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.
A glass box comes to the table, smelling of Thanksgiving flavors. A bowl of deep mahogany liquid is placed before each diner. We enter the forest with the tastes of mushrooms, sipping the umami-rich consommé while picking matsutake mushrooms out of the box of forest scents.
“Catch of the Great Lakes,” the course is called— smoked trout and a walleye rillette (served with pumpernickel), accompanied by pickled bits of a winter root vegetable, kohlrabi.
Dining on logs seems to be one of Next’s recurring themes (and elsewhere that foraging is on the menu). This course, “Charcu-Tree,” is meant to evoke the cured meats you’d take with you while hunting— though from elk jerky and boar salami it segues to the more immediately sanguinary results of the hunt, venison heart tartare and blood sausage.
It’s not quite an entirely meat-driven menu. This dish, of aged (and shriveled) carrots and onions, looked like it came from a witch in the woods, but burst with flavor and concentrated sweetness. Of course, a deeply-flavored veal sauce didn’t hurt it, either.
If only this duck dish had had a rabbit component, it could have been dedicated to the greatest of all hunting role models, Elmer Fudd. Instead it paired duck scrambled eggs wrapped in radicchio with a little cider-flavored salad featuring something crispy and puffed up… a duck tongue.
We made a sharp turn into luxury with this dish, a gorgeously sous-vided slice of sturgeon on sunchoke slices, surrounded by a beurre blanc with caviar. We were told that the usual caviar was too small and tended to break when stirred into the sauce, so Next sourced a larger egg size that would hold up to the preparation. Because regular caviar just didn’t cut it for this meal. Here is fine dining doing its best to obscure the idea that we are eating creatures harvested for our pleasure.
Woodcock, we are told, are small, not especially attractive birds. So apparently they look a lot better turned into a sausage in which breast meat forms a ring around an offal farci, a frisee salad, and a couple of disturbingly red splotches of huckleberry sauce; there’s also a little dark chocolate sprinkled about.
At this point we were invited back into the kitchen by Chef Rene DeLeon, who wanted to show us the squab preparation. He picked up the roasted squab…
…removed the heads with a cleaver, and quickly sliced the ruby-red breasts out, then used large shears to cut the carcass into smaller pieces.
The carcass went into the press (last seen making the duck course for the Paris 1906 menu) and was pressed to extract as much blood and roasting juices as was possible. The juices were reduced with wine to form the sauce for the squab.
But if you thought you were now relieved of having to think of your squab as an animal as well as meat, you not only have a leg to gnaw the meat off of, but half a squab head— from which you are encouraged to suck the gooey brains. Zombie jokes were inevitable, but we did it. In addition to each diner’s own plate, the table gets a bowl of roasted carcass sections, which you are encouraged to gnaw as much as you can off of. (There’s also a bowl of oatmeal, made with foie, truffle and the sauce— “I’ve been doing breakfast all wrong,” one of our tablemates announces.) This course, more than any, forced us to confront the basic carnality of carnivorism, and the ravenous devouring that followed made ironic the fine dining trappings (the elegant china and candelabras) that went with it. The only thing missing was eating it with a napkin over our heads, like Mitterand devouring his last ortolan.
Dubbed “vegetable charcuterie,” this was really more of a salad consisting of fall and winter vegetables like kale and salsify, served with a mustard spiked with kidney. It’s plated on a section of bark… which we were fascinated to learn goes in the dishwasher every night after service, and should last through the entire running period of this menu, at least.
A concept from the Kyoto menu returns next as a scaldingly-hot rock set in a box with herbs is placed in front of us, and we’re given tweezers— the kind Grant Achatz uses!— and slices of bison to cook on the rock. It’s a pretty (and fun) course, though later we thought— if it’s bison we’re eating, shouldn’t this in some way reflect the original bison hunters on this continent, native Americans?
A final savory course comes in iron Dutch ovens to evoke campfire cooking. There’s a profoundly rich hunter’s stew (venison broth as the base, but more tender wagyu brisket for the actual meat among the carrots and potatoes), but just as enchanting are the Dutch-oven-baked rolls served with herb butter. We’d wished for something to mop up more than one of the sauces along the way, at last we had it.
A savory-sweet segue to the dessert course: a sabayon served in a hollowed bone.
For a meal so rooted in meat and game, it’s surprising how seriously grains were taken along the way. This dessert course consisted of pearl barley with an assortment of sweet toppings to stir into it.
The final touch— Chef DeLeon himself brought us a long tray of crushed ice, into which bourbon-flavored maple candy was poured to cool and be twirled around a stick.
The expediter’s station, representing the many forms of meat and game we had eaten this night.