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What price, Next?

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You may have heard that Grant Achatz, the accolade-laden chef at Alinea, is opening a restaurant called Next and a bar next door called Aviary on West Fulton in April.

And you may have heard that Next will serve food drawn from different eras and places for three months at a time, essentially metamorphosizing into an entirely new restaurant four times a year. And that Next won't take reservations but rather will sell tickets to diners that will vary in price based on the day and time. And that Aviary will serve boundary-pushing cocktails like none you've ever tippled before. (The bar has entire rooms dedicated to ice-making and glass-washing, people; as of Thursday, there were 19 different shapes of ice created, and counting.)

But what does this mean for your wallet, you may wonder?

Here's what Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas said yesterday:

The ticket price for the debut, eight-course Escoffier menu at Next will range from $65 to $105. (Thai street food will be the second menu, Achatz says; price range not determined but based on how they've explained their concept, I'm guessing lower).

The price of cocktails (25 on the menu) at Aviary will range from $12 to $20, and food prices will be comparable to "a nice sushi place."

And a little more about the food at Aviary, which hasn't been talked or written about much:

Achatz described the menu of 12 savory and 3 sweet items as "really progressive finger food" that will come three on a plate. "Like cantaloupe with champagne and prosciutto," Achatz said -- that is, a cube of "beautifully ripe cantaloupe" saturated and compressed with champagne, then rolled in dehydrated prosciutto powder. And: "Clam chowder" croquettes, Achatz said, his fingers making quotation marks in the air.

As of Thursday, the restaurant had logged 18,400 e-mail addresses from people who want to know when the ticket reservation system for Next opens. That, Achatz figured, represents about 3 3/4 years' worth of diners already.

(If you're already thinking, 'How in the hell will I ever get to eat at Next?!' know that in the basement of Aviary will be a tiny bar called the Office, behind a door marked "Office," with yet its own food and drink menu, and to which "we either invite you, or you book it," Kokonas says. So those chances are even slimmer...).

Aviary will be first come, first served.

The Nooner.jpg

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Doug Frost holds a rare combination of titles. He is one of three people to be both a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. That's worldwide, thank you very much.

He's also a founding partner of Beverage Alcohol Resource (a killer program for high-end bartenders). Frost has forgotten more about wine, spirits and cocktails than most of us can ever hope to learn.

It's not surprising that he thinks in original terms -- and occasionally lets loose with a phrase nobody else would utter. Consider this recent one on the subject of cocktails: clarity of flavor.

"What is that?"

_MG_8396 - credit Rare Tea Cellar.jpg

by guest blogger Seanan Forbes

Tea in cocktails. It may look like a new trend, but according to Peter Vestinos, now in charge of West Coast sales and marketing for Death's Door Spirits, it has quite a history. "Before we started cocktails in the U.S., there were punches in the UK," he says.

Ask Vestinos about history, and you're in for an education - in linguistics, as well as tradition. Supposedly, the word "punch" is derived from the Hindi word "ponch," which means "five," and punch has five elements: sweet, sour, bitter, weak ("something to water it down," Vestinos says) and spirit. There was always, Vestinos notes, a spice - and "that spice was usually tea." Not new, then. "Tea shows up early in our cocktail history," he says. How early? The 17th century. That's a drink with a lineage.

Rodrick Markus, founder and president of Rare Tea Cellar (the website, www.rareteacellar.com, will go live in a couple of weeks), has worked with more than a dozen Chicago bartenders on the making of tea cocktails. "I'm blown away by how each mixologist handles a blend," Markus says. "It's like a chef."

Sepia's Joshua Pearson, Adam Seger of Nacional 27, Death's Door Spirits' Vestinos and John Kinder each takes a completely different approach to tea and cocktails. Markus is never bored. "I absolutely adore it," he says.

Then again, he absolutely adores tea. Markus' background is in psychology and hypnotherapy. He started importing, and found his way into wine and cigars - and a problem. "Your best clients are abusing the product. It felt like the opposite way to how I wanted to be living," he says.

photos courtesy Rare Tea Cellar

By guest blogger Seanan Forbes
(photo courtesy Jeffery Noble)

Are you looking for a summer cooler? Buy cucumbers - for the cocktail glass.

'Tis the season. For proof, look no farther than June - not the month. June, 4450 N. Prospect Rd. in Peoria Heights, is as seasonally driven as a restaurant can be. If it's local and fresh in the farms, then it's probably in June's kitchen - in the kitchen and behind the bar.

Rafael Tenjo is June's general manager, sommelier and mixologist. "I went down to the farmer's market last year, when I created this cocktail - and I saw these amazing cucumbers that were horn-shaped, almost twisted," Tenjo says. He didn't even try to resist them. He used them with Hendrick's gin and tonic.

Back up a step. Horned cucumbers? Lyle Allen, executive director of Green City Market, says there's more to cucumbers than those long, green shrink-wrapped things you see in the supermarkets. He's hooked on the variety from Green Acres Farm (cheat sheet after the jump) and on Iron Creek Farms' pickle cucumbers. ("They're not pickled; they're just small," Tamera Mark, of Iron Creek Farms, says. "They have a stronger taste versus the bigger cucumbers that have more water in them and are a little milder.")

Taste your way around Green Acres Farm's "cucumber island" display and you'll learn that your cucumber, as well as your liquor, can affect your drink. Cucumber Cocktail - Rafael Tenjo - June.jpg

It might not be that important when it's just a garnish, but Tenjo didn't stop at slice-and-salt. He looked at those cucumbers and thought, "I can make a cocktail with that."
The first step: juicing the cucumbers. Tenjo wanted a floral component, so he reached for St. Germaine, an elderflower liqueur. "Then it needed acid," he says, "so I decided to add a scoop of sorbet." Salted cucumber slices were one of Tenjo's favorite childhood snacks. That led to the garnish.

