Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Restaurants’

Smyth Chicago

Posted 25 Mar 2017 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Tonight I visit Smyth in Chicago with wonderful anticipation after reflecting on how our stories converge. Back in the 1990’s and 2000’s when I wanted a great meal in Chicago I would visit Charlie Trotters and it was there that I first saw Karen Urie (now Shields) at work.  Charlie introduced Karen as she passed me in the kitchen while I was hovering after an incredible meal. Karen prospered at Trotters prior to moving on with her (now) husband John Shields and this speaks to her strength and character. When I heard that Karen and John Shields opened Smyth in Chicago it warmed my heart – a culinary duo with a fantastic lineage paying it forward and inspiring a new generation of cooks and chefs. I placed Smyth on the top of my list for my next visit to Chicago.

Unfortunately I had a very limited window of time to visit Smyth – it had to be upon arrival to Chicago. My flight in was delayed but I was able to make my reservation – bouncing up the stairs to the door to Smyth right on schedule. One foot in the door and I am warmly greeted: “you must be Mr. Griffin – welcome, thank you for joining us tonight.” I love it when the FOH crew is ready and organized. Though dining alone isn’t always my preference, the team at Smyth placed me at a fantastic table within easy view of the pass and kitchen. It took all of five minutes to relax, order a Manhattan (with Rye) and start my journey.

When I benchmark a great restaurant my goal is always to observe the details and to take what I learn back to my students. It is a challenge to remain fresh and current in a complex and constantly changing industry but evenings like the one I experienced at Smyth keep me inspired. Words fall short in expressing the warmth and hospitality that flows at Smyth. Their come-as-you-are philosophy, and casual but elegant dining room aesthetic rains with relaxation. You won’t find white linen or stuffy servers here but you will find gorgeous walnut tables, classic Hans Wegner Kennedy chairs, and curated tableware. This is dining built on years of experience, mastery, and complexity rendered with integrity and purity. Congratulations Karen and John – thank you for a wonderful evening and for the inspiration. Best and blessings to you and your team.

Maitake, Spruce, and Sassafras Tea

Salted & Frozen Radish, Oyster, and Seaweed

Dungeness Crab & Foie Gras with Scrambled Kani Miso

Shima Aji Seasoned With Its Fish Sauce and Spicy Plants

Shima Aji Ribs, Barbequed Over the Hearth

Uni Taco

Caramelized Potato & Sunchoke with Dried Scallop and Trout

Dried Corn Tartlet with Squab Liver Mousse

Roast Squab, Black Walnuts, Grains, and Apple

Brioche Doughnut with Aged Beef Au Jus, Ribeye of Beef, Wasabi, and Brussels Sprouts

Pickled Onions with Lamb, Black Allium, and Black Truffle

Milk Chocolate, Huckleberry, and Preserved Shiitake Mushroom

Egg Yolk Soaked in Salted Licorice with Frozen Yogurt Meringue

Carrot Sorbet, Pine Pollen, Honey, and Sour Quince Curd

Lovage Stem and Carrots Coaxed into Licorice

Smyth Restaurant

177 N Ada St #101,

Chicago, IL 60607

 

Table 52 ~ Chicago

Posted 27 Mar 2012 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

Art Smith is such a nice guy and Table 52 in Chicago radiates his warmth. It’s a true manifestation of his dream of a restaurant and serves the type of southern comfort food he was raised on. When I first met Art he had just dropped a ton of weight, was feeling spry and was about to open Table 52. He had the whole thing figured out in his head and spoke of it with pure energy and enthusiasm.

Every good chef that I have ever met dreams of opening his or her own place. A privileged few get the chance and an even smaller number actually find success and make a good living. It truly is a labor of love. Art was lucky, he had built his celebrity working as Oprah’s chef for a decade before striking out on his own in 2007. Table 52 became his obsession when he left Oprah.

