it all abruptly fell. With no waitstaff outwardly interested in us, I spent the intervening time texting The Office, as recommended, hoping for a slot over the next few days to get in and enjoy their experience, going out of my way to compliment both our waiter and The Aviary regardless how I actually felt. I never received a reply.
Near the end of our time in isolation, and as our reservation time at Next was getting closer, we were approached by a waitress carrying two oysters, which were presented to us without explanation. “Maybe this is to make up for the absent service?” I thought to myself. “Maybe it’s a general amuse-bouche for patrons.” The waitress smiled and set them on our table and we politely accepted, only to discover when the bill arrived that we’d been charged for them. Fine, but an unwelcome and cheeky upsell, especially given how The Aviary purports itself to be a welcoming, smiling, and upscale experience. (According to other reviewers, we weren’t the only ones to have had this happen.)
Ready for a change of venue and with our table waiting, we shifted next door. Next Restaurant switches up their menu every few months, and while we were in Chicago the theme was Spanish tapas. Under the vision of Executive Chef Dave Beran, and owners Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) and Nick Kokonas, Next’s focus is on a molecular gastronomic exploration of the world. A number of the menus they’ve created have received critical acclaim and so, as with The Aviary, we were very excited when we first sat down.
From the style and presentation of the tapas Beran and his team have obviously been influenced by the Adria brothers; so much so that in 2012 Beran lovingly recreated elBulli’s menu, showcasing twenty-eight courses from Ferran Adria’s famed, and now sadly shuttered, restaurant. (Chef Achatz also worked briefly at elBulli in 2000.) That’s some record collecting culinary dedication! So it was a delight to see that the second tapas dish we were presented with would have done Ferran proud. Shaved octopus resting on, what I believe was, eggplant foam, alongside a tin of mussels that was prepared and then sealed before being presented. It’s those kind of similar, clever touches that, besides how beautifully the dishes themselves taste, have made the Adria brothers legends; and it was something here that Beran should be immensely proud of.
However, that was the only real “wow” moment of our dinner. Every dish that came out, with one exception, tasted great: from the flaming pork, to the plate of Iberian ham, to the cheesecake dessert. But only a few, like the brandada crujiente (crispy brandade), really excelled. Some plates, like the tortilla or the arándanos y chocolate con avellanas (blueberries and chocolate with hazelnuts), while excellent tasting, were simply too much and by dinner’s end left us feeling like Mr. Creosote from Monthy Python’s The Meaning of Life. Others, like the prawns, failed in both taste and presentation. Watching waitstaff walk around with the same fake tree and the same piece of wood to present dishes to different tables made it feel like a performance troupe who had forgotten that the art is in the execution and not simply the re-enactment of: dish, presentation, drink pairing, move to the next table and repeat.
Allowing ourselves to get upsold (overtly this time) to the special drink pairing didn’t seem to compensate, either, and the service seemed to be mostly miss and not so much hit in understanding and allowing us to finish the drinks we had in front of us before bringing the next pairing and the next dish. At one point we had three drinks apiece we needed to account for, not sure which one to let go of and wondering why at such an expensive and highly-rated restaurant the staff seemed unable to notice and follow a few simple rules of service. We weren’t dragging our feet over our previous drinks, nor are we slow eaters, but it was obvious that we weren’t keeping pace with our waitstaff versus them understanding the need to keep pace with us. It’s a subtle but important difference a restaurant of this caliber needs to, and should, execute perfectly every time.
And then… it happened. In the middle of the meal we were presented with spherical olives — a dish straight out of Ferran Adria’s cookbook and subtly presented as if it was a creation of the kitchen at Next. Perhaps the waitress meant to offer a larger explanation of the olives’ appearance on Next’s menu and forgot. Perhaps she didn’t know where they originated from. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, and maybe the look on my face stopped her in her tracks. Regardless, at that point the entire meal fell out of tune for me. Having had this magnificent and wholly unique creation in Spain from another Adria extablishment, Tickets, it felt discourteous to the culinary genius of both Ferran and his brother Albert to have a dish like this openly on offer but presented out of the context; imitation, flattery, and all that aside.
Glancing through other reviews of Next it seems most people are unaware of the origin of these olives, unwittingly giving props to Next. And while the menu, if you can be bothered to read the fine print and can also read Spanish, does list Albert Adria’s name next to the item (aceitunas de Albert Adrià), it just felt… wrong. Beran and his staff are obviously enormously talented, and as with the mejilones enlatadosI and pulpo y berenjena, capable of exquisitely riffing on and making their own music from another’s inspiration without lifting the original both verse and chorus. Maybe if the rest of our experience at The Aviary and Next had gone better I wouldn’t feel so strongly about Ferran and Albert’s work being appropriated. I’m sure the chef had the right intentions in mind; I’m just not convinced it was the right thing to do.
As with music, timing is everything with food. Both The Aviary and Next started off fabulously: an upbeat song that drew us in with their excitement and spirit. But a missed beat here, a flubbed note there, a solo that wandered a few measures too long, the back half of both culinary experiences stumbled and left us disappointed. On another night the same menu might have resulted in a different experience for us. If we’d not had Adria’s spherical olives in Spain from the figurative, if not literal, hands of the man himself, the waitstaff might’ve seen more upbeat expressions on our faces. But on this night, when all was taken together the experience at both places on the whole was decidedly off-key. Given that the evening cost us as much as our extraordinary dining experience at another Adria restaurant in Barcelona, 41 Degrees, I’m not sure we’ll be inclined to give The Aviary or Next Restaurant a repeated listen any time soon.