Warning: This may be one of the few reviews of NEXT to not focus primarily on the food, nor discuss much about the coming menus (we asked, it’s still “childhood”). This review is about the beer. Once, I wrote a story about Ann Arbor food and went out of my way to not mention Zingerman’s Deli. The world continues to turn, but I just wanted anyone wandering in from a blind search to be fully prepared.
I lucked into a seat at NEXT on Sunday night, departure time 9:45, strapped in and ready to suck down some serious Thai food as prepared by some of the finest kitchen talent Chicago has to offer. Short food review: Soup was phenomenal, street food bites were amazing, everything else was fantastic. Moving on. As above, since this is a beer site and we are beer writers, I was honestly very excited to see how a custom-crafted beer from one of Chicago’s best breweries would pair with food from a restaurant run by the best chef in America.*
Before we even arrived, I was communicating with our friends who invited us that, um, we can get the beverage pairings with the Half Acre beer, right? And when we sat down and Waiter #1 (in a series of what must have been over half a dozen) asked us what kind of drinks we wanted, I stared down the table and announced that whatever pairing had the beer, that’s the one I wanted, please and thank you.
You could say I was excited.
Our table was seated next to a two-top who sat down after us, but were cruising through the courses a little quicker. Part of me was annoyed – I was totally enjoying the whole mystery of what was next, of not knowing what we’d be served and what it’d be paired with, and having a couple people who ended up being a course ahead of us kinda spoiled that for me. But, as I looked around and saw numerous tables with bombers of beer on them, at least I knew they were still in house (as well as for sale at Aviary next door, as I understand). I was ready.
The beer was served with the final savory course, a panang curry with beef cheek. The dish was rich and creamy, spicy and complex, tender and delicate with spoon-soft beef that was very much like brisket. It was a fantastic dish of food served over jasmine rice, with relishes and sauces and flavors to be added on to taste, and it was my second favorite course of the whole evening.
Certain foodies may choose to strike me dead for blasphemy, but I’ve gotta say this: the beer was wrongly paired.
First, about the beer: Brewed with hibiscus, mangosteens and pomegranate specifically for NEXT, the Horizon ale had a sweet and floral nose up front, and a surprisingly creamy body for a Half Acre brew. With a long tail of pleasantly bitter yet fruity hops, there was clarity and sharpness and a certain profile that reminded me very much of their version of the Freedom of ’78, brewed with guava. Even the color is similar. (I made that reference out loud, and after looking up and seeing everyone staring at me in a “WTF is he talking about” kind of moment, I followed it up with a “WELL IT DOES TO ME OKAY.”)
The problem was with the timing. The curry dish was gargantuan with flavor, heavy and dense with spice and heat and umami and richness and texture and a mouthful of other things that go along with the best of curries. Could the Horizon Ale cut through those flavors and stand on its own?
No. No it couldn’t. As such, it was lost – and I was a little lost, too.
At this point, I feel compelled to bring in a little personal backstory: My brother-in-law spent some time in Thailand. He did a considerable amount of eating and drinking. I relate my experience through his stories and his experiences, as well as a bizarre New Years Eve where we were treated to some fine hospitality at a restaurant with a Thai manager because he was wearing his Chang Lager t-shirt. You know what they drink in Thailand? Lagers. Beers like Chang and Singha. Light-bodied beers because it is a zillion degrees and 112% humidity and things like ales are a little heavy. And I don’t say this just to shit on the beer, or the choice to brew this beer, or anything like that just to get pageviews or start wars on Twitter. All those things were marvelous, and I’d happily drink this beer again.** But up against the curry, it simply couldn’t compete. And I was bummed.
I sat around and waited for the beer to warm up as it was served too cold. I tried to enjoy it in conjunction with the curry and couldn’t make it work. I tried to clear my palate with water and that curry just kept on pounding through. I tried, really I did. I exhibited as much patience as I could after a few cocktail courses, a wine course and an afternoon of beers consumed over football. Maybe I did it wrong. I don’t know. But it just didn’t work like I knew it could.
Keep in mind that I wouldn’t bring up the whole Thailand experience if it weren’t for the fact that NEXT brought it up themselves. When you sit down at your table, they set it with Thai newspapers as a “tablecloth” and serve you street food to be eaten by hand. The “menu” they place in front of you directly references the humid August weather that resembles the Thai climate. They went out of their way to get you in the mindset of pretending you’re actually in Thailand. Which is why I feel fine in saying that NEXT dropped the ball with the beer course here. There’s room for interpretation in any artistic endeavor, but if you set an audience up with certain expectations and then choose to ignore them later, there’ll be confusion. The plastic silverware and paper napkins that create the street “ambiance” of the first course is Chekov’s Gun. There’s no bullet fired in the third act.***
Collectively speaking for my dinner companions, we all loved our dinner at NEXT. Again, the beer itself was lovely. It is interesting, though, that a restaurant whose primary fascination seems to be with time would make an error with this particular timing-based decision. So as to not end this 1300-word-plus hunk of blithering on a negative note, I should add that the cocktails paired with this series of courses were on the whole, spectacular, specifically the one below.
Made with gin, chrysanthemum and other various magical liquids, it was perfectly balanced, expertly flavored and had the most amazing aroma of fresh-cut grass with an astonishing clarity to it. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they distilled that flavor from a patch of grass they grew themselves from seed, because they’re just that hardcore.
In case it sounds like I’m being too unnecessarily harsh and in spite of my protests about the beer pairing decision-making process at NEXT, I really do hope they continue with the practice as the potential for creativity and awesomeness is sky high. For example, what about a beer blended to taste like chocolate milk, created to be poured over freeze-dried gourmet Cocoa Puffs for the Childhood menu?
Think about it, NEXT – and call us if you need some input.
*Achatz 4 Lyfe.
** As I think about it now, you know who would have had a ton of fun coming up with a custom sparkling lager with crispness and citrus and bite and clarity? Metropolitan.
***Bet you didn’t expect that shit referenced in a beer review.