953 West Fulton Market
An ETW exclusive! We are pleased to present the first full review of the NEXT Sicily menu, complete with photos! (Grub Street Chicago posted the menu earlier today, but we got all the pictures). Chef Achatz’s approach to traditional Sicilian fare, nodding to history and time-honored techniques, was surprising given the experimentation for which he is known; but in that relative conservatism was an impressive array of flavors that hit some very, very impressive high notes over the course of the evening. While some of you may remember our tour of the Thailand menu last year, we found Sicily to be overall more interesting and the decidedly better meal of the two. Update: for a description of the non-alcoholic drink pairings check out our complete review post here.
The meal begins with four antipasti, served family style, all at once:
Antipasta 1: Arancine
L, who is Sicilian, declared these arancine to be better than those we had in Sicily, and M would have to agree. Perfectly fried, the rice inside was wonderfully cooked, and the lamb tongue filling braised to perfection. The highlight of this dish was the accompanying caper-tomato sauce, which hit on perfect notes of saltiness and and a mixture of other flavors that made this antipasta one of our favorite dishes of the evening.
Antipasta 2: Carciofi Alle Brace (Grilled Artichokes)
Our understanding has always been that grilled artichokes are more of a Roman dish, but we will give the chefs a pass on this. Lightly seasoned artichokes were grilled over an open flame, leaving the exterior charred and the interior flesh moist and delicious. We were encouraged to peel off the charred bits and suck off the flesh underneath, and M in particular was happy to find the taste of the char was an excellent accompaniment to the artichoke flesh, almost like a dry-rubbed and barbecued artichoke.
Antipasta 3: Caponata
“The whole garden in a dish” is how our waiter described our third antipasta, a wonderful take on caponata. A variety of vegetables accompanied with the perfect dose of a wonderful sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. The pink Egyptian star flowers, said the server, were delivered only minutes before service began that evening, and so were a last-minute addition to the dish.
Antipasta 4: Panelle
Panelle are a type of Sicilian fritter, but these disappointed us. Well-seasoned with a little shaved cheese, they were far too thin to maintain their structure on their own, not to mention when paired with a caponata. Despite being directed by our server to put a spoonful of the caponata on our panelle, L laughed when hers disintegrated in her hands and onto her plate. Hopefully over the course of the menu service they will solidify the panelle and give them more backbone, because otherwise they are a difficult dish to even stand on their own, much less with the caponata weighing them down.
We soon realized this meal would follow a very traditional Sicilian structure: the antipasti finished, the plates were cleared to make weigh for consecutive pasta courses.
Pasta 1: Bucatini con Bottarga
This small dish was the highlight of the evening: home-made bucatini in a rich, flavorful, complex sauce of fish roe and cheese, topped with thinly-sliced fish and wild mountain basil. We are not usually fans of fish roe, but the way Achatz integrated the cheese and roe into that sauce was nothing short of masterful – we will remember those flavors for ever. Add to that the basil, which had a much stronger and more inviting flavor that the standard variety, this was a dish that pulled a lot of flavor punches, but did so in perfect balance. Incredibly disappointing that this dish was so small, because we could have eaten a few more courses. The dish was not without its problems, however: the buccatini was perhaps 30 seconds from being perfectly cooked; as a result, the pasta stuck to our teeth a little too much. A very small kitchen mistake, but one that prevented this from being the dish of the year.
Pasta 2: Gemelli con le Sarde
The national dish of Sicily – and the servers introduced it as such – Achatz did a great job paying homage to this classic, and L would have critiqued him heavily if he had messed it up. Perfectly-cooked gemelli was mixed with currants, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, a hint of lemon (we think) and fennel sprigs, and topped with a grilled sardine. The sardine – of which we are normally not fans – was grilled perfectly, and had its saltiness reduced just enough to make it blend very well with the rest of the pasta. Overall, this dish was the epitome of refined rustic cooking. The added accompaniments were great complements to the dish, and executed wonderfully.
The sardine was a well-positioned transition to the meal’s third portion: the fish course.
Fish: Pesce Spada con di Ceci (Swordfish . . .)
. . . with accompanying chickpea salad.
