Food: August 2008 Archives

I've always been a big fan of Blackbird. I consider it probably the best place to go that I know of to get finely prepared food in Chicago. That may change as my experience widens, but by and large that impression has stayed with me, and whenever I go back, the food seldom disappoints. The high point was going for their New Year's Eve tasting menu, that I found altogether sublime, and which highlighted some of the key strengths of their kitchen. I've always had lovely amuse bouche there, and they've typically been fish, and they have a real strength in cooking pork.

Having said all that I suppose already constitutes a mini review of Blackbird (all that's left to say is that I really appreciate them having a small piece by Tony Fitzpatrick in each of their washrooms). Which brings me to Avec, their sister restaurant, located right next door. It's meant to be trendier and more casual, in contrast to the elegance and grace of Blackbird. I'm more a Blackbird person by nature, but it's the variety of food that pulls me to say more than that about Avec.

The first time I went to Avec, I made the mistake of going at their peak. It probably didn't help that they'd been featured on the then current season of Top Chef in Chicago. But yes, right round 7pm till whenever they close, whenever I've driven past, it's always been packed to the gills. That experience was saved really by the food, which is why I went back, but otherwise it's not what I would have thought of as ideal. I imagine that there are people who love to dawdle and socialise in a place where you can't hear yourself think, much less talk, but I'm not one of them, and if I'm going to spend copious amounts of time in a place, it would have to have a much more relaxed atmosphere. But that might just be me. trendier souls than myself may find this their Mecca, but I can find the ambience a little wanting.

Again, if you love to dawdle, you won't mind placing a drink order and waiting at least 45 minutes for a seat at the bar (a seat at a table is even longer). And while their wine selection exhibits the same elegance Blackbird does, and I could guzzle on that teat quite happily, you will be standing outside next to the rather busy Randolph St. I for one have never been quite happy in less than contolled temperature environments, and car exhaust does nothing for me.

But fine, to go through a long wait and less than ideal environment, the food service should be as impeccable as the food itself promises to be, given the lineage. Unfortunately the service tends towards the harried, with a distinct feeling that the place is at least understaffed. Our food took absolutely forever to come, and the timing in between courses was just way too long. And for that, there's none of the customary geniality of Blackbird. I suspect unless you're a regular or a big spender, terse is the watchword. But the food was very good, and very good enough to make us want to come back. I think the hostess (who's quite handsome, if you're into such things) was free enough to answer our question about when they're less harried, and we resolved to come back then - they open at 3pm, and they don't get too crowded till around 6 plus.

Today was a happy day, and we hadn't eaten yet at 4 something, so we took a swing and got there about 5, which seemed just right. Everything was lazy and laid back. On stepping in you would have thought it was the serving staff having their dinner break, rather than paying customers. We got to sit at a table, we didn't have to sit precariously at the bar, we were able to order fast and our food was timed well for arrival. Not that I go in for excessive schmoozing, but our server seemed particularly unwilling to go through the motions with us the way he was with the rest of the clientele, and I wonder what the fuck that was about. To be sure I was a little unkempt and we only had a single glass of wine between us (a nice Grenache - fruity but still mild) - I suppose more leisurely places must make more of their income on pushing the drinkies, but still - that's no call for being selective in your service.

monkey had the medjool dates - and this may be my ignorance, but they were absolutely lovely. I'm not sure where the dates were in the bowl of four, they were probably holding the spectacular meatball in the middle, covered by the bacon wrapping it all up, but the experience as a whole was very charming. The tomato sauce I thought was particularly outstanding. Next was the pork shoulder, and that was absolutely spectacular. If anything, even though the pork was absolutely perfect, it was the seasonal vegetables accompanying, lovingly rendered in the not-too-heavy pork fat, that was most outstanding. It all came together in a way altogether heavenly. Anything with pork I suspect is a home run in either restaurant, personally.

In comparison, the large plates were altogether fine, but less than spectacular after the pork. I suppose if we were more tuned in to the style of the place, we would have just had more and more small plates, but we wanted a main along with the starters, at least this time round. The pasta was next (they don't update the menus online, so I'm not sure if it was linguine or tagliatelle) - very nice, if a little heavy on the oil and a little oddly tart. Nothing to write home about, but very solid. The pizza similarly was very nice, very fine. Perhaps the meat on top was a little clumped and a little over salted. Overall the use of pepper was strong but that was actually very much to my liking. Good dishes, but overshadowed by memories of pork.

Dessert was uninspired polenta cake for her, and rather good thin chocolate bars for me. Doesn't seem as if dessert is their core competancy, so if you're full, you might just skip it for coffee and port.

To paraphrase Celia, I'm not sure if this is a place where I could willingly waste my time, but the food is definitely worth coming for, and if you're there when the food arrives in a timely fashion and you're not elbow to elbow with everyone else in there, it can be a positively happy experience. I can't see though the harm in finding a way for there to be even one more server, or if it comes to that, making a less clear distinction between the servers and the bus-boys. The service isn't friendly to speed in any situation, but that may just be my own impatience at the pace of American food.





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This page is a archive of entries in the Food category from August 2008.

Food: June 2008 is the previous archive.

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