I was excited to try Next Door when it opened in late-2009. But on my visits over the course of its first year, I was disappointed. Though it had plush decor and an attentive wait staff, I found Next Door's food disappointing, particularly compared to its forerunner, Tastings. I hadn't been back until recently. If you've been dining at Next Door recently, you know what I've learned: the food is fresh, flavorful, and lively.
With its atmosphere and wait staff, Next Door stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Rochester's better, upscale restaurants. And it is upscale, even if you don't have to wear a coat and tie. There is valet parking, a 10-page wine selection, and modernist cuisine flourishes via foams, powders, and sous-vide cooking. Dinner entrees range from $16 to $42, with the majority priced between $20 and $30.
The restaurant's design reinforces this higher-end atmosphere. Cushy round banquettes, complete with throw pillows, and marble-style tables line the edge of the dining room. Directly opposite these is the open kitchen and a sleek sushi bar, shiny with burnished metal and loaded with seating. There is also the private bar and party rooms, including a lounge-style "red room" and a test kitchen kitted out with its own cooking station.
The restaurant has always offered a mix of high and low dishes with American, European, and Asian influences. A hefty burger ($16) and truffle mac n' cheese ($12) sit on the menu next to sushi rolls ($8-$17) and soy-glazed duck breast ($31). Yet the menu has increased its elegance over the years. Gone are the pizza offerings (sister restaurant Amore offers those in spades); now available is a four-course tasting menu ($49) with optional wine pairings ($20).
The tasting menu I sampled consisted of two choices for each course (a salad, light appetizer, entrée, and dessert). I started with the Wegmans Organic Farm Tomato salad, a refined rendering of a tomato and cucumbers. The vegetables were full of end-of-the-season flavor and color: bright, red, and juicy tomatoes and crisp, curling shavings of cool cucumbers. These were layered with a simple vinaigrette, chiffonade-cut and licorice flavored basil, and light and crunchy baguette tuiles. Puffs of mozzarella espuma, a type of culinary foam, tasted clean and milky, with a texture between sour cream and whipped yogurt. (Unlike other items I ordered from the tasting menu, this salad is not listed on the standard dinner menu.)
Foam made another appearance in the summer corn soup ($10 if not part of the tasting menu). A magenta-colored tomato and lavender foam provided an acidic palate cleanser for the silky and sweet corn soup. Tucked into the soup were mushrooms and purple Peruvian potatoes, the size of a bubble tea's black tapioca pearls. The soup's presentation was lovely: it was poured over the vegetables table-side into a dome-shaped ceramic bowl. The tomato lavender foam floats then on top of the soup, forming a kind of yellow and pink yin-yang.
The filet tournedos ($34 if not part of the tasting menu) were tender and cooked to the requested medium-rare, something that too many restaurants have trouble doing. Though it wasn't the most flavorful steak, part of this is due to the cut, which wasn't as robust as cuts like a rib-eye or New York strip. The steak was plated traditionally with carrots, peas, onions, and a Madeira-wine infused jus — but instead of including mashed potatoes, there's a nice twist in swapping potatoes for a buttery and creamy polenta.
The butterscotch crème brûlée ($9 if not part of the tasting menu), with its silky texture, deep caramelized flavor, and the tiniest hint of salt, is phenomenal. It's a pleasure to break through the brittle sugar crust, plunge a spoon into the soft custard underneath, and feel the contrast of textures in your mouth. On the side was a dollop of dark chocolate mousse, dotted with chocolate covered cacao nibs; their combined texture echoed that of the crème brûlée. It's also the perfect portion of mousse to taste and indulge in deep chocolate richness — any more, and it would be cocoa overkill.
In response to customer feedback, Next Door began offering a lunch menu in spring 2013. In the blue crab and avocado salad ($19), a generous serving of shredded crab meat was heaped on top of mixed greens tossed with a light berry vinaigrette; there are also plump raspberries and blackberries, and hunks of ripe avocado. The crab was sweet and fresh, with a light lemon dressing pairing nicely with the fruit. The avocado was also tasty, though a little out of place with the berries.
The peanut butter pie ($10) was a 4-inch round tart with a chocolate cookie crust. The filling was creamy and nutty with a restrained sweetness; the crust is a touch dry but that's offset by the moist filling. There's a dusting of peanut powder on the plate and a peanutty froth that adds a bit more interest. It's exactly what you might expect from this kind of dessert at this kind of restaurant — until it wasn't. Accompanying the pie was what the menu called a "flexible ganache:" a long, thick, bendable, chocolate confection squared off on the sides like a two-by-four. Stretching from one end of the plate to the other, its inclusion on the plate wasn't pretty, nor did its light chocolate flavor and gelatinous texture add to the dessert. It seemed to be an unusual misstep.
With well-executed food, hospitable wait staff and attractive surroundings, it won't take me another four years before I visit Next Door again.
Find Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter at @LauraKenyon and dig through her recipe archive on her personal website, LauraRebeccasKitchen.com.