Our fish course was grilled swordfish with mint pesto, served topped with a bunch of grilled mint and a charred head of garlic. On its own, the swordfish was a bit of a disappointment given the wonderfully complex flavors that had emerged thus far in the course of the evening. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and nicely grilled, even with the mint pesto we found the flavor a little underwhelming in the context of the rest of the meal. This changed once the fish was eaten with a bit of the accompanying salad: chickpeas, basil, and Romanesco (“fractal”) broccoli in lemon juice. This small salad added exactly what the fish had been missing: a little vibrancy of citrus, contrasted and paired well with the mint pesto.
Meat: Spalla di Maiale Brasato (Braised Pork Shoulder)
. . . with accompanying salad of grilled zucchini and tomatoes.
This dish may have tied the bucatini as the highlight of the meal. With so little meat in Sicily, it is saved and savored for weekends, when pasta sauce is made with chunks of meat, the meat removed and the sauce served over pasta, and then the meat consumed on its own after. This is a rich culinary tradition – it still goes on in our large Italian family homes – and it could not have been better represented on this plate. The pork shoulder we were served – and this is not an exaggeration – dissolved on our tongues: “Yeah, we braised it for a little while before you got here,” our server said with a wry smile. We have never had any pork so amazingly cooked in our lives, and it would take such a large, sophisticated, and pre-set menu to allow a chef the chance to do this outside of a small restaurant that would specialize in such a thing. The accompanying red meat sauce tasted like something one of our grandmothers would have made, and hit well on all the notes of the pork (thus confirming they were in fact made together). Grilled (and very juicy) meyer lemons took the dish to new heights. With all that flavor, the grilled zucchini and tomatoes served with it were something of an afterthought, and probably our lest favorite dish of the evening. They were fine, just unremarkable and completely unnecessary given the wonder of the pork shoulder’s main event.
At this point, we were completely stuffed. Antipasti, pasta, fish, and meat had been served: only dessert remained.
Cleanser: Granita di Arance Rosse (Blood Orange Shaved Ice)
This was a very smart part to include in the meal: something light and cool to cleanse your palette and allow you to digest before taking on dessert. Apparently (said the server) the Arabs developed shaved ice while in Sicily, and they were also the first to cultivate the islands wide array of citrus fruits for which Sicily is justifiably well-known. The granita at Next was unpretentious, nothing more than ice flavored with blood orange juice (and thus quite sour), but a welcome interlude before Sicily’s most famous product: dessert.
Dessert 1: Cassata (whole cake, for display)
Cassata slice, for consumption
L’s family is from the region around Palermo, where Cassata originates. She knows this dish well, and was thrilled to see it on the menu. A spongecake usually covered in almond-flavored marzipan, the chefs did not use the almond flavor on this go-around, instead just letting the marzipan speak for itself. Topped with a marinated strawberry, the cake was garnished with vanilla (with a hint of lemon?) whipped cream, candied orange peel, a candied pecan, and mint sprigs. Light, sweet, and well-garnished, we enjoyed this cassata immensely.
Dessert 2: Dolci (sweets): Cannoli, Ravioli Fritti, and Cubbaita di Giugiulena
Our final dish of the evening was a celebration of traditional Sicilian pastries. The fried ravioli were filled with a a locally-sourced strawberry jam. Giugiulena, one of our favorites, is a heavy sesame-seed pastry that tastes like peanut to the unfamiliar palette (a bit like a thicker, seedier version of halva). These first two pastries were solid albeit unremarkable, which frankly was welcome after the onslaught of flavors we had previously. We saved the cannoli – our favorites – last, but were sorry to say these woefully disappointed us. We found them much too small; the shells far too thin (we had a similar problem to the panelle where they broke into pieces as soon as we bit them) and, sin of sins, the cream inside did not have a hint of sugar. Cannoli are not easy to create, but we are saddened to say these are some of the most disappointing cannoli we have had recently, and absolutely pale in comparison to those we have eaten in Sicily or elsewhere in the U.S.
Not that this really disappointed us. Our meal complete, we walked away awed at this menu’s fusion of technique, flavor, and commitment to tradition. This is difficult to pull off, and we can only think Chef has been refining his thinking in this way after the El Bulli menu – billed as a “celebration” (as opposed to an “imitation”) of El Bulli’s creations. If that were true of the previous menu, Next Sicily follows suit: this evening was an impressive celebration of Sicily’s culinary innovations and explorations. As a foodie you will be glad to come here. But rest assured, your Sicilian grandmother will enjoy the meal as well – and that is saying a lot.