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Restaurants

Having survived the two-day journey across Middle America, we arrived in Chicago on a sunny, Monday afternoon. I could hardly contain my excitement as the Sears Willis Tower — imposing, iconic, extraordinary — appeared on the horizon. I absolutely love this city and everything about it: The people! The energy! The architecture! The food!

Seriously, if given the choice between New York and Chicago, I’d pick the latter every time. Hands down. Bar none. No questions asked.

And so it was no surprise I made the most of my very short time in town: morning stroll through the University of Chicago’s sprawling urban campus, lunch at Rick Bayliss’ fantastic Frontera Grill, afternoon walk home along the lakeshore, dinner at Avec; a perfect day in a great city with wonderful friends.

The name, Avec, may ring a bell. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ll mention it again, no doubt. The reason is simple: it’s my absolute favourite restaurant in Chicago and a serious contender for my favourite the world over. I’d actually extended my trip and returned to Chicago with my friends, rather than fly home from Denver, in large measure because I’d wanted to sample their new menu. And, let me tell you, Paul Kahan and his crew did not disappoint.

As always, the place was jammed. We waited outside for a better part of half an hour for seats in the long, narrow, wood-lined eatery. Thankfully, the weather was lovely, as was the company. Best of all, we could stare at the diners already seated, already eating, already in heaven, taking comfort in the knowledge we too would soon know such delights.

When we were finally seated, coats checked, I gazed upon the new menu, freshly printed, paper crisply folded, resting every-so-gently atop my plate. I grasped it with my hands and opened it, tentatively, anxiously. First a quick scan: pork shoulder, beef, smelts, the focaccia, snapper, the dates… oh, the dates.

No man is an island — and no diner eats alone at Avec. As such, a brief, yet spirited debate ensued about what we’d order. We settled on the following dishes:

  • “Deluxe” focaccia with Taleggio cheese, truffle oil and fresh herbs
  • Wood-oven braised pork shoulder with chestnut-bacon dumplings, butternut squash, kale, puff pastry and fresh herbs
  • Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce
  • Melted leek and salsify crostini with Meyer lemons
  • Wood-oven roasted smelts with romesco, spinach-horseradish vinaigrette and preserved lemon
  • Dietzler Farm braised beef with chimichurri, borlotti beans, fingerlings, creme fraiche, red pepper, cocoa nibs and cilantro

Each was sublime, but I liked the dates best. Even better, you can make them at home, courtesy Time Out Chicago. (I’ve yet to do so, but will surely blog about it once I do.)

As my flight took off from O’Hare International the next morning, thoughts of the previous night’s meal still swirling about my sated brain, I bade a silent farewell to the Second City and promised we’d meet again soon.

It’s a promise I fully intend to keep.

The Publican is for people passionate about pork. I’m one of those people.

First, a word about the place. Publican is situated in the heart of Chicago’s meat-packing district. Accordingly, the restaurant has a turn-of-the-century, butcher’s warehouse feel to it. (Okay, perhaps not the best way to describe it, but that’s how it felt to me.) High ceilings, subway tiles on the floor and walls, diner lights illuminating the sprawling place.

Our reservation was for 9:30. The place was jammed. We were escorted to a stand-up bar near the kitchen while they readied our table. After finishing an exceptional Manhattan (garnished with homemade maraschino cherries), my dining partners and I were seated at one of the place’s lengthy tables you’d imagine were standard in an English castle’s dining hall.

I started with a half-dozen Kumamoto oysters. They’re my favourites and often on the menu at Ottawa’s WBOH. How could I pass up the chance to have them here? And so, I did. Happily.

We also opted for an order of their in-house pork rinds. (What? It’s a bastion to all things porcine, after all.) They were… good. And not “NFL-Sunday-pig-out” good, but “delectable” good. Light, flavourful, crunchy. Heck, you’d hardly know they were fried pieces of Miss Piggy’s epidermis.

Since the menu was similarly titled towards small plates like Avec’s, my friend and I decided to share a few plates between us as our mains. And share we did: duck rillette (melt-in-your-mouth amazing); grilled sardines (rich and full of smoky flavour); pork belly (pure bliss).

To finish things off, I opted for a duo of cheeses. Raw cow’s and sheep’s. Equally delicious, and the perfect end to a sumptuous, protein-laded feast.

Chilam Balam was definitely worth the hour-long wait at the pedestrian sports bar next door.

In fact, I’d be willing to do it all over again, wait and all, if it meant I could once more feast upon the authentic Mexican fare created by Chef de Cuisine Chuy Valencia, the former Sous Chef at Rick Bayless’ renowned Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

Rather than selecting our own items, we entrusted our fate to our server, asking simply that he brought us the best. The result:

  • Grilled pork ribs basted with Oaxacan pasilla glaze, radishes, and sweet plantains with crema
  • Grilled hanger steak in guajillo sauce, roasted potatoes, crispy onion and cilantro
  • Empanadas filled with braised mushrooms in pipian verde, two cheeses, epazote and roasted green chiles
  • Halibut ceviche tossed with red onion, cucumber, jicama, cilantro, habanero, avocado and tomato; tostadas
  • Crispy flautas stuffed with chicken and rajas; chipotle-mezcal sauce, pickled cabbage, fresh cheese and crema
  • Earthenware cazuela of braised wild mushrooms, roasted turnips, potato and epazote in New Mexico Chile and dark beer; Queso fresco and cilantro
  • Braised lamb shank in a spicy sauce of pan juices and cascabel chiles; whipped parsnips and roasted chanterelle mushrooms

We happily eschewed our utensils in favour of the little homemade tortillas that came with everything.

