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Avenues (Chef's Bar)

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We enjoyed our meal at Avenues. Pictures here:
http://thecollegecritics.com/2011/07/...

These are the second dog days of Avenues.

After two weeks touring the South—Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee—I drove north to Chicago. Before collecting my sister from her summer program at Northwestern, my family stopped downtown for dinner. Alinea stands at the center of Chicago’s dining scene—since 2005, Grant Achatz has trained a legion of “modernist” or “molecular” culinarians, all of whom share a common aesthetic lexicon. Visit Michael Carlson’s Schwa or Curtis Duffy’s Avenues and the food seems a logical extension of the “Alinea school” (which owes much to both The French Laundry and El Bulli). Duffy will leave Avenues sometime in September to open his own restaurant; Avenues lost Duffy’s predecessor, Graham Elliot, to a similar wanderlust.

For this generation of young (and ambitious) culinary professionals, the impulse to establish a persona supersedes the impulse to establish a legacy. In order to construct a celebrity personage, the chef eventually requires a studio, a place for free experimentation and artistic integrity. Legacy—the monumental history of the individual artist—follows from the personality of the chef. And in order to express personality, the chef needs his own space—to control, to dominate, to own. Even though Duffy crafted his own legend at Avenues, he operated in another man’s theater, painting in the fading tracery of another man’s palette.

Despite Duffy’s misgivings about staying at Avenues, his style reflects a mature personality and an impressive eye for poetics. Crab comes obscured under a transparent sugar cookie: iridescent orange trout roe and kalamansi gel hover above cucumber broth. The mechanical tension between each component resolves with a forceful tap; the tuile shatters, seasoning the crab soup. A sphere of ice cold sudachi juice, encased in a cocoa butter shell, erupts between closed lips. Mounds of shaved truffle settle on parmesan crisps, all balanced on a shooter of truffle soup. In these compositions—and they are carefully composed, constructed with architectural intention—Duffy exposes the ephemerality of his food. For each dish, there is a decisive moment from which all bites evolve. Break open a hollow cylinder of frozen coconut. As a sweet pineapple custard flows out, the liquid thickens and warms, enveloping slices of banana and melting the coconut ice. Photographing Duffy’s dishes only once betrays their beauty. Their fragility belies a capacity for orchestrated change. Like a whirligig or clockwork toy, eating follows a preordained program. Duffy winds up the doll; the diner just starts the machine. This kind of extreme precision never lapses into robotics. Every geometry gleams with Duffy’s spirit, and an original animation pervades every artifice.

In these last, static months of Duffy’s tenure, he surely anticipates future productivity and growth. The tenacity of Duffy’s legacy at Avenues remains unknown. He need not worry, however, about developing a stronger persona. If Grant Achatz has been his culinary generation’s Stein, then Duffy may be its Hemingway yet. Under Duffy’s direction, the techno-intimidation of “modernist cuisine” can become an elegant—and unabashedly masculine—rendering of the exotic and the everyday.

eta: a little more detail about the food
amuse: uni w/ rhubarb--the uni tasted a little off, there was a bitter aftertaste and unpleasant, definite fishiness

Alaskan King Crab (golden brook trout roe, kalamansi, lemon mint)--this is one of Duffy's "signatures" and it's absolutely wonderful. Sweet crab in a cucumber soup, the sugar tuile on top supports the kalamansi gel and the roe, so when you break the tuile the different components season the crab.

Cortez Bay Scallops (romaine marmalade, white poppy, nasturtium)--this was nice, the scallops themselves were a little bland, I enjoyed the smooth, sweet taste of the white poppy milk that gets poured over the scallops, the romaine marmalade gave a little bitterness.

Truffle on a parmesan crisp and truffle soup--wow, very generous helping of truffle (this wasn't on the menu but i'm pretty sure everyone got it as a mid course

)

Grains, seeds, nuts (amaranth veil, sultana, sunflower)--another of Duffy's standards, this was less successful for me. It was a very cerebral experience, texturally challenging with the chewy, crunchy seeds, a strong onion flavor, and the sweet raisins.

Hamachi (lardo, yuzu, rainbow chard)--the least successful dish of the night, I don't love hamachi ordinarily, but the main problem here was that there were way too many components on the plate: toasted cardamom marshmallow, carrots, carrot foam, yuzu tapioca pearls, a weird miso tinged rainbow chard braise, hammy lardo--just a mess of flavors and textures.

Wagyu Beef Ribeye (spring onion, smoked paprika, garden mustard)--this was even better than the crab, the beef was super tender, reasonably "beefy"--the morels, mustard, potato, and kind of charred paste on the plate had to be eaten all together for the full effect.

Sudachi (togarashi, nepitella mint)--a ball of cold sudachi juice encased in cocoa butter. shocking even if you know what to expect.

Coconut (pineapple, freeze dried saffron, vietnamese balm)--waay too sweet. yellow pineapple/saffron custard in a hollow frozen coconut cylinder. the cook in front of us told us that originally they used vodka to keep the center liquid, but have now switched to sugar to futz with the freezing point. with banana on the bottom of the plate, it tasted cloying.

Sambirano Valley Chocolate (brown butter, mandarin, stevia)--the combination of huckleberry and orange on the plate really made the chocolate pop. the chocolate looks like a 50-60% cacao but tastes +75

some chocolates at the end (they were fine).

there's a nice bread pairing w bolillo, pretzel, some sort of biscuit, and a waffle along w herb olive oil meyer lemon olive oil (emulsions) and some nice butter.

the experience of the chef's bar is highly recommended, although be warned that it's impossible to converse with your entire party because the seats are so far apart. I could only talk to the people immediately next to me.

this is also a spectacular value ($135) compared to nyc

-----
Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Graham Elliot
217 W. Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60654

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  1. I have reservations for Avenues mid august do you think it would be possible to get the chefs table instead with such late notice? was it full when you went?

    2 Replies
    1. re: ajpocp

      >> I have reservations for Avenues mid august do you think it would be possible to get the chefs table instead with such late notice?

      At Avenues it is really a "chef's bar" as noted by the OP, not a chef's table. It consists of a one-sided marble-topped counter facing the kitchen, with five or so barstools lined up for seating. As noted above, it makes conversation a bit more difficult, because you're not facing anyone, just like sitting along a long bar at a tavern.

      As for availability for the chef's bar seating, the only way you can find out for sure is by calling them, which is easy enough to do, by calling them at 312-573-6754. If it's available, they can add the request to your existing reservation.

      In general, reservations at Avenues haven't been terribly difficult to obtain, other than for Saturday nights. For example, Opentable shows openings this week at just about any time on any day other than Saturday.

      1. re: nsxtasy

        @ajpocp: To add on to nsxtasy's post: Six highstools, in practice arranged as three pairs. They have a "stepping pillar/step" between each pair of stools with the stools able to swivel towards the "stepping step" so you can more-or-less face your dining companion if dining as a twosome, but not to someone on the other side of you on a neighboring "pair of stools". BTW you will get blasted in the face with appreciable heat from the stoves/flattops right in front of you.