While in the windy city last month I checked in at Table 52 for a snack and the place was thumping. The lower dining room was stuffed elbow to elbow with a line out the door. With low tin ceilings and a rustic white washed panel décor, the lower dining room is more of a southern style bistro with a great hearth oven anchoring the room. However, the upper dining room is a whole other affair.

With high ceilings, thick custom drapes, wide striped wall paper, and fine decorative molding the upper room feels like a fine antebellum parlor. Custom antique-like side stations and a high-boy filled with wine add warmth to the room. I imagine how much fun Art and his partner and designer Julie Latsko must have had designing this room; how fantastic to be living the dream.

Crab Cake, Salt & Pepper Chips, Tartar Sauce, Frisee Salad

Art’s team prepares food reminiscent of his southern heritage. Each dish offers hints of authenticity with flourishes of creativity. This isn’t the stick to your ribs shrimp and grits and corn bread of Charleston or Atlanta, it’s more of a Midwestern version of southern fare as locally sourced ingredients would dictate. The food is delicious and comfortable and the restaurant shines when it comes to service. Art’s dream is alive and well in Chicago.

Short Rib, Barley Risotto, Carrot Ginger Puree, Tobacco Shallots

Table 52

52 W. Elm Street

Chicago

  312.573.4000

Alinea Restaurant: Reflecting on Excellence

Posted 21 Feb 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Table Top

Reading Christopher Borelli’s March 15th story about Chef Grant Achatz in the Chicago Tribune last week motivated me to finish up this posting about my first trip to Alinea. Borelli’s story piqued my interest and left me emotionally mixed due to the subtle rancor it exposed between Achatz and Chef Charlie Trotter, a rancor that has existed for years. Those of you who read this blog know that I admire Charlie Trotter and consider him a friend. He has made an indelible mark on American cuisine and, to my dismay is occasionally vilified for his intense personality and leadership style. It seems at times that people fail to notice his incredible heart and his enduring commitment and contributions to the profession. We are all fickle at times.

Achatz, on the other hand, is a true inspiration. I know him by two degrees of separation through a very good friend who worked as poissonnier at the French Laundry when Achatz was the chef de cuisine there and through several others who have stagieired with him. Achatz’s reputation is stellar and those that have worked for him stay in contact and consider him a friend. They speak of him with deep admiration of an authentic and heartwarming kind. That Achatz earned three Michelin stars delights me; that Trotter did not is saddening. In all forms of art there is a natural passing of the guard as generations shift, new talent emerges, and earlier icons transition to the background. In such a physically demanding profession, this is the cycle of life. Examples from the profession are too numerous to mention. I know Trotter could achieve 3 stars if he chooses, he and his team have the talent, drive, and resources. Time will tell.

Rather than see this cycle of change as unnatural or competitive like a foot race where a younger culinary runner outstrips an older runner who used to run a four minute mile, I see it as a relay race where Trotter burned a lap or two at his peak and has now handed the baton, begrudgingly, to Achatz. Someday Achatz will go through the same cycle and relinquish the baton to another younger culinary runner. Alinea is the restaurant in Chicago right now, one of the top 5 in the country, and Grant’s legacy is assured. However, Trotter’s legacy will remain intact too even as Achatz takes the lead role. Had Michelin come through in the 1990’s or early 2000’s, Trotter would have three stars. These are the mixed feelings that come to mind as I write of my delightful experience at Alinea; one that is on par and compares with my first trip to Charlie Trotter’s way back in the early 1990’s.

Alinea

It’s cold and dark and I think my cab driver is lost on the north side of Chicago. The address we are searching for is on North Halstead and that’s where we are, heading north but we can’t find our destination. We are desperately scanning the rows of brownstones for 1723 North Halstead home of Grant Achatz’s Alinea. I know we are in the right place but there’s nothing but row houses along the street. Its 9:20PM and my reservation is for 9:30. I am starting to get pissed, concerned that the cab driver took me to the wrong location. I wonder if I should get out of the cab and walk a while, but the street is deserted and I worry I won’t be able to find another cab if I am in the wrong place and have to back-track. The driver pulls over and we try to figure things out.

