The aim, we are told, is for you to feel as if you’re in someone’s home. To that end, the meal is served family-style on rustic-looking plates. A lot of effort—no surprise—has gone into creating the illusion, or perhaps I should more accurately say, the context: everything from the particular choice of music to the serving ware to the choice of the dishes themselves. One could fault them missing this or that item but doing so misses the point. This is Next’s take on Sicily and it is no more “right” or “authentic” than anyone else’s. (The Lovely Dining Companion made the very sage observation that all of the hullaballoo about “authenticity” when Next did Thai is almost wholly missing this time.) This is “a” take on Sicily, not “the” take. Indeed, at several points during the presentations, the servers were careful to note that there are many different versions of the dish being presented throughout the island. This one you’re about to get takes from some, takes from others, and creates its own version. Since that is what any good cook in Sicily would do—taking from the past, from the present, from what’s fresh and what’s good and serving this today and that tomorrow—the whole meal felt very down home and comfortable…as if, indeed, you were in someone’s home.
To the meal: well, actually, to the “welcome.” There is an envelope awaiting as you are seated.
Nice sentiments, nice note. But who on earth are the people who signed it? We had to ask, finally (having incorrectly guessed that it was Grant, Nick, and Dave). It’s Dave, Bradley (the manager), and John (our server). Use whatever signature flourishes you wish, but you might consider identifying yourselves, guys.
Now, then. On to the meal which, of course, begins with a selection of four antipasti, served simultaneously:Panelle (chick-pea fritters)
: these were served about room temperature. Unfortunately, despite their placing them in a dryer of some sort to remove excess moisture, more than a few of the fritters were soggy. That said, they’re addictive. Sprinkled with a bit of grated parmigiano (?) cheese, who doesn’t like a nice fritter?
was unlike any version I’ve had but nonetheless appealing for that. It started with the eggplant that is ubiquitous in virtually every variation to be found and went from there: prominent was the celery and the agrodolce (sweet/sour) “dressing.” A very “fresh” tasting caponata—which is not a word I would ordinarily associate with that dish and indeed, might find somehow off-putting. In the event, it worked. The sauce was rich and strong and the textures and flavors all came together beautifully.Carciofi alle brace
. Alle brace
means cooked in the embers. And these showed it: the serving platter contained the bottom portion of several blackened artichokes. Prepared quite simply with a good olive oil and not much else (maybe a touch of garlic, a touch of mint), this plate sang. Although instructed to spoon out the hearts and surrounding goo with a spoon, it was easiest and most efficient to grab them in your paws and gnaw away. Rich, very artichoke-y, delicious. There’s a reason we eat with our hands. Our only regret: there wasn’t more “meat” in each artichoke. (Wet washcloths are available for the mess you’ve made of yourself.)Arancine
filled with lamb’s tongue. Eat these first, while they’re hot. The server didn’t suggest it (surprisingly) and I didn’t process what was in front of me quickly enough. So by the time I worked my way down the table, they were warm but not hot. And that may have influenced my take: good but not great. The lamb tongue was wonderful, falling-apart tender—and not at all lamb-y (which may be good or not, depending upon your personal predilections). Hotter would have been good; my fault. A greater depth of flavors would have been welcomed, as well; we both found it a little one-noteish.
Accompany the antipasti was an intriguing aperitivo: prosecco with a touch of Averna amaro (a sweet bitters from Sicily) and some chamomile. I wouldn’t have missed the chamomile, but I enjoyed the drink and it worked better than I anticipated with this assortment of dishes. (For more on the wine, ya gotta read to the end.)
