$$$$ Avenues...Worth it?
I've eaten several times at the Lobby restaurant in the Peninsula, and the food there has been consistently excellent (although without the creativity demonstrated in Chef Bowles's preparations at Avenues). There must be at least a little bit of sharing among the restaurants there, as the star anise truffles we were served at the end of the meal also appeared on the Chocolate Bar (all-you-can-eat chocolate dessert buffet served Friday and Saturday evenings at the Lobby) that evening.
The Chicago Peninsula is one of the top hotels in the country. It is one of only 37 hotels in the country rated five stars by the Mobil Travel Guide.
Well, it's now been several days since dining at Avenues over the weekend. We're still "de-compressing" after such a magnificent performance by Chef Bowles. Good thing I took notes. :wink: Especially since this was one of the best meals I've had in years. I may not have remembered *everything* that went on, but I've jotted down quite a bit of it below.
Where to begin? We entered the restaurant, were greeted warmly, and sat down. (That's always a good place to start, right?) The servers approached us with a wine list and, noticing that the women were wearing dark-colored skirts, asked if we would like them to replace the white napkins on the table with black ones, so that any lint from the napkins would not be visible on their skirts. Okay, that was a nice touch. So was the way they offered us a choice of bottled sparking water or bottled still water, both with their compliments (i.e. no extra charge).
The menu had a la carte choices on the left - cold appetizers, hot appetizers, fish course, and meat course - with three courses (one hot or cold appetizer, one fish or meat entree, and dessert) for $90, or else five courses (choice of one of each plus dessert) for $120. On the right was the menu de'gustation, listing ten courses for $160. The server noted that whichever of the three options we chose would need to apply to everyone at the table. He also said that Chef Bowles can modify the menu in absolutely ANY way we like (we made it clear that we were there for the food). We got the impression that there were NO LIMITS to what he could do for us. As a server joked later in the meal, "This is the Peninsula. You would like a giraffe and a rainbow? No problem, I'll return with those in just a few minutes." We decided on the menu de'gustation, but also told the servers that Chef Bowles should feel free to make any substitutions or do anything differently that he would like, if there were anything in particular he would like us to enjoy. No other instructions.
We ordered a wine (2004 Charbonniere, $64) and an iced tea flavored with chocolate, chai, and orange.
Before I describe the various dishes we were served, I should note that these descriptions may be slightly incomplete and may not fully do them justice. I try not to spend too much of my time taking notes; I like to enjoy my dinners! Also, for every time I say that a dish consists of X on a bed of Y, it probably was more like X on a bed of Y and Z, with A sprinkled on top for texture, served with two sauces A and B decorating the unusually-shaped plate. The presentations were exquisite, as fine as anywhere I have been. But what's even more important is that their taste was every bit as delicious as their appearance was beautiful.
So here's what we had; with the exception of dessert, each of our party of four was served each item:
1. Amuse bouche of cream puffs (pate a choux) with lemon thyme mascarpone filling
2. Amuse bouche of apple pudding with salmon roe
3. Caesar salad, miniature heart of romaine, covered with anchovie, served on a brioche twinkie
4. Vichyssoise of potatos and leeks, served over chopped vegetables, with sauce
5. Thin slices of ahi tuna served with something (I forget what) topped with what looked like whipped cream (?) and a foam, with caramel sauce
6. Beef tartare with smoke ice cream and bearnaise panna cotta - this was perhaps the most unusual dish, and further explanation is warranted. The beef tartare was very tasty (it's been very bland when I've had it elsewhere) and the smoke-flavored ice cream is just like it sounds. This was served in a long, narrow dish with depressions in it at several points. The bearnaise panna cotta coated the bottom of the dish. Because the dish and the panna cotta were white, the panna cotta was invisible; it just looked like it was part of the serving dish. But when you spoon into it, you realize that the panna cotta is there. It was a visual trick that was delightful, all the more so because all of the elements of this dish were so delicious.
7. Seafood duet of lobster on a bed of braised leek, and sea scallop on a bed of raisins and spinach
8. Truffled risotto with red pearl onion on a bed of truffle cream and mushroom (NICE flavor of truffles permeating throughout)
9. Maple-lacquered breast of quail served over diced apples and steel-cut oatmeal
10. Duet of Tasmanian salmon with celeriac foam, and turbot on a bed of ratatouille, also with foam
11. Trio of meats - kobe (American wagyu) beef with potato beignet and mushrooms; Colorado lamb chop; short ribs of beef with root beer sauce
12. Two cheeses with fig puree, quince puree, and crackers
13a. (Served to half of us) Vanilla souffle with rose ice cream and a pistachio cookie
13b. (Served to the other half of us) Plate of miniature desserts, including peanut ice cream, caramel ice cream, Sumatra bar (dense chocolate mocha pate), caramel-flavored creme brulee, apple tart tatin topped with apple sorbet
14. Star anise truffles (these were comparable to those at the best chocolatiers in town)
15. On our way out, the women in our party were each given a small package of two shortbread-like cookies.
Our dinner lasted four hours.
Every single dish was absolutely magnificent; there wasn't a single one that was less than superlative. Also, the portion size (on all but the amuses bouches) was quite ample, even generous considering the number of courses. These aren't tiny portions that leave plenty of empty room when served on a teaspoon (although I'm sure Chef Bowles would be happy to reduce the portion size if asked to do a 20- or 30-course meal).
I've been to many other fine restaurants, in Chicago and elsewhere, and this was one of the finest dinners I have experienced, in every way. I highly recommend Avenues to anyone who appreciates fine dining on the highest level. And if the cost of going there gives you pause, heck - JUST GO, and order a la carte. You will be just as equally impressed, I'm sure.
The Peninsula Chicago
108 East Superior Street (at North Michigan Avenue)
Chicago, Illinois 60611
(312) 573 6754
I had dinner there this past Saturday night, and am only partway through writing up a report on it. It was SPECTACULAR.
Chef Bowles is an absolute master, and deserves all the acclaim he has received. Yes, it is worth it. Absolutely.
If you appreciate the food at Alinea, Tru, and Everest, then Avenues should be your next stop.