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November 10, 2009

Avec

Potato and Shaved Cauliflower Salad Dominic Armato

One of the great shames of my departure from Chicago was that I never quite managed to get to Avec. Here you've got a place that's pretty much universally beloved, side project of Paul Kahan, one of Chicago's most respected heavy hitters, kitchen run by James Beard shortlister Koren Grieveson, food that even the hardcore food nerds were swooning over despite the trendy setting... how did I never set foot in there, exactly? When you visit home, especially when you haven't been in nearly a year, it's incredibly difficult to hit anything other than the old haunts. But for Avec, I managed to tear myself away.

Chorizo-Stuffed Medjool DatesDominic Armato

The place is a box. Literally. It's like a giant box, with wooden paneling on both walls, floor and ceiling going all the way to the back of the restaurant. It's a cool effect. It's sharp, modern, Scandinavian-looking. I suspect it's intended to evoke a wine cask, since Avec is, first and foremost, supposed to be a wine bar. Angular wooden tables, angular wooden benches... the counter along one wall a rare stretch of stainless. All of which means that Avec is LOUD. This is a bright, boisterous and dense place, packed shoulder-to-shoulder even on a Monday night. But even so, though they don't take reservations and the crowd was three deep at the host's stand, we managed to nab two seats at the bar within ten minutes. The wine list is extensive and the menu is focused on small plates with Mediterranean flavors, but it's clear we're not talking anything strictly traditional, here. So we told the fellow taking our order to bring us a quartino of something he liked, and we set to picking out dishes that looked good.

Saffron-Marinated Chicken ThighDominic Armato

The salads looked unusually compelling, so we opted to try one of them, and though the farro salad with peppers, rutabaga, crowder peas and fried egg sounded mighty compelling, our fellow steered us instead towards the potato and shaved cauliflower with haricots vert, sundried tomatoes and anchovy vinaigrette. It turned out to be as straightforward as it sounds, notable for the fact that everything was done so crisply. Boiled potatoes, green beans, slivers of onion, vinaigrette -- this has the signature of every mediocre potluck-style salad you've ever had. But it was pulled off with unusual precision, everything blanched to the point of just barely losing rawness while maintaining every last bit of crisp freshness, sundried tomatoes that hadn't been sitting in an oil slick and a bright vinaigrette with a touch of anchovy funk that brought out the veggies without blowing them away. I can't say it's something I'm in a big hurry to have again, but for what it was, it was an excellent specimen.

Pappardelle with Braised DuckDominic Armato

Next up were the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon, which is apparently Avec code for "enormous chorizo meatballs with token amounts of date and bacon". This is not a complaint, though anybody looking for a fruit-centric dish might accuse them of false advertising. They were smoky and rather spicy, completely blowing out my ladylove on the first bite (not that she's a yardstick by which to be judged when it comes to spice tolerance). So I got the lion's share of the dates/meatballs and promptly demolished them, right down to every bit of the sweet, intense tomato and piquillo pepper sauce in which they were lounging. After years of chicken aversion, chicken thighs have become one of my go-to proteins as of late, so I found myself unable to pass on the saffron-marinated chicken thigh, served here with a pungent cabbage agrodolce, roasted mushrooms, a tuft of frisée and a caraway and crème fraîche vinaigrette. The chicken was moist and succulent, yes, but a theme was emerging here, one where every included ingredient was largely unadulterated and singing its name... loudly.

Crispy Sweetbreads with Roasted BeetsDominic Armato

Here, we broke and went for a big plate, simply because it looked too good to resist. I'm a tough sell when it comes to pasta that isn't pretty darn traditional. It's not that I'm not open to interpretation and wild variation. It's just that I've learned to be disappointed most of the time. Pasta's simple for a reason, and if you're going to complicate things you'd better know what you're doing. And Grieveson does. The pappardelle was rolled a little thick for my tastes, almost coming across as having the body of a big Asian noodle rather than the delicate game accompaniment I've come to expect from one of my more favored pastas, but I really couldn't fault this one, with shredded braised duck and chunks of duck liver, rapini for a little vegetable, and the unconventional use of orange zest and mint as brightening accents. Heck, they even managed to stir in a good deal of mascarpone -- a practice that usually just results in a gloopy mess -- and keep me happy. The whole thing could stand to be a little less wet, I think, but the flavors are there and they're big and they're extremely enjoyable.

