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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.

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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!

Later this afternoon, I’ll be boarding a plane for Chicago. My favourite US city, so you know. Direct flight, thank goodness. Until Monday night, I’m happy to say.

Best of all, I’ll be spending the weekend with some of my dearest friends.

We all love to eat. Good food, of course. And what a weekend of dining we have planned, starting with dinner at Avec tonight. I’ve been to Avec twice already and have been absolutely bowled over both times. I know tonight will be no different – and can hardly wait.

Also on our culinary tour-de-force: Blackbird, Chilam Balam, and The Publican. I’m unfamiliar with all of them, but have absolutely faith in my friend’s choices; Blackbird and The Publican, after all, are owned by the same people who own Avec.

I’ll be posting full reviews soon. Until then, stay tuned!