Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Table d'Hote

Freedom can be a curse. Constraint transforms an indulgent fantasy into an object to be shared. While some artists can curb themselves, often their most profound work is that on which others - bosses, backers, distributors, or dealers - make demands. Mel Brooks was never so clever as in those years before he became MEL BROOKS and could do what he wished without the limits that others placed. Compare his tight and tough early work on "The Producers" with his later flabby and self-indulgent "History of the World."

What is true for directors is equally true for chefs. The chef with too little oversight is prone to forget that variation on tradition surpasses variation without tradition every time. This is the challenge that those prominent chefs who are attempting to amaze diners with their Technocuisine often ignore.

This came to mind at a very satisfying second meal at Avenues. Avenues is the lead restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, currently overseen by Chef Graham Elliott Bowles. Bowles, along with Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homero Cantu of Moto, are reconstructing American cuisine in Chicago with nods to Ferran Aria's El Bulli or Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck -- and now Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 in New York. Yet, Chef Bowles has an odd advantage that these other chefs lack - a bureaucratic structure that grants some leeway, but demands that his creativity appeals to a broader audience. He must work within the bounds of corporate capitalism. Bowles's stage, pleasant though it is with a lovely view of the Chicago skyline, is hotel-generic. The scene is the comforting one of traditional high-end dining; the setting gives no clue that Bowles' work is outside the Hilton/Hyatt ambit.

Many fellow eaters, especially those who embrace an auteur theory of culinary production, would suspect that the presence of an international bureaucracy is less than a boon, but it is a curative for gustatory excess. Chef Bowles must please not only truculent gourmets who search out the new-new thing, but must satisfy hotel customers who choose The Peninsula and wish to dine avoiding the gusts of Michigan Avenue. Not only must he produce dishes that satisfy those gourmets looking to be astonished, but satisfy financial masters who demand a assigned food cost without dibbles of red ink stretching far into the future. Whether Chef Bowles can bring this off remains to be seen; however, from the standpoint of cuisine, his blend of creativity with pragmatism is a genial success. In these past six months Chef Bowles is developing a distinctive style. In visual terms his dishes meld Jackson Pollack and Morris Louis, thin smears of color combined with an dynamic placement of ingredients, encircled by the action painting of condiments, foams, and sauces. The dishes look like constructions from the zenith of New York Abstract Impressionism.

As for the taste and texture, Bowles draws on those features now become "traditional" (dare we say) in technocuisine - foams, startling ingredients (pop rocks with foie gras in Bowles's signature foie-lipop - an unbeguiling dish I had on my first visit and which will last me a lifetime). What impresses me is how these techniques no longer demand attention, dominating the plate, but rather enrich a classical palette. In contrast to Homero Cantu at Moto and Grant Achatz at Alinea, Bowles has remained loyal to the urbane purity of Charlie Trotter's experimentation. I speculate that some of his choices owe some to institutional demands.

Having eaten quite a bit recently in New York City, I was pleased to see that Chef Bowles stood by the display kitchen, actually checking each plate. All too often New York celebrity chefs need a map to get to their restaurants. Even Gabrielle Hamilton arrived at Prune after we started our meal and left before dessert. During my first meal at WD-50 (but not during the second) Chef Dufresne was chowing down in Berkshire at The Fat Duck. One is more likely to see Chef Vongerichten at JFK than at Jean-Georges. So, it is nice that in Chicago, chefs, even well-regarded ones, are kitchen-bound. Perhaps the best news of the Chicago fall was the collapse of Charlie Trotter's plans to clone himself at the Time-Warner Center.

At my first meal at Avenues last spring my wife and I selected the Chef's Palate Menu, consisting of twelve courses. In those heady pre-blog days, I did not keep tasting notes, but I recall an ecstatic lobster dish, flavored with celeriac and verbena, and a fine hamachi with soy, yuzu and radish. There were a number of disappointments, notably the half-frozen foie-lipop. If we must torture ducks, let them die for a noble cause, not to become a Tootsie Roll on a stick.

Here we ordered the six course tasting menu: I ordered the game menu (with a substitution for the foie gras) and my wife the vegetable menu. Unlike Charlie Trotter's where the Vegetable Menu outshown the Grand Menu, at Avenues, the vegetarian dishes were less well-conceptualized, although in several cases excellent in execution. At times the vegetarian dishes mimicked the meat dishes with an offending ingredient absent. This night I was not jealous of her choice.