That’s when we see a bunch of people congregating around the entry of a two story loft like building made of grey brick and glass. It has to be Alinea. There is no big sign, no flashing lights or anything else. You arrive at Alinea when you find it. A stark contrast to the press and hype that Chef Achatz has endured these past five years, his name in lights everywhere but here. I pay and tip the cab driver feeling apologetic for assuming he was at fault and make my way across the street relieved to be on time and feeling excited.

In the dining room now, I am greeted and escorted directly to my table, a stark square table with a dark wooden top. The dining room is modern, equally as stark and comfortably spaced. Sitting alone for a bit I check out the service ware, glassware is Spiegelau, china is Bernadaud or custom made (as I will soon find out). Scanning the room while I wait, there are two waist-high buffets pushed up against a wall with white cloth tops, the servers using them as side stations. I continue to wait. The sound of a barely audible acoustic guitar floats from the sound system in the background. I unwind and relax. This environment feels cool and relaxing in a minimalist, Zen-like way.

Finally my server approaches, introduces himself and asks if I am planning to have the 12 or 22 course menu. This is an interesting question and one that I didn’t expect considering the fact that I wasn’t provided with a menu yet. Intuition firing, it becomes clear that the rules at Alinea are different so I ask how things work. My server educates me. The rules of the game require that I order from either the 12 course or 22 course menu. The menus are prix fixe and “engineered” for maximum flavor, balance, and creativity but can be adjusted for food allergies (not any) and dietary restrictions (none, thank you). Other than that, you are along for the ride and eat what you get. And this is where things get interesting. My meal was breathtaking and full of surprises and emotions unlike any other I have had before. Here’s a recap.

Seafood

Croquette of Steelhead Roe with Parisienne of Cucumber, Sour Cream with Endive, Fried Caper and Steelhead Roe.

The little white ceramic pedestal this dish is served on intrigues me. That it is piping hot in the middle with so many tiny little garnishes blows my mind. Achatz’s mise en place must be pristine.

Seafood 

Lightly Grilled baby Octopus with Shiso and Broth

Another complicated dish with another twist added, the server hands you the bowl and warns not to put it down. Once you have the bowl in your hand, you must engage this dish and eat it. To keep things simple, a fork full of octopus is balanced on the edge of the bowl and ready for consumption. A quick bite off the fork and a couple of sips of the broth and it’s done. Servers rush in to take the bowl before it rolls across the table.

Mushrooms

Golden Chanterelle Puree with Curry, Spinach, Dijon, Tomato and Apricot, Cured Ham, Carrot Foam

I have to admit that the thought of curry, apricot and Dijon didn’t initially appeal to me but once I tasted this dish I loved it. The deep savory mushroom puree with its silky texture served as a perfect base for the additional garnish and none of the garnishes were lost in this dish. Each brought its own notes of complimentary texture and flavor.

 

Celery Water and Apple Juice inside a Coco butter shell, Micro Celery Fronds

When the server places a top-heavy crystal clear shot glass with a tiny white ball and some green liquid in front of me, I am once again intrigued. The server warns to suck this item down like a shooter and to keep my mouth shut once I have the ball in my mouth to prevent it from exploding out across the table. In it goes…and wham…there’s an explosion. The cocoa butter ball totally bursts open upon impact and melts in milliseconds on contact with my tongue. The apple juice is tart and washes it down leaving a perfectly clean palate. Just incredible.

Seafood     

Monkfish Loin Fillet and Liver Quenelle with Banana Lime Pudding, Crispy Monkfish Tail, Dehydrated Onion Paper, Chive and Snowy Ramp

This dish is served in a lovely Luna plate is by “O” and it looks a bit like a commode. The presentation is striking if not subdued. Although a contrast in flavors that are rich and lean, savory, sweet, and acidic, this dish is also a real treat in contrast including smooth (quenelle), creamy (pudding), toothsome (loin), and crisp (tail and onion).