Word to the wise: bring booze. Chilam Balam is unlicensed. Thankfully, if you bring it, they’ll serve it – sans corkage. Even better, if, for example, you were to bring a bottle of tequila, they’d make you margaritas. Just sayin’.

I was never much of  a fan of the Tex-Mex slop that used to pass for Mexican food. I am, however, a fan of the real deal, and to my mind this little basement establishment has nailed it.

Blackbird was sensational.

Next door to the more casual Avec, we opted for a leisurely (and slightly less pricey) lunch at this modern gem. The prix fixe option made our gastronomic deliberations swift and easy.

I started with the foie gras, which was delicious. Chilled, buttery, divine. The short rib entrée was equally delicious, and refreshingly light. (The chef forwent the more traditional heavy glaze for a clear broth.) The chocolate pavé dessert wasn’t too shabby either.

Also worth noting: the bartender makes a mean martini. Something I’ve previously said is difficult to find.

While my taste leans more towards Avec, with its rustic, hearty fare, I certainly wouldn’t think twice about returning to Blackbird on my next trip to Chicago.

Avec scored a hat trick last night.

Indeed, I was not disappointed on my third visit to this Chicago restaurant. Here’s why:

  • “Deluxe” focaccia with Taleggio cheese, truffle oil and fresh herbs.
  • Wood-oven braised pork shoulder with Prince Edward Island mussels, braised tripe, tomato and savory streusel
  • Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce
  • Farro salad with roasted peppers, rutabaga, blackeyed peas, fried egg and salsa verde vinaigrette
  • Roasted sunchoke crostini with shaved Brussels sprouts, radishes and truffle vinaigrette
  • Roasted Nichols Farm carnival squash with arugula pistachio pesto, shaved apples, podda and cider
  • Braised Berkshire pork cheeks with housemade blood sausage, cabbage, barley and artichokes
  • Crispy veal liver and soubise with mustard greens and lemon

Before you accuse me of my favourite sin, I do think it’s important to note that Avec – which modestly calls itself a wine bar – specializes in small plates. As such, everything is meant for sharing. And share we did.

While the chef changes the menu frequently, the focaccia has become a bit of a staple. For good reason: it’s a stand-out. Paper thin, grilled, full of melty, delicious taleggio cheese. It’s a revelation.

So, too, frankly, were the chorizo-stuffed dates. Too often, the date is the star of such a dish; not this time, however. The date played second-string to the spicy sausage. A welcome change, to be sure.

What I love most about Avec – aside from the food, of course, which is absolutely first-rate-amazing – is the atmosphere.

Lined completely in cedar, one feels like they’re dining in a sauna. The long, narrow space barely has room for  the bar that stretches along one side of restaurant and a series of bench tables that stretch along the other. It’s communal dining at its finest.

Even better, their strict “no reservations” policy means the place is always hopping, electric. Which is a good thing: digesting such culinary delights requires an incredible amount of energy!

If I ever found myself sitting on Death Row (an impossible scenario, I assure you), my last meal would be, without hesitation or second-thought, pizza.

I love everything about it: the bread, the sauce, the cheese, the inevitable guilt.

I know most people would probably opt for lobster, prime rib, or insert-pricey-/-obscure-dish were they similarly faced with the choice of eating one final time; not me.

That’s not to say I don’t like those other, more refined culinary selections; on the contrary, I haven’t met a pricey/obscure dish I didn’t like.  (My one pretension, I suppose.)  But were I faced with the unpleasant task of selecting my final supper, I’d opt for the humble pie.  (No pun intended.)

Thankfully, because I really can’t see a scenario wherein I’ll be on Death Row, appeals exhausted, asked to choose my final meal, I’m free to indulge my pizza craving early and often.  And I did so twice this past week, both with very satisfying results.

First up: Tony’s Master of Pizza.

The place has been around forever.  Yet, I’d never even considered it until Thursday night, when I was at a friend’s house for the evening.  We’d both previously lived and worked in Ottawa together, and had frequently enabled each other’s pizza addiction.  As such, it was only logical that, faced with the prospect of nothing in the fridge worth eating, we’d make the call.

On his advice, we rang up Tony’s – and am I glad we did: it was a revelation.  The crust was thin, crispy, with just the slightest bit of chewiness; the cheese was hot and melty-good; the toppings (ham, pineapple and bacon) fresh and generously scattered about.

It didn’t last long.  True to form, we polished it off quickly.

Which brings me to the second round: Saturday night at Pizzeria Gusto.

It’s a new-ish place on Academy Road in Winnipeg’s River Heights neighbourhood; an upscale place where the wood-fired oven takes centre stage.  (It reminded me of the UK’s Pizza Express, which, while a chain, delivers top-notch pizza.  So you know.)

All of their pizzas come in one, uniform size.  Wood-fired to perfection, they are served with your very own pizza slicer.  (Which, admittedly, I could do without.)  While I can’t remember the fancy name of my pizza, it featured capicolo, roasted red peppers, pepperoni and hunks of fresh, buffalo mozzarella.  It too was delicious.

I recognize pizza may not be gourmet fare, nor is it the most heart-healthy dish on the planet.  Still, this heart loves it.