Pear Tart with Olive Oil Ice CreamDominic Armato

Here, we almost packed it in before opting for one more small plate, spurred on by the fact that the fellow sitting to our left happened to have chosen the dish that was on the bubble. We went for the offal, crispy sweetbreads atop giant, crunchy croutons, stacked with slices of roasted beets and watercress and smothered in a goat cheese bechamel. Subtle this one wasn't, but I'm glad we got it. The sweetbreads were great, crisp and meaty and not -- as they so often are -- fried into oblivion in an attempt to make them palatable for those who are offally suspicious. Sweet beets, fresh greens, and croutons with enough body to stand up to one incredibly rich and creamy sauce that pulled up just short of being too much, I think. Any more and it would have obliterated the rest of the plate, and I've no doubt there are those who'd love to see just as much again dumped over the top, but for me it was just creamy and tangy enough to make me feel a little guilty about how much of it there was while rendering me unable to complain about it.

Chocolate CrispsDominic Armato

Desserts were perfectly nice, if not as exciting as their savory counterparts. A pear tart had a delicious, flaky crust but its central fruit wasn't as prominent a feature as I would have preferred. The olive oil ice cream on top, however, was a killer scoop, unusually dense, wet and custardy. Chocolate crisps were no great gustatory revelation, but presented themselves in an unusually delightful manner. Arriving in both milk and dark varieties, the chocolate had been tempered just so, making it stiff and brittle, so that pieces would break off with a satisfying snap. It had also been combined with some manner of wafer-thin crispy flakes, making these sort of the haute version of a crunch bar. I enjoyed them far, far more than I'd expected I would.

Though my reaction was tempered, I think, by the fact that my expectations had been built impossibly high, this was nonetheless a really wonderful meal, and I absolutely understand why Avec is so beloved. She's not the fanciest girl at the ball, but she's confident and she has a little spunk and a lot of soul. This is a formula we're seeing a lot more of now, but of course, Avec has already been doing it for a while. These are great ingredients, put together in an honest, rustic and still creative fashion, and though the dishes aren't terribly refined, the execution is tack-sharp, so their big flavors stay distinct and don't get muddy. This is definitely one of those places where I'd love to have the opportunity to sit down and walk my way straight down the menu, tasting everything there. Next time I'll bring more dining companions.

Avec
www.avecrestaurant.com
615 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661
312-377-2002
 KitchenBar
Sun - Thu3:30 PM - 12:00 AM3:30 PM - 1:00 AM
Fri - Sat3:30 PM - 1:00 AM3:30 PM - 2:00 AM

Comments

Going to Avec really changed my opinion about restaurants. Until I marveled at the Taleggio Focaccia, I had thought myself fully a cheap-eats Chowhound, without the subtle palette for finer dining. Holy cow, that shit was tasty.

Now living in Portland, and enjoying all the richness of the restaurant scene here. Thanks Avec!

I walked into this place about a month ago after standing in line for four hours waiting for Alton Brown to sign his new book. Great place for late night eats. I also had the dates, sweetbreads, and chocolates. I guess we have the same taste. I didn't try the wine, but I did have a couple of their beers. Good selection. Needless to say, it was a very drowsy three hour drive back to my place with all that food in my stomach.
This place definitely has the same vibe as lots of tapas bars in Spain. It also helped that there was a table full of Spanish people behind me. Have you tried Blackbird, the place next door?

I'd been to Blackbird about a half-dozen times before I realized that Avec was its sibling. Generally, I prefer the more casual setting of Avec (same as I prefer Frontera to Topolobompo... or was it the other way around?), but I find it's best enjoyed on off-peak hours when you're not elbow-to-elbow with the neighbors.

I'll be hitting Chicago sometime this winter (likely Christmas time) and I have some hard decisions about what food places to tackle. Bayless' restaurants are up on this list, and I gotta hit like Hot Doug's and some Italian Beef places (any reco's there, btw?), but now you got me thinking Avec too!

BTW, Dom, your offal comments reminded me, when Stephanie served sweetbreads in the steakhouse challenge, I thought I remembered one of the guests exclaim, "they're just like eating Chicken McNuggets!" Was that supposed to be a compliment?

--
Dave

Toby Young would approve of your opening two paragraphs. ;)

"Toby Young would approve of your opening two paragraphs. ;)"

And if he stopped reading right there, we might be on the same page! :-)

Next time you're back in Chicago, you may also want to try Kahan's 3rd restaurant, the Publican in River North. It's a bigger place than Avec/Blackbird (quite loud though) with long tables and an Irish vibe, and has the best oysters and beef heart I've had in the city

or Kahan's 4th restaurant which opened on Monday, Big Star. Think cheap tacos, cheap beer, and cheap cocktails. $2 tacos al pastor on handmade tortillas, for instance. Tax included.

For your chicago restaurant recommendations, Dave, I'd recommend browsing or posting on LTHForum.com.

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