Touring Chicago One Bite at a Time - Day 2: Avec
Chef/Restaurant owner Paul Kahan has undoubtedly become one of Chicago’s most respected and well-known people in the dining scene. Though he just opened the beer and pig heaven Publican, Chef Kahan’s two most noted restaurants in the city sit side by side – Avec and Blackbird. Having the restaurants side by side one another offers a chance to see the difference: Blackbird is a more refined, white-washed establishment with table cloths, tables, and waiters roaming the dining room in fine suits. On the other hand, Avec has long bar along the left side, and communal tables on its right. Instead of tablecloths, patrons sit at wooden tables on benches. Instead of finely clad waiters, the servers appear more casual and could easily be mistaken for a diner. And the noise. If any gripe has been said about Avec, it’s the noise level. We arrived around 5:30, and it was relatively quiet. I say relatively because as the night went on the noise level rose to near shouting levels. The space itself is narrow and very close-quartered, and though I never found myself bumping into anyone else, I left that night with a hoarse voice. Though, before our departure, we ate. And we ate well,
My Dad and I sat at the bar, and were soon approached by the waitress who was very friendly and explained the layout of the menu to us. Though, thanks to months of research, we came in with a game plan and knew what we were going to get. We began our feast with our two small plates: Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce ($9) and the Whipped brandade with garlic bread and fresh herbs ($10). Those of you who know about Avec, likely know about the dates. Much has been written about these golf ball size gems of deliciousness, so what I have to say will be but a drop in the bucket of praise. Wow. Amazing. Worth the hype. Dissecting them reveals the glorious layers of spicy chorizo, sweet dates, and fatty bacon. When combining all the ingredients in one bite, you hit all the right spots. An interesting side note: the man who was manning the wood fire station literally had about 20 dates ready to be put to the flame. Everyone I saw eating there that night had an order of these; and I finally saw why. One of my favorite parts of the dish was mopping up the slightly spicy tomato sauce that lay at the bottom of the dish with the chunk of bread served with the dish. The whipped brandade, another popular dish in Spain, what super rich. To be honest, the main component of the dish my Dad and I could taste was butter. Not that butter is a bad thing (anything but bad!), but I wish I could taste more of the brandade. The garlic bread served with the dish was excellent, however, and, when combined with the brandade, made for a sinfully garlicky, buttery bite - Scrumptious, but a little tiring on the palate after many bites. Overall, the dates were the winner of the small plates.
After our rather filling “small” plates, we were giving our two large plates. We began with the Trofie pasta with house made blood sausage, squid, bacon, grilled radicchio and tomato ($17). Prior to ordering this dish, I had never heard of trofie pasta before. According to some of my research, this pasta is similar to fussili and is short and squiggly. That sounds delicious and unique. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got. Instead of short squiggly pasta, we got flat noodles similar to unfilled ravioli. What I thought was most odd was that we were not told this prior to ordering the dish. Not a big problem, but I personally believe that a change from what’s on the menu should be told to the patron. Nit picking aside, the flavors were all extraordinary. I’ve never had blood sausage before, and I was afraid the flavor was going to be lost in the rest of the dish, but the richness of the sausage became the main flavor. Instead of having a metallic flavor from the blood, as I thought it would, the sausage had a great flavor of garlic and Mediterranean herbs and spices (fennel, perhaps?). Complimenting the blood sausage was the sweetness of the tomatoes and bitterness of the radicchio. Altogether, they stewed into a tremendously savory sauce. The squid was plentiful and only slightly chewy, with both tentacles and body rings making an appearance. Although the squid flavor was somewhat lost in the sausage and bacon, it added a nice texture difference to the perfectly al dente pasta. On the whole, a terrific dish that was highlighted by a well-seasoned house made sausage. Following the pasta dish, we dug into Avec’s other well-known dish: "Deluxe" focaccia with Taleggio cheese, truffle oil and fresh herbs ($14.50). What made this dish memorable was its simplistic genius. A thick spread of sweet and characteristically pungent taleggio cheese with an earthy finish was mixed with basil and other Mediterranean herbs and sandwiched between two cracker thin pieces of focaccia. To top it off, a little drizzle of truffle oil added an earthy aroma that permeated the each bite. As you can tell, we both loved this dish. And, once again, it was extremely rich. We were tossed between the focaccia and the pork shoulder, and if we do get back to Avec in the future, as I’m sure we will, we will definitely give it a try.
Although stuffed, my sweet tooth was curious to see what Avec had to offer. My Dad ordered the blackberry sorbet, and I ordered the caramel pana cotta with blueberries. Meh. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for their dessert, as Avec is known primarily for its savory offerings, but I was still somewhat disappointed. I did enjoy the intensity of the blackberry flavor in my Dad’s sorbet, and it had a velvety texture that is not found enough in often icy sorbets in other establishments. On the other hand, my pana cotta had caramel flavors that were too muted. The blueberries and blueberry sauce were good, but the main component was missing some flavor despite the silky custard texture. Should’ve ordered more stuffed dates! For the price, my Dad and I thought we had wonderfully prepared, well-balanced, simple food in a lively environment. Another cool note about our experience was seeing Chef Koren Grieveson roam around the dining room cleaning tables, delivering dishes, and chatting with diners. Being a big Iron Chef fan, I was both excited and impressed to see a chef that is not only at the restaurant, but involved in every aspect of service. If I lived near Avec, I would certainly make frequent visits and could easily see this becoming a great spot to relax after a long day, enjoy a drink at the bar, and enjoying some delectable Mediterranean food.