It’s 10:45PM and I am sitting in a hotel room in Chicago when my mobile phone rings. A couple of friends who I visited with in recent weeks are on the line joking with me while thinking that I am in bed at home. They, in fact, are stuck in Chicago after attempting to make an early evening transfer at O’Hare which was cancelled (a real rarity in the winter…) I ask what they are doing and find out that they are on their way to Avec at 615 West Randolph St. “Wow, you guys are lucky, I would love to join you at Avec”, I exclaim. After a bit of laughing, I tell them I am actually on my way (my hotel is 5 minutes from Avec.) They are stunned. After a bit of additional laughter and disbelief, I tell them that I have been in Chicago for the past couple of days eating my way around town and was just about to go to bed when they called. Avec has been on my list of places to eat since eating at Blackbird (fantastic) which is right next door. So…I throw caution to the wind, get dressed and jump in a cab. Five bucks later and I am standing in Avec waiting.
Avec is long and narrow. It’s all hard wood. Hardwood floors, tables, seating, bar, walls and ceiling. It has a large glass storefront and a hidden entry door to the left of the restaurant that is known to confuse guests as they arrive. The place is hip as are the people who work there and it has a cool, urban feel. We are seated right away by a smiling hostess and immediately approached by our server. Rather than delay service we ask that she make some choices for us and get us started.
Our first course is a small cast iron plate of Chorizo Stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce. These stuffed dates are a house specialty and, after the first bite, I know why. The sweet tender dates marry wonderfully with the salty chorizo forcemeat that surrounds them. This is a dish that you begin to taste before it enters your mouth due to the wonderful savory aroma that wafts around as they sizzle.
Next we enjoy a large plate of La Quercia prosciutto with honeycomb, orange zest, sliced pear, Spanish Marcona almonds and black peppercorn vinaigrette. This is the first time I have had La Quercia prosciutto even though the product has been on the market for more than five years. Made in Iowa by Herb and Cathy Eckhouse, La Quercia (Oak in Italian) is known for its artisan dry cured salumi and environmentally green sensibility. That Avec has sourced a reasonably local (La Quercia is 400
miles from Avec) supply of Prosciutto tells me much about Chef Koren Grieveson and her culinary sensibility. Each dish on her menu is well thought out, sourced locally if the quality is there, and perfectly prepared and seasoned. Back to the prosciutto…At first I wondered if the black peppercorn vinaigrette would be too strong but, interestingly, it’s nice and light. It appears that the peppercorns have been soaked and lightly pickled. They are tender and add a nice contrast to the salty prosciutto and sweet pear. The dish is perfectly seasoned and delicious.
Our final dish is a wood oven braised pork shoulder served with chestnut-bacon dumplings, butternut squash, kale, and fresh herbs. The pork comes in a cast iron Staub mini oval cocotte with a huge puff pastry vol au vent on top. It’s beautiful. I break through the pastry and find large steaming chunks of fork-tender pork coated in a wonderful savory braising liquid. Each of the vegetables is cooked through and perfect, not overly soft. The dish is rustic French with a modern flair due
to the moist and satisfying chestnut-bacon dumplings. Another great dish, we are three for three.
Avec is a study in exceptional cooking and service in an environment that is sleek and hip. Every dish we enjoyed was well executed, showed proper fundamental cooking technique, came to the table hot and well seasoned. Koren Grieveson is a talented chef at the top of her game. She has worked with great chefs over the years including Michael Mina and Keith Luce (of Spruce) and at Blackbird where she paid her dues as sous chef. I love her food and philosophy and Avec will remain on my “must visit” list when I return to Chicago.