A Non-Vegan Survives The Vegan Cycle At Chicago's Next. Obviously.

"Vegan" is the newest iteration of Grant Achatz's restaurant Next in Chicago, which reinvents its prix-fixe menu every season (complete with a promo trailer) and has people clamoring for one of the highly coveted tickets required to gain entry. For full disclosure, I am not a vegan and cannot imagine a day without dairy, fish or meat — though I admittedly do not know how I would have taken to the restaurant's preceding concept of "The Hunt." What I am, though, is an "experiential eater" (yes, that is what it sounds like, and yes, my office mocks me incessantly for using the term).

Though I love comfort food and the neighborhood restaurant just as much as the next, this experience is something different, and definitely a little bit weird. Essentially, it's appreciating food as a form of art. Ever since Next opened two years ago, I've been waiting for an excuse to head to Chicago (and for my friends at Food Republic to help me score a near-impossible reservation), so when my college roommate's 23rd birthday came around, I decided to make the trip.

The restaurant is located in a nondescript part of town with no signage or indication that you have arrived. Inside are around 60 seats, with each table at a different stage of the menu. From a dark and minimalist table setting to a white tablecloth reminiscent of a more typical "fine dining experience," the only constant throughout the night is the state of transformation and flux.

Centerpieces are replaced every few courses and somehow incorporated into the dishes, according to careful direction from the servers. The majority of dishes are described prior to tasting, while others come to the table without explanation other than an order to "eat this now!" For the most part, though, descriptions are essential because of the intricacies of the dishes and the novel techniques that convert the ingredients into something both unfamiliar and impossible to decipher through appearance alone.

From kale chips and guac to curried cauliflower to seaweed cakes, the menu took us across the globe in vegetables. Achatz successfully showcases grains and seasonal vegetables without trying to make them into meat replacements, as vegan menus often do. Of course, there are hits and misses; some dishes that made me wish I had been eating lotus root my whole life and others where I wished the chef had not put a fistful of salt into my beloved quinoa.

Twenty-three courses, seven wine/cocktail pairings and exactly four hours later, we finally made our way out. To our utter amazement, we did not feel like death. Yes, we were full, but we could still enjoy a full night in Chicago as opposed to passing out in a food coma — an all-too-familiar feeling. There is something to be said for actually being able to stand up and walk after one of these seemingly endless meals and not just feeling good during it.

The next day I returned home to New York to a carnivorous dinner with my parents, who asked about my evening at Next. "I can't believe you spent that much on vegan food," my dad remarked, part shocked, part amused. Yes, some people will never understand why anyone would shell out hundreds of dollars for a menu utterly absent of wagyu, lobster and caviar, opulent standbys that make it seem you are "getting your money's worth." My response to them is to think about how much more innovation and artistry it takes to make seaweed exciting than it does to present yet another foie gras torchon.

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