On to the primiBucatini con bottarga
. Had it before, hated it. Not this time. Dried, pressed tuna (or gray mullet—they mentioned both) roe which is usually grated onto the dish. Here, instead of being grated, they shaved several slices of surprisingly unfishy (relatively speaking) orange stuff onto the pasta. I thought the sauce itself fairly delicate and so it benefitted by the amping up it got from the bottarga. A pleasant enough dish but not particularly a hit for either of us.Gemelli con le Sarde
. A lovely interlude with a small fist of pasta atop which was draped—looking for all the world as if on a catafalque—a beautiful sardine. (From Portgual?! What? They don’t fish for sardines near Sicily?) The name of the pasta, we were informed, is the Italian word for twins, a strand of pasta being twisted round itself. Lovely image. The un-fishiest sardine I may ever have had. I don’t know what they do to it—soak it in milk for a day?—but it was mild, just firm enough, tasty without being overpowering. The flavor (or relative lack) worked beautifully with the pasta and its accompaniments, including three kinds of fennel (if I recall correctly), including some fried fennel “chips” and lacy fennel fronds perched gently atop the whole. The server made a point to note that this pasta was made differently from what preceded by the addition of egg white and white wine; the intention was a softer pasta, the better to absorb the sauce and work with the fish. A fascinating point.Pesce Spada con di ceci
Presentation began with a small bowl of mint pesto. Next arrived the serving platters: swordfish on one large plate, ceci (garbanzo beans/chickpeas) and stuff on the other. The swordfish, a trifle overcooked in my opinion (not an opinion my Lovely Dining Companion shared), topped with a wrapped bouquet of wild mint and half a wonderfully roasted head of garlic. A grilled halved Meyer lemon to the side. The wild mint (not for eating; I tried) helped keep the swordfish moist (just barely), the roasted garlic brought sweetness, and the lemon (a happy discovery at a staff meal, to hear our server explain its presence) brought much needed acid. It’s a little surprising that they originally thought (to judge from our server’s explanation) to serve the lemon as a garnish without intending its use. And even a bit more surprising that they would have considered leaving it out. The fish—which I hasten to add was lovely—would have benefitted by a trifle less cooking time.
The accompaniment involved ceci again, this time in the company of romanesco (in the words of the server, a love child of cauliflower and broccoli) plus assorted flowers, herbs, etc. The romanesco sopped up the flavors and my greatest regret was that there wasn’t more of it. Spalla di Maiale Brasato
Though I noted others’ experiences with this course, we got a good-sized hunk o’meat and only some fat. The rich tomato sauce was a delight, cut by a liberal use of capers (their second appearance of the night, having first lent their unique acid to the caponata). A small corner of the pork was overdone and dryish, but there was still plenty of meat to sate our gluttony. Indeed, more than enough meat for the two of us (though I suspect it might have been a bit too small a portion had my companion had a heartier appetite. The Lovely Dining Companion is the love of my life and a superb dining companion, but one doesn’t look at her and think: “hearty eater”!) (We were also a little puzzled by the tiny bowl of sea salt; to our palates, in any event, nothing needed any seasoning whatsoever. And certainly not salt.)
Alongside, a platter loaded with zucchini, roasted cherry tomatoes, shaved asparagus, fried squash blossom, nasturtiums…and more. A wonderful array of veggies done in a variety of styles from raw to fried. Textures, sweet to bitter, peppery to juicy—it was all there!
The first of (ahem) several plates’ worth of pork and fixin’sGranita di Arance Rosse
For those who have been to Alinea, think yuzu snow. That consistency. Little tiny frozen grains of nice bitter orange—one of my personal favorite flavors in the world. A highly appropriate selection given our locale this time and a wonderful palate cleanser. Cassata for show Cassata for eating
The whole cake was brought for show-and-tell and then the server returns with smallish slices. Wonderful as it was, I wouldn’t call it superb and part of me couldn’t help wondering what Natalie would have done with this. Her personality and behavior to the side, she is one extremely talented baker and I’d have probably died and gone to heaven with her cassata. There was a distinct home-iness in the presentation. Not over the top…just exactly what you might imagine you’d get at the home of a talented and proud home baker. (As perhaps a better indication of my thoughts, I made numerous, unsuccessful, efforts to sweet-talk various people into bringing me a second slice.)Cannoli, ravioli fritti, cubbaita di Giugiulena
Tiny cannoli with cherries, amareno I’d guess. The cannoli itself was on the thin side and very brittle. The filling, just on the right side of sweet. Barely. A personal thing; I’d take Natalie’s (as if). Fried ravioli were unexceptional. Sesame seed brittle likewise. (Fascinating riff on the name, by the way, here
. I do appreciate the effort and thought behind the selection but the execution just didn’t wow me. Happier with the cassata.