Duck

Juniper Duck 3 Ways with Wine Braised Turnips, Duck Leg Confit, Sliced Cured Duck Breast, Duck Craklings, Whipped Yogurt Water and Mango

My server places a pillow in a white linen cover in front of me of me and I don’t know whether to take a nap or use it as a napkin. A moment later the same server returns with my duck dish and places it on the pillow and the pillow immediately begins to deflate letting out a gentle bursts of juniper “air” that engulf my face. Inhaling the juniper, my mouth waters and I dig into the duck. Some real thought had to go into this dish, the flavor profiles engineered into it, and the theatrics that surround it. The overall experience is stunning.

 Short Ribs

Cayenne Short Ribs with Guinness Gelée, Toasted Peanut, Peanut Puree, Broccoli Puree, Shaved Broccoli Stems, Crispy Broccoli Florets

Just when I think there are no surprises left, Achatz’s serves this piping hot short rib with a thin sheet of gelée over it. It looks like he shrink-wrapped the plate prior to sending it out to me. The gelée is suctioned to the short ribs and pureed garnish below it. Additional garnish are placed on top of the gelée providing a wonderful texture and contrast to the items pressed below. Aesthetically, this is the most profound course yet. That Achatz would think to create a thin sheet of gelée with the perfect level of bloom so that it stays intact over hot food but still melts effortlessly on the palate and then execute it so flawlessly speaks to his craftsmanship and creativity. The dish is absolutely delicious.

 Potato and Truffle

Potatoes and Truffle

This simple bite-sized item is a study in simplicity, the wax bowl seeming to me to be a bit of a novelty. Great tasting and the truffle is bold and full flavored.

 Lamb

Lamb Loin Three Ways

Three square pieces of lamb arrive at the table on a sizzling hot rectangular stone mounted on a custom metal frame. At one end of the stone, there’s a bunch of rosemary propped up vertically through a hole. My server lights the tips of the rosemary and they smolder for a second or two, the scent of deep toasted pine lingering over the table. I consume this dish using chopsticks, each chunk of tender sous-vide lamb going down in one bite. The toasted rosemary is a nice touch.

 Bacon

Bacon

Anyone who serves bacon as a course unto itself is a hero in my mind. Achatz’s fresh bacon is creatively served on a wire frame and is delicious and mild.

Ice Cream

Extra Virgin Olive Oil Ice Cream

The olive oil ice cream is smooth and delicious and the pressed cookie base under the pavee is fantastic.

