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Photo blog: Grant Achatz, Alinea and Next, Chicago

In foodie circles, Grant Achatz – whose cutting edge, three-Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea has twice been named the best restaurant in America by Restaurant Magazine – needs no introduction. But outside of that, he’s still the best chef you’ve probably never heard of. While in Chicago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with him, listening intently as he talked me through his career to date. “What do you want?” he teased in gravelly Midwest tones, before talking candidly about his route from cooking standard diner fare in his family’s Michigan restaurants to discovering, via the CIA, French Laundry and a four day stint at El Bulli, that “I could actually express myself through food, make people feel a certain way and evoke emotion. Who knew?”

Anyone who’s ever eaten Achatz’s food, is the answer. While we were talking, he sent me out a couple of dishes. One was his famous ‘hot potato, cold’ potato’ – a cool, intense truffle and potato soup served in a wax shell pierced by a needle threading a piece of hot potato, cube of parmesan,  butter, chive and black truffle. He told me to pull the needle through the shell (“you can’t do that with porcelain”) and the ingredients fell into the soup, which I then swilled like an oyster, resulting in the most delicious mouthful of textures, tastes and temperatures. Then I was given a sort of beignet of pheasant and apple jelly with roasted shallot, all coated in a crisp tempura batter and served at the end of a cluster of smouldering oak leaves. “When I was growing up in Michigan my father used to take me pheasant hunting, right around the time that we’d burn the oak leaves on our street – as is traditional in the Midwest. I wanted to make a dish that evoked my childhood in that way – this to me is fall in Michigan.”

hot potato, cold potato

Achatz lights the oak leaf to evoke “the smell of Michigan in fall”

His new restaurant Next, which opened in April this year in the trendy Fulton Market district, is not a fine dining temple in the Alinea mould. It’s a buzzy, brasserie-style  restaurant with former Alinea chef de cuisine Dave Beran at the fore. But being Achatz, of course there’s a twist – the theme of it changes every three months. It was ‘contemporary Thailand’ on my visit, and as you can see, we were treated to a rainbow of beautifully rendered Thai food… one of the best and most entertaining meals of 2011.

Roasted banana, fried garlic, pickled shallot, cilantro blooms

A grill was brought to our table with skewered tamarind chicken hearts, squid and strawbs

The ‘Next’ Pad Thai with sous vide egg cubes

Hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, kaffir lime

an assortment of Thai pickles

Wild catfish braised in caramel sauce, celery, coriander root

Braised beef cheek, curry of peanut, nutmeg, coconut, lemongrass

Coconut, corn, egg and licorice

See above

Dave Bevan, head chef of Next