One customer described June's cucumber cocktail as "a spa in a glass." Tenjo pairs it with carrot soup served as a spuma with matcha green tea sorbet and sake-cured steelhead roe. At home, serve your spa with "sashimi, crudo, anything light," Tenjo suggests. "It'd go with a light salad."

Use cucumbers to make traditional cocktails new. Allen says, "I had dinner at Rick Bayless' house about two weeks ago and he made cucumber margaritas - and they were gorgeous."

You've put work into the drink; keep the salad simple. "I just love cucumbers with red onions, dill and rice wine vinegar," says Allen, who has year-round access to the best. "That's all you need; it's so refreshing. The pickle cucumbers stay crisp. With the red onions, it doesn't get much better than this. It tastes like summer."

Recipe and cucumber guide after the jump.

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Junior Merino trains bartenders and mixologists all over the world, but he still has an ability to make bartending accessible to the rest of us.

Merino can take it to extremes. He serves powdered margaritas in capsules. He'll spend weeks making a tincture of Buddha's hand citron. He dehydrates rum. When Merino travels - which he does a lot - he does so with culinary oils, herbs and spices, all of which he's used.

"As long as it's edible," he says, "we have it in a tincture."

He makes bitters from scratch. "Bitters are really just a concentration of herbs, spices, roots," he says. To make them, put your chosen mixture in spirits; high-proof spirit works the best, he says. The higher the proof, the more quickly flavors will be extracted.

For bitters, you use -- of course -- bitter herbs. Merino likes wormwood. "It doesn't really make you hallucinate," he says. Apparently, you'd have to ingest a great deal of the stuff to have that happen -- and nobody drinks bitters in volume.

For his mole bitters, Merino uses four kinds of chile pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg -- more than 40 ingredients are put into high-proof spirits. Pungent spices go into the mix, and the lot is macerated and strained. Then, "we freeze the fat and it leaves the nice flavor," he says. No fat, all flavor. Sounds good, tastes better.

If you're new to tinctures and extractions, then start simply and make herb-infused vodka. According to Merino, you don't need wait-for-weeks patience. Take one bunch of fresh herbs, pick the leaves and discard the stems. Add the herbs to a bottle of vodka. Set it in a cool, dark place for six hours. Strain. Add a touch of citrus -- lemon, lime or orange -- to bring up the aromatics. Sniff. Pour. Sip. It's that simple.

You don't have to use expensive vodka, so there's freedom to play around. As to herbs, try working with whatever's fresh at the Green City Market. Use herbs left over from making dinner. The market's the limit -- just be sure to use things that are fresh and food-grade. (Rose petals from a florist don't count.)

Speaking of roses, Merino's rimming salts -- which include a hibiscus-rose -- are available online at Dainzu Gourmet. The salts are versatile; the saffron blend does nice things on shrimp. Grilled shrimp and homemade basil-infused vodka on the rocks ... there's a meal to bring a smile to any summer's night.

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Even while packing for her trip to Peru, where she'll be learning about pisco, Southern Wine & Spirit's Bridget Albert can get excited about farmers markets.

Albert's big on the seasonal. A taste of her cocktails or a browse through the pages of her book, Market-Fresh Mixology , reveals that. When she talks, it's apparent that her enthusiasm is genuine and not just a marketing ploy. If Bridget Albert's sending you anywhere, then it's to the Green City Market.

Now is prime time for shopping at the market. "Living in the Midwest," Albert observes, "our market season is short - it's very different than living in San Francisco, where their markets are open just about all year-round - and so we need to gravitate to them as soon as they open and see what the farmers have to offer, the best of the season."

If you want each farmer's best, then Albert recommends engaging in conversations. "Talk to the farmers," she says. "Talk to the people that run the stand. Get to know what's available and what they'll be bringing out in the following weeks. Become friends with them - and you'll be surprised, once you form those relationships, the types of fruits that they'll either hold for you, or they'll be excited to see you and show you what's new. Build on that and you'll always get the best of the season."

What's drawing Albert to the market? Strawberries, which are "really the most friendly flavor there is." Right now, Albert says, the berries are very sweet, with an enticing color. Mick Klug Farm and Ellis Farms have gorgeous strawberries.

Green City Market strawberries IMG_0944.jpg

When you bring those beauties home, Albert says you should put them in a daiquiri. Keep it simple: "a nice silver rum, some fresh lime juice, simple syrup, throw in a couple of strawberries. . . dump it in a glass and mush it up."

Asked about proportions, Albert admits that she likes her daiquiris "a little boozy." To follow her lead, take 2 ounces of silver rum, add equal parts fresh lime juice and simple syrup, chop up 1 or 2 berries and "shake that cocktail to death and strain it." How much lime and syrup you should use is a matter of taste - but finding the perfect balance should be no hardship.

Simple syrup is easy to make -- melt a 50-50 blend of sugar and water. Albert has an even more market-friendly option: honey. There are health advantages to using local honey, but the mixologist notes an economically comforting point: Honey is shelf-stable. Before using honey in cocktails, loosen it up with hot water. ("You don't want to have it be like you're working with Crazy Glue," she says.)

To find honey at the market, look for Heritage Prairie Farm or go urban with Chicago Honey Co-op.

According to Albert, honey is adaptable stuff. It plays well with bourbon, rum . . . everything. She likes it in margaritas. If you're having a party, then tell your guests that you're using local honey and fruit in your drinks. It's a great talking point. And that's a perfect concoction: conversation, a long summer evening and a fresh strawberry daiquiri - just what the mixologist ordered.

Green City Market honey IMG_0981.jpg

(photos courtesy Kate Gross Photography)

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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