On the Avenues – Avenues
I had not dined at Avenues in the years since Graham Elliott Bowles decamped for Graham Elliott, and as I will leave Chicago for a year, the time had arrived (or even long passed). I was a fan of GEB’s zany cuisine, and I worried that the magic could not be sustained. But I was wrong. In fact, if anything, Chef Curtis Duffy cuisine is uber-magical if not quite as charmingly goofy.
I selected the eight-course garden (vegetable) chef’s menu served at the kitchen bar: switching out a tofu dish and a chocolate dessert, neither of which sit well with me. My short ribs were the only meat of the evening, but surely a splendid protein.
Time prevents a full recitation, but my dishes were:
1) Heirloom tomatoes with golden watermelon, elixir, and garden herbs
2) Sweet corn with charred husk, finger limes, and coriander blooms
3) Grains, seeds and nuts: Amaranth veil, puffed sunflower seeds
4) Acquerello risotto, black figs, chanterelle, and oxalis
5) Beef short ribs with lime, pinenuts, and cilantro flowers
6) Chilled passion fruit with tapioca, rose, and lemon balm
7) Spring cucumber, olio verde jam, Buddha’s hand, and African blue basil
8 ) Strawberry ice with Thai black pepper, mascarpone, and opal basil blossoms
Over the years I have become less enamored by those deconstructed dishes in which chefs place an array of disorganized (if prettily arranged) “things” on the plate, and let diners “have at it.” They often seem lacking in a conception of combination. They can be lovely but thoughtless. Chef Duffy is notably thoughtful, high praise indeed. The dish most characteristic of the strains of modern cuisine was most notably true of the first appetizer that was an appealing array of heirloom cherry tomatoes, watermelon, and herbs, although not a dish in which the ingredients truly locked together. Dishes can be deconstructed, but can they be reconstructed again? Still, there was no dish that I did not enjoy (I didn’t care for my cocktail, a Thai Kick Boxer, which was a soupy mess of basil, coconut water, and not much alcohol).
I particularly admired the sweet corn dish, a mix of fascinating flavors and textures – an upside down icy bowl. I was particularly impressed with the range of temperatures that were embedded in that single dish with the multiple textures of corn and the appealing lime and coriander. It was surely not the most beautiful dish of the evening, but the best conceptualized and most memorable.
The mix of grains, seeds, and nuts – a tribute to sunflower seeds and amaranth - was also an astonishingly delightful dish with its lovely mixture of textures and tastes (including, as I recall, raisins). It was served at the right time, in the right place, and was still fully unexpected in its joy and its terroir.
The third dish that I especially loved was the spring cucumber dessert which was herbal and sweet in equal measures. This was perhaps the most beautiful dish of the evening (although the strawberry and the risotto came close). The cucumber plate succeeded in every way that I could imagine a dessert to work. It was a triumph. Desserts often are anticlimaxes. This magnificent sweet was a star.
It was because of this trio that the dinner itself was a triumph. The dinner had no missteps (aside from the cocktail). Service was graceful and congenial (although sitting on high stools at the bar made service a bit difficult for a few height-challenged staff. Even though we sat at the kitchen bar, the food was not served by the cooks from the front (a la Minibar or Momofuku Ko), but from behind, a slightly awkward arrangement. I assume that the rationale was that the chefs were cooking for the entire restaurant and not simply for the eight of us at the bar.
Of all of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, setting aside Alinea (for Achatz’s genius) and Schwa (for Carlson’s commitment), there is no local restaurant that is comparable to Avenues for providing truly remarkable food. For travelers who select their hotel based upon cuisine, the only choice is the Peninsula. I loved Avenues under Bowles, thinking that it could not be improved. I waited too long to discover that I was wrong.
The Peninsula Hotel
108 E. Superior Street
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