 Dessert

Chocolate and Passion Fruit Noodles

These hydrocolloid noodles represent a molecular technique that I like but feel is a bit over-done. Luckily they taste great; the chocolate is deep and slightly malted and the passion fruit a nice end-of-meal palate cleanser.

~~~~~

This is a long entry and one I have been meaning to post for some time. This meal was an adventure. When I started my meal without a menu my curiosity was peaked and each dish thereafter exceeded my expectations, entertained me, was innovative, delicious, and engineered on multiple sensory levels. There was more than a light dose of theater in my experience: exploding apple, puffing pillow, burning rosemary and all. Alinea is a national treasure and a place that, in my mind, defines one of the many facets of American fine dining in the new millennium. Achatz deserves three Michelin stars for taking the experience of dining to a whole new level. May he run the fastest lap yet during his time on the track.

Alinea

1723 North Halsted St

Chicago, IL 60614

The Peninsula Hotel Chicago

Posted 14 Apr 2010 — by S.E.
Category Hotels

Peninsula Hotel Lobby

A recent trip to Chicago landed me at the Peninsula Hotel on East Superior Street visiting with a friend who serves on their management team. I have known him for nearly two decades but like most guys my age, only contact him live once every couple of years to check in and see how he’s doing. It was late on a Saturday afternoon when I called him just after my plane landed at Midway. We had prearranged our meeting at the hotel a couple of days earlier and he was just finishing up for the day when we connected. After a quick cab ride from the airport I was on my way up in the elevator to the hotel lobby on the fifth floor. From the minute I got out of the cab the five-star service this hotel is known for was evident. It was even more apparent when the elevator opened on the fifth floor and I stepped out. The main lobby was elegant with its shiny, coral colored stone floor, cream colored walls, lightly vaulted ceiling, potted plants and cherry storefront display cases. Straight off the elevator down a long, pleasant corridor is the main reception desk.

Pastry Buffet

The lobby restaurant is off to the right of the reception desk on the same floor. The exterior wall of the lobby restaurant consists of a series of two story high windows looking out over an expansive patio. The fit and finish of the space is extraordinary. Looking up, the coffered ceiling consists of a wonderful series of large squares inset periodically with a recessed circle where delicate crystal chandeliers hang like falling water. Although architecturally stunning, the dessert buffet in the middle of the room was even more impressive. On Saturday evenings, the Peninsula offers guests what has become one of the most popular classical dessert buffets in the city. Looking over the selections, it is likely that the Peninsula is the only hotel in the city producing this quality of work. The display exhibited a level of craftsmanship rare in today’s culinary world. My first inclination was to start grazing. Instead we took off up the elevator to the Peninsula suite for a tour.

Peninsula Suite Sitting Room

The Peninsula suite, located on the 18th floor, is the hotels premier accommodation with up to three bedrooms, a dining room, living room, office, media room, massive bathroom, fireplace and terrace overlooking Michigan Avenue. The entrance to the Peninsula  suite was staid and unremarkable but the suite itself was anything but. Once the lights were on, I noticed more custom light fixtures along with high end furnishings, custom millwork, tile and granite, and museum quality art throughout. The suite runs $8000 per night.

We wrapped up our tour with dinner at Shanghai Terrace the hotels premiere Shanghainese – Cantonese restaurant. Shanghai Terrace, with its expansive hardwood floor, slat-back mahogany colored chairs, high ceiling and wispy curtains, has a traditional Chinese dinner club feel to it. The servers wear pressed red jackets and float through the dining room with grace.

King Crab

Our meal started with a taste of king crab with pickled vegetables. The tiny portion was a perfect start. Lightly coated with rice flour and quickly fried, the crispy, salty, savory crab was offset by the chilled acidic vegetables and micro greens.

A delicious Peking duck followed the king crab. First, a small bamboo steamer arrived with mandarin pancakes and a yin yang shaped plate with two sauces. A large plate of hot roasted duck with julienne scallion and cucumber came next. The pancakes were savory, light in texture and warm through the center. When rolled with a couple pieces of duck breast, scallion, cucumber and hoisin sauce, they were a delicious appetizer.

Dim sum was next! I love dim sum. Shanghai Terrace’s dim sum has a high degree of  Cantonese authenticity. The

Scallop

 sampling we tasted had a seared pork dumpling, steamed vegetable dumpling and crispy shrimp spring roll with dipping sauce.

