Friday, August 5, 2011

Road Trip: Avec--Chicago

I recently had two dinners in Chicago that highlighted two ends of the dining spectrum for me.  They were both good and were such a great way for me to really appreciate and analyze two trends in dining and realize that I think maybe my favorite cuisine falls somewhere in between.  But these were both meals that were true dining experiences—the kinds that won’t easily be forgotten.
Our first dinner was at Avec.  If you haven’t heard of Avec, it is a very casual, small place specializing in what I would call rustic, homey food with little twists.  The restaurant is made up of a long bar along one side where you can eat and watch the food being prepared, and a long banquette of about 5 tables on the other side that seat 8-10 people, depending on how much they cram you in.  So it is pretty communal feeling.  Everything in there is wood—the benches, the chairs, the tables, the walls.  Again, keeping with the rustic but with a twist theme in my mind. 
Their menu consists of small and larger plates (think fairly generous tapas).  The one dish that seriously, everyone I have ever known who has been there has told me to get, is the chorizo stuffed dates.  It is one of their signature dishes that is always on the menu.  So, they are dates stuffed with quite spicy chorizo, wrapped in bacon and served in a thick, somewhat spicy tomato sauce.  So they are good, and very, very hearty.  I mean, seriously, that is a lot of slow cooked stuff.  So I am just going to say it, they weren’t my favorite.  There wasn’t anything wrong with them other than they just overwhelmed me with their pure spicy/sweet meatiness (sweet from the dates).  Hubby quite enjoyed them though.  And luckily, at the last minute our server told us we could get a half order (which is 2) which is what we did. Honestly, I couldn’t have eaten more than one.
The next two dishes they brought were the focaccia with Taleggio, Ricotta, herbs and truffle oil ($15) and the Brussels sprouts salad ($10).  Now they brought the focaccia first, but as we were about half way through it (ok, this is one you really need to share with like 4 people although we managed to eat pretty much all of it), they brought the Brussels Sprout salad. I really enjoyed this—it was shaved leaves of the sprouts, with shaved fennel, parmesan, shaved red onion and a brown butter orange vinaigrette.  This was just what I needed, just in time.  I was craving something that was not just purely rich and, as I said, rustic.  Even the bread, while tasty, didn’t have the sort of stinkiness I was hoping for from the Taleggio.  But some of the salad mounded on the bread? Perfect.  I would recommend if you get these 2 things, request them to be brought together.
The last savory dish we had was the pork shoulder with carrots, black rice, and basil pistou ($21), and served in broth.  Now, I really liked this one—it was soooo tender and the black rice gave it a little slightly crunchy texture, and the herby topping the freshness I always crave.  But this thing was huge.  Hubby was in pain because he wanted to eat it all because it was so good, but we were getting so full—and I really wanted to try a sweet.  But seriously, this was one of the “larger” plates and it could have easily fed 4 people, if not more, particularly when you are wanting to try a lot of things.

dessert wines...
So this place is small, heaving with people, and food is just coming out right and left all over the place.  It is boisterous, and although the service was quite good, it was certainly a very homey casual, slightly crazy feel.  The food is mainly very local, and seasonal and well, hearty…rustic.  So  the next night, you could not have gotten a more different meal than the one we had---I will post the review of the second night in the very near future….

Avec
615 West Randolph
Chicago, IL  60661
312/377-2002




Avec on Urbanspoon

15 comments:

  1. Avec continues to be my favorite restaurant in the Midwest. I've noticed that the last couple of times I've been there that some of my favorites on the menu (they used to do a halibut that was the best fish I've ever had) are no longer there. They still more than make up for it with the chorizo dates, the pork shoulder and their hanger steak. They've always got a great selection of cheese for a nice starter as well. Anytime I'm in Chicago, Avec is always on the list!

    Jay

    PS - Erin, I owe you some reviews for some excellent restaurants suggestions you gave me for a recent SF/Napa trip. (Prospect was amazing).

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  2. Avec has been a really seminal restaurant in Chicago, inspiring a generation of young chefs. You wouldn't have a Girl and the Goat or a Schwa without Avec having gotten there first.

    You didn't mention the prices, but Avec paved the way for putting out really excellent fare at a moderate tab. Before Avec, to eat really well on a regular basis in Chicago you had to fit in the right demographic. There's a lot of really good restaurants in Chicago now that have a much broader appeal. That's built a more sophisticated mass clientele, and it's made everyone step up their game.

    Avec opened in 2003. Indy seems to be getting there, places like Black Market and Room 4 are in the same mode. I see the similarity in Room 4, which is an offshoot of the higher-priced Recess in the same way that Avec was spun off from Blackbird. Great food at moderate prices is definitely a trend I'd like to see take hold here.

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  3. I just want to thank you for your handful of reviews from Chicago. My wife and I are heading up there soon for a few days of eating, drinking, walking, museums etc. We'll be staying in River North and will be without a car, but there are just so many great options... I've enjoyed doing lots of research!

    I picked a hotel close to the Frontera Grill/Topolo/Xoco, as I've been a Rick Bayless fan for many many years and am excited to eat at one or two of his restaurants.

    I could go on, but just wanted to say that I appreciated this review and am looking forward to the next one!

