Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I'm a terrible food critic.

For one thing, I parade my ignorance rather than read up on some obscure technique and then rattle it off to readers as if I'd known it all along.

Instead, I think of restaurants the way I think of theater performances.

How did it feel? Was it satisfying? Was the story interesting? Did I like the characters? Would I recommend it to friends? 

And so it was that I experienced peculiar sensations in several parts when I read the Michelin Guide's latest star-crossed reviews of Chicago restaurants.

You see, earlier this year I dined at two of Chicago's restaurants on consecutive nights.

They're both owned by the Alinea Group, the inspired culinary cabal led by inspirational chef Grant Achatz and wily, urbane businessy type Nick Kokonas.

One of the restaurants is called Next, the other Roister.

Oddly, this year Next got its first Michelin star, while Roister lost the one it had.

The two restaurants are next door to each other, so I tried to imagine the owners celebrating with one group, then popping next door to drown their sorrows with the other.

Yet Michelin stars can, to some eyes, consist of balderdash with a sprinkling of bunkum, bathed in an enticing piffle jus.

Please, then, let me tell you how I experienced each restaurant.

Get On The Bus, Gus. The Next Bus.

First was Next.

The conceit of Next is that it changes its concept every four months. Completely. Totally. And Utterly.

I confess this was my third visit. 

The first two were quite something. First was a reincarnation of the Bocuse D'Or, the legendary international culinary competition held in France.

Next staged its version with flags, parades and even cowbells for diners to chant USA! USA! at appropriate moments. (Next to us was a table of Russians. Their faces were stern. Until the third wine pairing, that is.)

The whole thing was high entertainment. The food wasn't bad, either.

The second trip to Next was for tapas. 

I could have sat there for a week. Indeed, it seemed as if there was enough food to last a week and all of it was singularly glorious.

The server was sensitive to the fact that we'd been seated late. So sensitive that wine pairings for the night were free. 

A third trip, then, had a lot to live up to.

This time the concept was Italia. A voyage into some of the more traditional Italian dishes, done with a certain joyous twist.

I'd like to tell you about the food, which is served, as are all Next's offerings, as a tasting menu.

I'd like to tell you about the charming staff.

I'd even like to tell you that I walked out of there and wailed: "How. Does. This. Restaurant. Not. Have. A. Michelin. Star?"

Instead, please let me tell you how our table was bussed.

After seemingly two bites of every course, someone would come up to us and say: "Are you still working on that?" 

Or: "Have you finished?"

Or: "Can I take that away?"

At first, it was odd. Soon, it became irritating. Finally, it bordered on the comical.

My wife and I sat there, our nerves increasingly reverting to school tests taken in teenage years, for fear that the next element of our wine pairing would be withdrawn as a penalty if we didn't immediately eat all the food before us or at least declare it finished.

It got to the point where we tried to anticipate how many bites it would take before we'd get a less than subtle hint to hit dépêche mode.

Please, I do understand the efficient bussing of tables.

This, though, felt like we'd stepped into some peculiar Monty Python skit or Dennis Potter play.

Were the staff on a time bonus? 

Or perhaps they needed to get to a party. Or late-night Mass. Or a Willy Nelson gig. Or a secret support group meeting on Alinea Group/Trump relations.

We felt like we were being hovered over by seasoned seagulls, ready to pounce on even the slightest opening.

It was impossible to communicate that they might slow down. Or perhaps leave us to relax. We tried all sorts of verbal and non-verbal signals. We failed.

Oh, and by the by, the meal cost around $850 for two.

Near the end of our fascinating evening, we began chatting with the couple on the next table. 

They were locals celebrating their wedding anniversary. They, too, had been struck by the sudden hustle. 

"It never used to be like this," one of the husbands told us.

Yet, you see, this is the restaurant that -- finally -- got its Michelin star.

Let's pop next door.

Next, Roister.

After the previous evening at Next, I can't say I was brimming with enthusiasm about Roister. 

Would we be given a chess match time-clock for each course? Would we get filthy looks if we didn't complete each course in three minutes and 20 seconds? Would there be a bonus glass of Semillon if we completed a course in under 2 minutes?

When we walked in all we could hear was heavy metal music. Oh, that's how they do it here, we thought. They get you hyped up so you have to eat faster.

Was this the right place? Were we in our right minds? Was Chicago trying to tell us something? Had we suddenly been slipped onto the Alinea Group's blacklist?

We were led to counter seats facing the open kitchen, our teeth chattering.

Well, at least mine were.

Soon, a server arrived and seemed remarkably charming.

Not only that, she didn't seem in a hurry to take our order. 

Another server came by. Just, it seemed, to say hullo. Or perhaps it was because we looked weird.

What followed was a leisurely, entertaining evening full of anecdotes -- our server revealed she'd studied classical trumpet and was shortly quitting to try and make a go of it in music.

Soon, a couple of the chefs began to chat with us. 

One came over, purely fascinated as to why my wife was headbanging. 

She looked up and said: "It's Rage Against the Machine."

He nodded, understanding perfectly.

Talking of perfect, my salmon was simply the most superbly-cooked fish I've ever tasted in my life. 

The bottle of Gamay suggested was an inspired choice. The pacing and delivery of the food was unhurried. Which was odd, given the slightly frenzied music. Even that began not to bother me.

And, yes, the bussing bordered on divinity. 

When we walked out of Roister and into drizzle, I turned to my wife and said: "That was one of the best restaurant experiences I've ever had."

The meal cost far less than half of the one at Next.

Yet Roister is the restaurant that lost its Michelin star.

This isn't to suggest that Michelin inspectors are snooty duffers, so far up themselves that all they can see are their own pretentious innards.

It isn't to suggest that the food world is an insular business, in which personal alliances and nastiness rule and fads come and go like too much All Bran. 

You already know both of those things are true. 

I merely want to remind you that you can read all the reviews in the world, look at all the rankings and bathe in all the menus.

But a visit to a restaurant is one night, in which the restaurant performs and you decide whether it makes you feel good. The smallest element can alter the mood, as Next's bussing did ours.

I don't envy any chef who has to cook the same dishes night after night. I don't envy any server who has no idea what sort of customer -- or chef's mood -- they might have to endure on any given evening.

And I don't envy any restaurant owner or manager who has to find staff, train staff, nurture staff, keep the food fresh in every sense and keep the business running.

So all I'd like to say to the staff at Next is: Please, ease up a little. It's going to be alright.

And to the staff at Roister: You gave us a wonderful, memorable evening in every single aspect. Especially the chef who looks like Harry Connick Jr. and cooked my salmon.

Repeat after me, Blue Roister Cult: Stuff the big bald-baby logo mob at Michelin.

And I know your chefs know stuffing.

Published on: Oct 5, 2019
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