Next’s menus have hit many notes, from reverent to decadent to gently humorous, but Next: The Hunt is the first one that could be termed in any way subversive. Here is a meal, in one of the hottest restaurants ever to exist, which looks fine dining right in the eye and invites you to confront the primal, primitive carnality at its core. It is a meal devoted to meat, yes— though vegetables are by no means ignored— but one conceived in the context of how humans collect that meat and how they dress it up culturally to tell themselves they are something other than just another mammal, red in tooth and claw. Some hunting, it acknowledges, is honest enough about what it involves— the early courses, inspired by the Michigan experiences of Chef Dave Beran, feature preserved game meats and even a venison heart tartare, which hints, ever so gently, at the hunter-gatherer ritual of eating your prey’s heart and drinking its blood to mark your taking of its life force (as seen in the greatest movie ever made, the original Red Dawn).
But what follows is less Red Dawn than Barry Lyndon— a candelabra and fine china come to the table, only to throw into contrast the essential savagery of our natures. The squab course— which brings back the duck press from Paris 1906— is a barbaric feast, full of blood and bone and organs, forcing us to look the creature we eat in the eyes (well, actually the eye was removed from the head whose brains we are encouraged to suck). Yet this charnel house isn’t a grossout at all— at our table, we all felt exhilarated by the experience of engaging our food so deeply and primally with our fingers and teeth. (Your vegetarian pescatarian decaf no-whip mileage may vary.)
In our case, we were invited into the kitchen to see how the course is assembled by sous chef Rene DeLeon, who was in charge as Beran and Grant Achatz were still in Paris for the Bocuse d’Or. DeLeon, who kept up a steady stream of hilarious back-and-forth with the general manager (he said with Beran and Achatz out of town, he had changed the theme to Next Hacienda, while the GM kept asking him if the sauce he was making was for guacamole), decapitated our squabs with a cleaver, sliced out breast meat with a carving knife, snipped them apart with shears, and then crushed their bones in the press to extract bloody roasted juices, which he added to butter and wine to make an insanely rich, deep brown sauce.
Here’s our slideshow of the courses as they stand right now, a month in (and slightly altered from earlier accounts we’ve seen online). But just looking at it as a series of wow courses like at any Next menu, as some reviews have done, is missing the deeper meanings of a menu which has genuine things to say about our humanity— and, perhaps, our hypocrisy, or at least capacity for putting inconvenient facts out of mind— in the course of feeding us a luxurious meal.