Service: a bit less polished than we’ve become accustomed to. Although John, our primary server, was terrific and knew his stuff inside out, there were some missteps and presentation flubs. Nothing whatsoever serious and we chalk it up to dining early in this menu. The wine server, in particular, seemed a bundle of nerves through the first several courses. And more than a few times, we had to wave someone over to ask what things were on the plate. We’ve gone from a detailed inventory (El Bulli) to a general notion (Sicily). Something in between would be nice. But don’t just present a course, name some of the components, and depart. (This happened with our sardine course. We liked the story and explanation about the pasta but don’t you think we might be curious about this dead fish atop my pasta? At the very least what kind of fish it is?)
There was much more time between courses—at least at our table. Not a complaint: it let us recover from what had preceded and readjust for what was to come. And after El Bulli, where a course appeared every time you blinked, it was quite a drastic change. A few words on the wine pairings
I had the "regular," not the "reserve," pairings. I was very much looking forward to a night of Sicilian wines. In a word, quite disappointing. I didn’t care at all for the wine served with the bucatini, a 2010 Tasca d'Almerita 'Regaleali.' A blend of Inzolia, Grecanico, and Catarratto. I don’t know enough about the blend or the varietals to comment more except to observe that the wine had no character. Little acid, less body. It neither complemented the pasta, nor highlighted any of the components of the dish. It was a quaffing white in the worst way: absolutely nothing objectionable, meaning—at least to me—absolutely nothing distinctive. You can pick this up for $10 retail and—sincere apologies to all the great examples of highly worthwhile $10 wines that do
exist—it tasted like it.
A possible explanation lies in the fact that this is the winery (our server explained) which is owned by the brother(s?) of the woman who advised Next on the menu: Anna Tasca Lanza (her daughter did the narration on the intro videotape for this iteration). She runs a well-known cooking school in Sicily, has written some excellent cookbooks, and has a deep knowledge about Sicilian food. Whether she had any influence or not—and I want to be very careful here to make clear that I have no idea (though it’s perhaps not coincidental that she blurbs for the wines on her website)—with so many great Sicilian wines available, this bhoice was a mistake. It is the greater pity that it served as the wine to accompany both pasta courses.
When I commented on the absence of varietals, our server seemed to suggest that, at least in the case of the (solitary) red of the evening, the DOCG appellation was the driver. In other words, they were intent on serving something with the DOCG appellation. In the event, at least to my palate, that meant sacrificing quality or variety. The red (a 2010 Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria, served with the roast pork), was a blend of nero d’avola and frappato (think syrah and merlot, or gamay). The somewhat confusing explanation I got said that the DOCG appellation required (!) that no more than 60% of the blend be nero d’avola. Okay. Why not just serve a stellar example of nero d’avola then? The hell with DOCG. Cheaper nero d’avola tends to be more what it seems they were looking for than high-end bottles, which are typically too “big.” In the event, it was a reasonable pairing that was completely perfectly adequate. My complaint? I think they could have found a far better match. I understand not wanting a heavier red for this course (the server mentioned that they even looked at some rosés, a not surprising statement since there are some stellar ones out there) but I simply do not believe that they couldn't find a better match.
Fairness demands kudos, however, for the 2008 Planeta Passito di Noto—a dessert wine made entirely from moscato bianco. The grapes are harvested early and dried for six weeks before crushing. A slight orange blush, a palette of summer flavors, and just enough acid to make a perfect complement to the desserts.
Also: a word about the non-alcoholic pairings. Sadly, the Lovely Dining Companion—who was quite taken with almost all the pairings for Next/El Bulli—was not a fan of more than, perhaps, one this time. Luck of the draw? Maybe. Can’t hit all winners all the time. Still, it was disappointing—particularly since she loved the dinner—that there were hardly any concoctions that she felt similarly about.
So: what did we think? LDC puts it close to the top of all the meals we’ve had at Next. I put it down a ways. We both enjoyed it and there is no question that the food was largely excellent. Just different takes on the evening, I guess, when all is said and done. Maybe LDC was more primed for it; maybe I was more primed for Paris 1906—still probably the best meal I’ve ever had, bar none. Whatever the reason or explanation, we both enjoyed ourselves and we both enjoyed the food. And at the end of the evening, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?