For some people, Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. For me, it’s Next Restaurant. I have partaken of every original menu offered by this Chicago restaurant known for changing its concepts at least a couple of times each year. The Childhood and Vegan menus from Grant Achatz and long-departed opening chef Dave Beran remain my all-time favorites, the former for its creativity and the latter because I, a daily meat-eater, was blown away by how good each vegan dish tasted.
With Tuscany, its third Italian-themed menu (following Sicily in 2012 and Italia in 2019), Next delivers one knock-out comfort food dish after another, beautifully plated and delivered with the restaurant’s trademark fastidious yet friendly, sometimes even playful, service. This menu doesn’t feature much of the molecular gastronomy and fantastical service flourishes Next was known for at the outset. There’s no centerpiece that turns out to be part of one of the later dishes, for instance.
And that’s just fine, because Next is always creative and inventive in new and different ways. The nine courses here, most comprising just a few bites to keep diners from needing medical attention, are each excellent, delivering delightful flavor combinations and twists on the classics in a pleasing medley that left me, as usual, smiling with contentment and needing a few minutes of quiet appreciation before heading back into Fulton Market.
The highlight of Next: Tuscany for me was the Pappardelle al Ragu di Cinghiale with tangy boar as the carnivorous attraction. It was a later course, so I was already getting full, but when my wife said she needed to save room for the last few dishes, I greedily gobbled up the rest of hers.
Other highlights include the Raviolo with mushroom ricotta, truffle and parmigiano reggiano. the light and luminous Cantaloupe bite and the cheese and dessert courses, including a Zuccotto of milk chocolate ganache and amaretto (pictured). I am not a big seafood fan, but I always try every course at Next, and the fish on offer for the Tuscany menu is superb, including a Crudo trio of an exquisite scallop, tuna and medai.
But with Next, I always come back to the service. Whether it’s your first or 15th meal there, the waitstaff, sommelier, chefs and front of house staffers are always engaging and unfailingly attentive to whatever it is that might make your experience better. Reconnecting with this wonderful staff is what I look forward to the most.
For more of a see-and-be-seen high-end Italian dining experience, give the recently opened UMMO a shot. Nestled in the heart of the River North action in the former Rockit space, UMMO is a new contemporary Italian restaurant from SOMOS Hospitality Group hoping to score with creative upscale dining and a sophisticated clubby vibe on the second floor.
I attended a media preview dinner at UMMO just before its August opening, so I can’t provide a review of the normal dining experience or the crowd (but again, it’s in the old Rockit space and undoubtedly will attract River North scenesters). What I can say is that the menu from Chef José Sosa, late of Gibsons Italia, is creative and promising, and his kitchen is cranking out some stellar dishes.
My favorite bites at the preview were the risotto al funghi with wild mushrooms that had me scraping my plate to get every last bit, and the playful Pomodoro e Basilico dessert, which looks like a ripe tomato, but hides within it basil sorbet, raspberry and vanilla compote and yogurt cream.
UMMO’s upstairs lounge should be a great option for either beginning or ending an evening on the prowl in River North. I was told that the space was reconfigured to ensure that the seating, whether at the bar or at tables on the floor, is all at the same mid-range height to better enable conversations to spark as people walk by.
Photo by Frank Sennett