We begin with a lovely amuse with a cauliflower puree with apple essence, micro-argula, and dots of salmon caviar (the vegetarian amuse excised caviar). The puree was a tribute to a Cuisine of Essences: pure cauliflower, with a bit of apple tartness and roe saltiness. A robust and mature start.

My opening dish of pheasant in a boudin noir smear with an oxtail confit and (again) sauteed argula was as fine an appetizer as I could have wished. Until the multiple course meals, a six course tasting menu permits the chef to work on a larger canvas and permits the diner to experience food over time, mixing the main ingredients with sauces in various combinations. I like the bravery of mixing pheasant with boudin and with oxtail (game, pork, and beef) in the same dish, and found that this dish - not exactly a stew but a buffet - had the solidity that a game dish demanded.

My wife's deconstructed Caesar salad, was a clever retooling of this classic dish. Large squares of brioche were filled with dressing, and a cleverly designed floweret of romaine was coated with a Parmesan mix. I don't know that the taste of a perfectly made Caesar was much improved, but the agape factor was high.

My second course was a highpoint of the meal, a surprising mix of scallops, pumpkin, eggnog, and endive. The pumpkin surprisingly did add to the scallop, not overwhelming it, and the endive was suitable to mix and match. I had worried about the sweetness of the eggnog, but it was a heady foam that could be added or avoided at will. This is the kind of thoughtful and unexpected linkage that characterize the best of Chicago cuisine.

My wife's Matsutake with Radish and Cilantro (with Togarashi spices - a Japanese spice mix) was unexceptionable as a salad dish, but reminded me of a very high end coleslaw.

As a third course, we both were served Risotto with cipollini onions. Mine had frog legs, hers did not. Les grenouilles tasted, well, like chicken, and rather stringy chicken. In the case, less was more. The menu lists truffle on the description of these dishes, and perhaps there was truffle in the risotto, but we were offered grated truffle as "a supplement," perhaps not the wisest strategy to keep happy diners, although perhaps a come on for the bottom line. We declined.

My fourth course was another grand success: tender-roasted bison covered with sassafras with grits and chard. I loved the mix of the bison - nearly a pot roast - with the properly prepared grits. At our previous meal we were served buffalo with grits, chard, and barbecue, but the sassafras lent a more classical and subtle edge to the dish than the somewhat overpowering sauce. Whether buffalo and bison are - at Avenues - the same animal, I can't tell, although each had its own spot on the Ark.

My wife's pumpkin with eggnog, spice and vanilla included a prettily displayed small squash, more beautiful than powerfully flavored, although a nice addition to the vegetarian menu.

My final main course consisted of several squares of venison surrounded by various accompaniments, including Irish Steel-Cut Oatmeal, Spinach (I think, although, who knows, perhaps it was sauteed argula!), and Yam "Tatar Tots" with cocoa and juniper sauce. The venison served as shards of bread - to mop up other ingredients. None of which made a huge impression, although the dish was not discordant. The tater tots may have been too cute (they were really more like a Yorkshire pudding), not bad, but less than memorable.

On the vegetarian menu, the choice was potato with kale and huckleberry. Having only a small taste, I can't express a firm opinion, but again this dish seemed less conceptualized than the dishes on the other menus - more a sop to those who don't eat meat than part of a philosopher's plan.

For the desserts, the vegetarian choice was superior. My wife was served a yogurt panna cotta perched in a tart-sweet cranberry soup. It was lovely in design and in execution. My dessert had its points as well - Avenue's cheese tray: Roquefort cheese, spiced walnuts, essence of pear, and still more micro-arugula. This conclusion was not shocking - conventional with a twist - but I did envy my wife's luscious soup.

Chef Bowles deserves much credit: in part, as Woody Allen notes, because showing up is most of life, but also because he has learned to prepare dishes that appeal to multiple audiences. The foams, deconstructions, and shot-gun marriages were shrewd and occasional, allowing the chef to demonstrate that he could apply classical techniques with finesse. Whether his supervisors - those necessary monsters with the green eyeshades - will agree only time will tell.

The Peninsula Chicago
308 East Superior Street

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