The fourth course was a broiled sea scallop with fresh soy beans in spicy mapo sauce with diced tofu. Those of you that know me know that I love seafood. This scallop was perfectly broiled and tasted fantastic. In addition to taste, textural contrast was what made this dish so good (diced tofu, scallop, fresh soybean, and crispy fried noodle). The portion size was perfect too. Four courses in, I am not yet sated and have room for more.

Four small entrée dishes served family style arrived as the fifth course. These consisted of : 1) “Dong Bo” Pork Belly braised with red miso, palm sugar, star anise, shanghai rice cake and braised jus, 2)

Pork Belly & Steamed Fish

Steamed Halibut with spicy black beans, flower mushrooms, ginger, scallions, yu choy, 3) Wok Braised Lobster with bok choy, ginger, scallion and superior broth, 4) Crispy Tofu with enokitaki, vegetables, garlic and mushroom jus. Each of these dishes had a modern flair with a high degree of Japanese influence. My favorite was the pork belly followed by the lobster. Now I am getting full!

We wrapped things up with a dessert sampler consisting of four small plated items: 1) Green Tea Crème Brulee with chestnut confit and passion fruit sorbet, 2) Pistachio Parfait, pineapple cilantro salad, coconut pearls, 3) Asian Pear and Almond Spring Rolls with honey peanuts and chocolate sauce, 4) Tofu Cheesecake with citrus salad, crispy coconut rice noodles. Of these my favorite was the Green Tea Crème Brulee.

Dessert Platter

 

It was a quick visit lasting just under three hours but a fantastic one regardless of duration. My host was in rare form and we spent time savoring our meal while also tearing it to peices the way chefs do. Coversation flowed from food to family to mutual friends and prior experiences together, many of which were halirous both then and now. The meal was exceptional as was the company. Foodservice is all about the people and good people make for the best restauranteurs.

Is Future Food: The Future of Food?

Posted 31 Mar 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Omar Cantu with Chef Brian Hubner,

Last night I watched Future Food featuring Chefs Homaru Cantu and Ben Roche of Moto restaurant in Chicago. To say it was interesting is an understatement. Before I launch into my thoughts, let me give you some background. Several years ago, during one of my eating trips to Chicago, I had the pleasure of visiting Moto restaurant and meeting Chef Cantu. At just over 6 feet tall, Omar, as he is called, is often referred to as the Edison of edibles due to the wide array of patents he holds in a variety of disciplines including food. He has a reputation for innovation and for seeing the world of food through a very unusual and creative set of lenses. My meal and experience at Moto offered positive proof of Cantu’s pension for the unusual as well as theatrical in culinary arts. That Omar has a new show out on Planet Green called Future Food makes total sense to me based on what I saw three years ago. Omar has a great knowledge of food, science, design, and theater and the show allows his wide variety of talents to truly shine through.

Cantu is a pedigreed chef who graduated from Western Culinary Institute prior to it becoming part of the Le Cordon Bleu empire. He has an inspiring rags-to-riches history, having spent time homeless early in life prior to pulling himself up by the straps of his non-skid, rubber soled, kitchen boots. Roche is a gifted alumnus of the world renowned International Baking & Pastry Institute at Johnson & Wales University. Both are mad scientists.

I enjoyed watching Future Food last night and think the show will do well. The chemistry between Cantu and Roche (no pun intended) is electric at times and the two demonstrate cooking techniques and an approach to creativity that will be of interest to most who have a passion for food or food related entertainment. Like Moto restaurant, the show

Moto's Pomegranate & Gooseberry

itself places a tremendous emphasis on the theatrics and shock value of creating molecular gastronomy treats like sushi made from “tuna” which is composed of compressed watermelon that has been infused with nori. Striking in appearance and similarity to tuna, the item looked identical to the real thing but its flavor was just the opposite and appeared to fall flat. When Cantu and Roche conducted a taste test of the tuna, several who tasted the item in a local Chicago supermarket appeared to think they were eating the real thing but realized quickly that the item wasn’t tuna. They were less impressed by the flavor than the look of the dish. But is the show about flavor and taste or about technique, curiosity, creativity, and theatrics? Is the restaurant business just about the food today or is it about more than that?

Either way, I like these guys both in person and on TV. They are, at times, out of their minds with odd-ball creativity and we need people in foodservice who occupy the fringe. I also think that exposing more Americans to this sort of creative approach to food and cooking, regardless of whether you

