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updated: 8/16/2011 3:55 PM

Sampling fruit from the Achatz family tree

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The culinary gene runs strong in the Achatz family.

And in the span of a week I was fortunate enough to sample contemporary Thai cuisine served at Grant Achatz's Next and savor homespun pies baked by his second cousins at their Michigan bake shop.

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At Next, perhaps the most anticipated restaurant opening of the decade considering the star power of the chef, you order tickets for your meal online much like you order tickets for a play or football game. The ticket price includes food, tax and tip. You can add a wine/beverage pairing as well. Plan to spend about $270 for a full-access weekend ticket; week night seats cost less.

The concept at Next, in Chicago's West Loop, is quite unique and captivating. The prix fixe menu changes a few times a year with Achatz's interpretation of food from anywhere in the world at any point in time. The opening menu was 1906 France; the menu I enjoyed with my husband and friends was present-day Thailand.

Because every diner enjoys the same menu, the kitchen can really focus on the dishes, the timing of the courses and the stunning presentation.

Our meal opened with street food (including roasted bananas and steamed buns with green curry) served on a newspaper "tablecloth" and eaten with our fingers. Dinner progressed over seven more courses that included catfish braised in an intricate caramel sauce that tasted way more wonderful than it sounds and a coconut dessert, served in its shell, with egg and licorice accents.

The other side of the Achatz family tree creates incredible pies that have won top honors at the National Pie Championships and caught the attention of Bon Appétit and Food & Wine magazines.

At their bakeshop in Chesterfield, Grant's second cousin, Dave, and his wife, Wendy, craft pies that have you believing Grandma is in the kitchen rolling the dough.

Achatz Handmade Pies relies on Michigan fruits, beet sugar, flour and butter. The pies are hand-rolled and hand-crimped so they don't just look handmade, they are handmade. The signature Michigan 4-Berry pie (pictured) has a sweet crumble topping hiding a mound of juicy berries that ooze flavor without turning the bottom crust to mush.

If you find yourself in the Detroit area, search out the fresh-baked pies at one of their seven bakeries. In Illinois, you can find their pies (shipped the morning they're baked) at area Sunset Foods and Whole Foods Markets.

More accolades for Achatz: Grant, that is.

Cooking Light's magazine included Grant Achatz on its first-ever list of list of ">Trailblazing Chefs revealed in it's September issue.

"When we set out on our search to find our Trailblazing Chefs, we looked for individuals who weren't just 'hot,' but embodied important principles and trends that Cooking Light readers care about--and that are changing restaurants across the country," editor Scott Mowbray said. "We talked to food experts and friends from all over the United States, and vetted hundreds of chefs to come up with our first list."

Cooking Light's seven Trailblazing Chefs set the pace in such categories as authenticity, responsibility and innovation, some in the biggest food cities in the country, others in small cities and towns. The September issue hits newsstands Friday, Aug. 19.

Artisanal sausages, succotash and baseball: Enjoy a vintage baseball game followed by a farm-focused dinner this weekend at Faltz Family Vineyard in Sheridan (about 25 miles southwest of Aurora).

The first pitch goes out at 3:30 p.m. as the Sandwich Millers take on the Somonauk Blue Stockings for a game played by the rules and customs of the mid-1800s.

Enjoy ballpark popcorn and peanuts, a tour of the vineyard and a cocktail hour featuring cold Goose Island Beer and Fox Valley wines.

The family-style feast created using local produce and artisan meats begins at 5:30 and the evening winds down with s'mores cooked over a bonfire.

The event, organized by Pitch Fork Productions, costs $75 for adults; kids pay their age. The deadline for reservations is Aug. 19. Get details and tickets at pitchforkproductions.net.

• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at food@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at facebook.com/debpankeydailyherald or follow her on Twitter @PankeysPlate.

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