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  4. Jay- Yes, we look forward to going back and trying more things. We had a gift certificate and as hard as we tried, we couldn't use it all up! Good excuse for another trip though. And I can't wait to hear about your SF trip! Phew, glad at least one of my recommendations was good! ;)

    Pete, I did put the prices in the review, but you are right. This is a very reasonable restaurant in Chicago, particularly considering the quality of the food. I hope to see the trend continue in Indy too.

    Tom H, thanks for the support. I always wonder if people are interested in reading reviews from other cities, and it is good to hear. as far as Bayless restaurants go, I have only eaten at Topolo and it was a good experience, but I wish I would have tried one of the more casual ones instead to be honest. Would love to hear your thoughts after your trip.

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  5. I'll try to remember to send you a note, Erin! We have reservations for lunch at Frontera on the day we arrive... and I know my wife is hoping to go to Xoco for churros with a side of their thickest hot chocolate. Also on our list and near our hotel - La Madia, Sable and Watershed. Maybe the Purple Pig, depending on the wait.

    I'd probably blush at how much time I've spend surfing the web and looking at menus.

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  6. Erin, sorry about that I took a look again after I posted and did see that you listed the prices. One problem with blogger is you can't see the original post when writing your comment. But anyway, one of the noteworthy things about Avec is that it's a great value - IMO to get food prepared this well and almost always come out of there at less than $50/person with wine, tax and tip is a bargain.

    I'd say Avec and Frontera are good benchmarks in Chicago if you haven't eaten there before. Both have been very influential restaurants, not only Chicago but nationally. Neither take reservations and get very busy, you'll definitely get the hint from staff that you're taking up valuable real estate at Frontera. But they've both maintained their excellence over many years even though it would've been very easy to rest on their laurels.

    Anyone looking for in depth, I mean ridiculously granular, info on Chicago dining should check this out:
    http://www.lthforum.com

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  7. Tom, well I look forward to hearing your full reports! And believe me, I spend way too much time looking at menus online too, especially when I am getting ready to go somewhere.

    Pete, I agree, I need to try Frontera as I think it may be a better representative than Topolo (and a much better bargain).

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  8. Heading up there next week for a seminar & hoping to spend the remainder of the weekend exploring. Avec has been on my list for a while. I really need to make it there & check it out. Great review, thanks!

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  9. I think Frontera is a must for anyone who hasn't eaten there before, Bayless single-handedly transformed Mexican cooking the US. Before Frontera every Mexican restaurant in the country was spewing out the same 10 combo plates with a side of soupy refried beans, rice and shredded iceberg lettuce.

    Frontera showed how sophisticated and exciting Mexican cuisine can be. It's always super busy and noisy and crowded and jammed with tourists, but the quality has never wavered and he's always kept the prices reasonable when he could've easily milked it.

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  10. I liked avec, maybe better than the publican... But the Bristol has been my favorite place to eat in Chicago recently.

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  11. Charlie Trotters still rocks...and I think he and the kitchen remain relevant

    Birriera Zaragoza is cool...Taza..Alinea...Gilt Bar..Blasan...outdoor grill...hoanh long (rokin viet fish) (sp?)

    really too many to miss and mention.

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  12. Jessica in NoblesvilleSeptember 5, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    Erin, I just got back from a weekend in Chicago, and hubby and I checked out The Purple Pig for lunch on Sunday. I discovered it thanks to this blog, and by following Tom H's link to the Chicago restaurant forum. We arrived minutes after they opened and were seated outside immediately. It was a gorgeous day, perfect for outdoor dining.

    Because they do the small plates thing, we were able to try several different items. We started with almonds roasted in pork fat with rosemary and garlic ... then moved on to fried manchego cheese squares with tomato-quince sauce ... salt-roasted beets with goat cheese ... and a pork-neck gravy (neck portion slow-roasted in tomato sauce until the meat falls off the bone) served with ricotta cheese and huge, buttery pieces of toasted bread. It was a delicious meal with lots of flavors, and plenty of interesting things to try. If I find myself on Michigan Avenue again, I'd definitely go back.

    The other meals we had in Chicago was pizza at Gino's East downtown (a nostalgia trip for my family and always popular), and a Vietnamese place around 4900 N, Halsted called Tank. Tank was awesome, super-busy for lunch on Labor Day but friendly staff, delicious foods (we shared many plates) and super-fresh spring rolls. I do love going back to Chicago to eat, but am always grateful to get back home after the craziness of the city.

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  13. Erin- my family and I just moved here from Chicago 2 months ago and needless to say I am desperately missing the food scene there! Any good recommendations for date night/ out with friends evening?? Btw, great casual Chicago restaurant to try next time is Big Star in Wicker Park. Best pork belly tacos ever!

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  14. mk, you will find some gems in Indy, but they are not as prevelant as they are in Chicago for sure. If you haven't tried these, you should at some point: Recess, Room 4, R Bistro, H20 Sushi, Black Market. Also, we do have a lot of great ethnic places to check out, but too many to list here. Also, you are the second person in a week to recommend Big Star, so it is currently in the plans for a trip we have planned to Chicago for next weekend. Would love to hear any other off the beaten path places you can recommend.

    Greg, I am hoping to try the Bristol next weekend when we go to Chicago.

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  15. Also, Tom H, if you are reading this, did you try any of those places you mentioned? We are looking for a place for lunch near our hotel and the ones you mentioned may just be perfect. Did you try any of them?

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Thanks, Erin