Thursday, August 11, 2011

Road Trip: Chicago--Avenues

Avenues is set in the upscale Peninsula hotel, where the Chef, Curtis Duffy, was awarded 2 Michelin stars in 2010.  He was previously at Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea before going to Avenues.  So we’re talking an impressive pedigree.  The dining room is quite formal and quiet, tables are spaced a good distance apart and the wine list is literally as big as a phone book.  There are two 8 course tasting menus and that’s it. You choose the vegetarian menu or the non-vegetarian menu (we went non-veg at $135 per person).  Each plate is placed in front of each diner at precisely the same minute. OK, you get the drift—it was the other end of the spectrum from Avec.
The food is also quite the opposite of rustic.  The food here could only be described as quite complex and really, kind of fussy, and visually beautiful.  Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate complexity in food, but there was so much going on in a lot of these courses, I will certainly struggle to remember probably 2/3 of the ingredients in most of them.  I won’t go through them all in total detail, because that would be a 10 page dissertation.  I am not sure how the kitchen staff keeps track of it all.
Look at the amuse bouche though, it was uni (sea urchin) served with a rhubarb compote and little green orbs that were basically frozen herb essence.  Hubby called them herby dippin’ dots. Beautiful.  And the flavors were good; I particularly liked the rhubarb with the dish. The next course was Alaskan King crab served in a glass with various ingredients—trout roe, lemon mint and lots of other little things—cucumber perhaps? But the whole glass was topped with a transparent sheet of paper thin sugar with a few additional ingredients on top that you cracked through to eat.  Completely lovely. But also probably my least favorite dish of the evening taste-wise. I didn’t care for the sweetness of the sugar.  I did like the salty burst from the fish roe though. And this was the point in the meal where I started to realize that the chef has a thing for exploding orbs in his food.

There was one course called “Grains, Seeds, and Nuts.”  Honestly, I thought this would be my least favorite…Sounded a little earthy crunchy to me.  But it was quite delicious. And it really was a lot of types of those things.  There were macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds and several kinds of grains and seeds, raisins, and a broth made of sunflower essence.  There was some little creamy cube in there that blended in with the broth to give it a little bit or richness.  I know I am still not doing it justice, but it was good. Very good.
There was also a hamachi dish which was just okay, and certainly very complicated, but I just mention it because the little exploding orbs here were tapioca pearls encased in yuzu—so they exploded with the tangy citrus of yuzu.  Interesting, but combined with the fish grilled and covered in lardo (which is basically cured fat) atop chopped rainbow chard with carrots, some sort of green foam (another ingredient forgotten) and some streak of a white creamy something else across the bottom of the plate, it became a little overwhelming.
They did a Wagyu beef dish which brought us back from the edge a bit.  While still somewhat complicated, it seemed a bit more cohesive.  There was quite a generous portion of the beef, which was lovely and rare, and sliced fairly thin.  It was one of the simpler dishes served with some spring onions, some wonderful morels and some mustard seeds (exploding orb theme continues).  There was also a little cylinder of a crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, Yukon gold potato.  I wished I had a couple more of these on the dish.
Our next dish was our first dessert round which we had traded from the veggie menu for the thing that was on ours (which was some sort of pineapple coconut thing which is not my favorite—nor is it hubby’s).  We were so glad we switched. This was one of the best desserts I can remember.  It was a little butter cake layer (very small in proportion to everything else) with a sheep’s milk creamy cheese layer (their take on cheese cake) topped with green strawberries and these wonderful little strawberry flavored meringue chips scattered throughout.  The green strawberries gave that tart kick to the richness of the cheese and the meringues were little treasures to stumble across giving you crunch and sweetness. There was also a dusting of bee pollen on top, giving a teeny bit more texture, although, I can’t say a lot of flavor.  This was spectacular and while somewhat complicated, not over the top.
So the next course (which incidentally, according to the menu, should have been before the desserts started) was our palate cleanser course, which was the ultimate exploding orb.  This was a ball, like the size of a giant gumball, made of white chocolate, but the ball itself was paper thin.  Inside it was filled with a liquid made of sudachi, which is a Japanese Citrus fruit.  You had to put the whole thing in your mouth and bite into it.  It was really sour. Really sour. I am not sure if it just is inherently, or of the combo of the white chocolate with it made it seem even more so, but wow.  Hubby hated this.  This dish actually really pissed him off because rather than cleanse his palate, it kind of ruined his.  Luckily, we just had one more course, a chocolate thing, so we were ok.  Thank goodness we didn’t actually get this before the cheese course or he would have been seriously bummed, because we both enjoyed that one so much.
The service was very professional, and our sommelier was super down to earth and friendly, which I always appreciate.  In fact, for some reason, although we ordered a bottle with dinner, they also brought us several other pairings throughout the dinner that we didn’t order, but very much enjoyed (and didn’t get charged for).  Can’t complain about that.
So you can see how this meal as well as our Avec meal were both mostly good, and completely memorable as dining experiences, which is obviously something that means a lot to me….I can’t say that either one were in the top couple of meals I have had in Chicago, but honestly, I think my favorite things are somewhere in between these two restaurants cuisine-wise.  But I tell you what, neither one of us will forget those sudachi balls….
(ED Note: Chef Curtis Duffy has since left Avenues to open a new venture…we seem to be good at eating somewhere just before the Chef leaves in Chicago…)
Avenues
The Peninsula Hotel
108 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL  60611
312/337-2888

3 comments:

  1. I usually stay at the Peninsula hotel....and frankly...have never been impressed with the food at avenues. They do a cool chocolate bar with jazz ensemble late night on fridays..at least they used to.

    If you haven't been...check out Schwa..BYOB...but awesome food...

    ..still love Trotters and Henri

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  2. I will be in Chicago in a few weeks, do you have any suggestions for breakfast?

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  3. Jessica, yes. Nuevo Leon. It's a Mexican place with awesome breakfast items. Super cheap too. As far as traditional breakfast places, I have never had one that really stood out.

    Lorand, I want to go to Schwa. I have worked hard to go there. Have not been able to get a reservation. Have heard mixed reviews of Henri. Enjoyed my one meal at Charlie Trotters.

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