By: Lauren Zajac On: June 28th, 2012
5:30 is normally a time reserved for early-bird specials and “buy one, get one free” coupons, but this past week, it was the time of my reservation for Next: Sicily. As I was able to snag a pair of tickets through one of the spontaneous releases, it worked out so that my best friend, Nicole, was able to come with me and celebrate her birthday. As we waited outside for the doors to open, I felt nervous. Nicole has been hearing me rave about Next and I was concerned that it might not be her thing. Had I been drinking the Next Kool-Aid for the past year?
As it turns out, any concerns I had were completely unjustified. Sicily was well-received by both of us, and there were many dishes that were subtle hits throughout the night.
Coming off of a menu as intricate and detailed as their El Bulli menu, one has to wonder if Next can continue to keep up the pace of the past year. In turn, Sicily ends up being subtle, unpretentious, and comfortable. Next is doing something right with the simple, straight-forward presentations, and it’s just as easy to imagine eating a similar meal at a family member’s house who goads you to eat more (this is assuming, of course, that said family member can cook outrageously well).
One of my favorite elements of Next has been the careful attention to detail. I’m a sucker for small touches, and Next consistently hits the mark. Although Sicily has only been open for a handful of weeks, the transition to a Sicilian grandmother’s house was already in full swing. As we were escorted to our seats, we were greeted with a small, handwritten note welcoming us to the restaurant and quoting Goethe: “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything.” This was a heavy quote, but it also set the tone of feeling welcomed and took our curiosity even further. The tableware had transitioned from the unique El Bulli pieces to painted, brightly-colored plates and bowls.
As the meal began, an array of small plates came out, reminiscent of the Thai street food menu, another of Next’s previous menus. One of the selections that stood out was panelle, a crispy fritter that was light on the grease (but don’t worry, wet napkins were provided anyway – again, small touches!). Panelle is the kind of snack that would be easy to fill up on while kicking back and watching TV – it was reminiscent of a French fry. Accompanying it was Caponata, which was a mix of summary vegetables and fresh herbs. The stunner was a charred artichoke, known in Sicily as Carciofi alle brace, which had a smooth, cool, slightly bitter center. Finally, the dish that I was perhaps the most surprised by was the Arancine, which contained a lightly fried and breaded outside and an inside filled with a rillette of lamb tongue. The two textures played off of each other nicely, and we both found ourselves pretty wowed by the antipasti course.
Carb lovers will rejoice in the fact that there are two pasta dishes on the menu, though one was more favorable than the other. I was a fan of the Bucatoni, a thick, spaghetti-like pasta complimented by Bottarga, a rich roe. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, and this dish was oddly filling, despite the plating. The second pasta of the evening, Gemelli con le Sarde, a spiral-shaped pasta that was complimented by a perfectly cooked sardine, fried fennel, and breadcrumbs. While this dish was pleasant, Nicole and I both agreed that it was overshadowed by the previous Bucatoni.
From the pasta courses, we moved into a heavier selection of meat and fish. I am lacking a picture of Pesce Spada con di Ceci, a swordfish dish paired with a mint pesto. In general, I don’t eat fish very often, but this was a dish that was incredibly well-received. The swordfish was tender and a bit smoky, with the flavor enhanced mightily by the pesto. This dish was quickly followed by Spalla di Maiale Brasato, which could go down as the most tender, delicious pork that I have ever eaten. Everything about this dish was perfect, from the meat, to a squeeze of lemon, to the sauce that cooked all day.
Following such heavy previous courses, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to continue to eat. Nicole and I joked about powering through it, and we were rewarded with the perfect dish to cleanse our palates and prepare us for the dessert onslaught to follow: Granita di Arance Rosse, a blood orange granita. My first thought was the granite was incredibly sour but also incredibly refreshing, and I downed it like I hadn’t eaten eight courses previously.
By the time dessert rolled around, we were both stuffed but managed to power through the small samplings. The highlight of the dessert round was the Cassata, a traditional, sugary, pretty cake filled with ricotta and adorned with green frosting, candied walnuts, and fruit. So as to get a sense of what the full cake looked like, a server came around to present the cake to each table. Again, Next wins with the small touches.
Following the Cassata, a tray adorned with Cannoli, Ravioli Frutti, and Cubbaita di Giugiulena was presented as well. The Ravioli was my personal favorite, followed by the Cannoli and then the Cubbaita, a sesame cookie that just wasn’t my thing. Even so, each dessert was a sweet small bite to end a fantastic meal.
Sicily is not a light menu by any means, and it’s worth it to come hungry. I would venture to say that Sicily has been one of my favorite menus to date. I heartily enjoyed the fact that this menu was refined and not at all in-your-face – it just let the ingredients shine through the tasteful presentation and flavors. In fact, I’m already counting down to a return visit in July, which promises even more opportunities for the menu to morph.
Tickets are still being released in small batches, so it’s worth watching Facebook and Twitter to find specific release dates. Also, be on the lookout for same night releases announced via the Facebook page (this requires a bit more flexibility, as text messages from the page have been disabled, but it’s not impossible to score tickets). Either way, the continued difficulties are still worth for a chance to experience the newest edition of Next’s menu.