Moto Menu Printed on Cracker

like molecular gastronomy or not, will add richness to our national food dialog. Some will disagree as there are many in the culinary world who hate the notion of molecular gastronomy. The night I dined at Moto, Mario Batali (another guy I think the world of) was there. After being served and edible menu (edible ink printed on a thin cracker and baked), one of his first comments was “what is this Frankenfood?” Mario’s preference for eating (and cooking) flavorful, traditional food could not be suppressed at the dinner table that night nor should it have been. Although I doubt Batali fully enjoyed his meal, I do know that the meal made him think. Is this part of the Cantu-Roche plan? Probably.

The boundaries between art and science have been blurring in recent years particularly in culinary arts. Much has been written about this phenomenon from the more general musings of Daniel Pink in a Whole New Mind to the more technical and complex writings of David Edwards in Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation. Pink proposes a future where the right-brained creative set (chefs included) rise up against a social norm created by left brain conformists due to changing market forces. Artscience, on the other hand, describes how new realms of creativity are being born at the intersection of art and science resulting in new forms of reality. Edwards, a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard, provides a direct culinary example of the theory he proposes in Artscience with LeWhif. He used his expertise in pulmonary drug delivery to create a food that you breathe and monetized it via LeWhif. Ever consider inhaling chocolate to sate your craving? It seems odd to even think about this, but it’s compelling none the less. The same is true of Cantu’s work.

The notion of food taking on new and unusual forms is not new, contrary to popular belief. Cantu’s culinary aesthetic

Moto's Sea Trout Tar Tar wit Nori Powder, Crispy Yuba, Frozen Sesame Oil

and personal history mirror those of what many consider the originator of haute cuisine; Chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). As any culinary school graduate knows, Carême, after recoving from being orpahned at a young age, became the darling of 19th century elite for his bizzare creativity and elaborate pastry pièces montées. These creations, like Cantu and Roche’s watermelon tuna, were created out of one ingredient (often sugar and flour) but constructed to look like something entirely different (a bird, flower, building etc.)  Carême, like Cantu, Roche and Edwards today, was also capable of interdisciplinary transfer when coming up with new ideas. He studied history and architecture and plyed his craft with a heavy influence from both. He also studied politics and positioned himself with people who provided him the widest exposure including a stint as chef for the now famous Tallyrand (Charles Maurice de Tallyrand-Périgord, 1754-1838). Cantu has positioned himself using similar tactics. This stuff isn’t new, it’s just reframed for a contemporary audience and culture.

Was Carême’s aesthetic the “frankenfood” of its day? Highly likely. One can only speculate, but I am sure the average pesant passing by Carême’s Parisian pâtisserie was shocked and confused by his flaboyant creations sitting in the shop window not to mention they were starving to deaty (let them eat cake!) Mario’s classical preferences aside, I think many of the nonprofessional viewing audience who watched Future Food last night woke up this morning with questions in their mind about what they saw. And that’s the point. The conversation about molecular gastronomy has been taken to another level with Future Food and Cantu and Roche along with the folks at the Green Channel have incited it. Will this eventually lead to home cooks chasing down a gallon of liquid nitrogen (do not try this at home) so they can cook on their own anti-griddle? Will stay-at-home moms and dads begin Cryovacing (yes that’s a verb) watermelon to see what happens? Time will tell.

Back in March of 2006 a group of us met with Bill Shaw, President and C.O.O., of Marriott International and he stated the following:  “Previous experience embeds a given paradigm. Moving to a new context requires a shift in paradigm and a concentrated effort to get past old ways.”  Shaw’s statement probably links with the premise of Future Food but, as a classical chef, I am not completely ready to leave my “old ways” in the kitchen. For now, however, I think we should encourage Cantu and Roche to keep the conversation going and see where it takes us!  Future Food does not represent the future of food…yet!

Avec ~ Chicago

Posted 19 Mar 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Avec, Chicago

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.

Dates

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

Prosciutto

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

Braised Pork Vol Au Vent

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.