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Avenues, 20 courses of harmonic bliss

Avenues, 20 courses of harmonic bliss
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  • Avenues, 20 courses of harmonic bliss

    Post #1 - February 26th, 2005, 10:33 pm
    Post #1 - February 26th, 2005, 10:33 pm Post #1 - February 26th, 2005, 10:33 pm
    When I bowed out of the now justly famous Moto dinner, it left me with the urge for another exotic, mindbending culinary adventure at the cutting edge. (Besides the Short-Notice-A-Thon, I mean.) It took about two seconds before I realized exactly the place to satisfy that urge: the third restaurant and chef mentioned in the Chicago magazine article on Chicago chefs who are at the cutting edge. That would be Avenues (in the Peninsula hotel) and its new chef, Graham Elliot Bowles, a Food and Wine top ten new chefs winner at his previous gig (at a Vermont inn) and, before that, a Chicagoan working in the kitchens of Charlie Trotter and Tru. (And of course, there's his most important position, Occasional Poster on LTHForum.)

    So GWiv, the lovely Ms. Wiv, the lovely King's Thursday/Ms. Mike G, and myself went there for a belated Valentine's Day dinner on Friday night. Although there is logic in lumping Bowles together with Cantu of Moto and Achatz of Trio (formerly) and Alinea (soon), the fact is that his situation is decidedly different from the others; he is in a hotel restaurant, which will inevitably have guests who wind up in the restaurant because it's there, not because they want their minds tickled and twisted or because they'll be amused by being served gas station Corn Nuts as part of a dish. His kitchen is surely smaller than the others, not to mention in plain sight:


    The room, instead of art gallery minimalism, has a pleasantly timeless moneyed feel to it, not stuffy but far from cutting edge; hard to imagine liquid nitrogen-created balloons of food here. As it turns out, however, that's not what Bowles' cooking is about-- even the Moto-like touches mentioned in the Chicago magazine piece (powdered Corn Nuts or Altoids) seem to have disappeared since the piece was written.

    If Achatz' cooking is about moments of brilliantly intensified flavor and equally jarring moments of discord (between strangely combined flavors, or flavors and unexpected textures), and if Cantu's is about wild conceptual games, Bowles' seems, much more classically, to be about harmony-- about bringing multiple flavors together, sometimes flavors you'd never thought of together, in novel but complementary combinations. Sometimes when you think about them after the fact you realize they're quite radical-- foie gras with cinnamon ice cream, for instance-- but they don't seem so at the time you're tasting them. When I wrote about Moto, I mentioned the category of "faux cutting edge" restaurants you see in tourist cities like Las Vegas, where the architecture is space age but the food is pretty safe for the surf and turf crowd. Under Bowles, Avenues is almost the direct opposite of this-- a place making highly creative and innovative food that looks and tastes approachable enough that you could even slip most of it by Grandma.

    We let Chef Bowles plan a tasting menu and eagerly accepted the wine pairings by Aaron Elliott, the friendly and unpretentious sommelier. I had actually just been to see Sideways that afternoon, so I was worried that I might break out giggling if the wine talk got too silly, but as Gary observed after one of the first times he told us about what he was pouring, "That was actually interesting and informative, instead of irritating."

    So, before you dive into the details, how was it? Well, is it too early to say that Avenues is the best fine dining restaurant in Chicago at the moment? I feel like people must have felt when they first tried what Charlie Trotter was up to and found they had never tasted certain things, not really, before. More to the point, I feel like people felt when they got their first stereo LPs and the different instruments came from different places for the first time, instead of being all crammed together in one speakerbox. This was quite possibly the most consistently excellent meal I've ever had (in contrast to meals like Trio and Moto, highwire acts which took a few falls), but where "consistency" could be slightly damning with faint praise, this was consistency at a level of excellence and imagination few meals manage to reach at all. We, my wife and I, have an official greatest meal of all time, which is a sentimental favorite from a trip to France, L'Esperance/Marc Meneau in Vezelay; and we have Trio three years ago, when Achatz was pretty new, which seemed both in its epic scope (23 courses) and bursting imagination to represent a whole new world, and then there's this one, which just joined their company.

    Here's what we had. The tastings consisted of the same dish for the female members of the party (listed first), and another dish for the males, with different wine pairings for each dish. Of course, we all tried everything; the things that were especially well-admired are bolded.

    * * * * * * * *


    1. Amuse-bouche of smoked trout with pine, celery, horseradish. Very piney.

    2. Potato-leek terrine with osetra caviar and diced tuna; yellowtail tuna sashimi with a yuzu foam:


    The cold terrine was comfort-foody, like a caviar-flavored potato salad; the sashimi was more like a palate cleanser, with the bright citrus flavor of the yuzu. Each was paired with a sake which was described (in the most amusing wine-talk moment of the evening) in terms of how much of the outer hull of each grain of rice was polished away; theirs (Tentaka kuni "Hawk in the Heavens") was only reduced by 30% but ours (Ginga shikazu "Divine Droplets") was buffed down to half its size, which as hilarious as it sounds (I see little Japanese women buffing individual grains by hand while a stern rice boss barks at them to do it right), did seem to reflect a difference in the smoothness or bite of the sake.

    3. Scallops in a foam of fennel (curses, fenneled again!), quince and almond:


    and a little cake of layered smoked salmon and cabbage topped with roe, in a cauliflower cream with a lemon glaze around it. Accompanied by a chablis and another similar white (Cain musque). This probably won the prettiest plating of the night award:


    One of the things that impressed me early in the dinner at Trio was a simple, utterly natural-seeming why-didn't-I-think-of-that combination of oyster and lime. Cauliflower and lemon turned out to be another one like that, and they in turn set up the salmon and salmon roe flavors beautifully. I think this is when I first really started to think that Bowles has a masterful hand with creating combinations of flavors that work together unobtrusively.

    4. Seared foie gras on apple slices, foie gras mousse, and cinnamon ice cream with pecans, and a Chateau Coutet Sauternes:


    and pheasant on a bed of lentils with cranberry jelly, and a sauvignon blanc.

    The little salad of poached pheasant had a nice smoky flavor, and I'd be happy to sing its praises except that our spouses had been served something so decadently rich and wonderful at the same time that we couldn't help feeling like we'd ordered the diet plate. Not only was the foie gras its voluptuous self but the cinnamon ice cream with it made for another totally unexpected-- yet completely natural-seeming-- combination of flavors.

    5. Soup with chestnut puree, bacon, sage and pistachio, with Australian chardonnay:


    and lobster in a broth with celeriac and verbena cruciferous, with sherry jerez. At first you'd think the guys who got lobster scored while the gals who got chestnuts were slipped the rubber peach, but actually the winter robustness of the chestnut soup was more interesting than the perfectly fine, but also perfectly straightforward, lobster soup.

    6. Dover sole with raisins and capers on spinach, and Far Niente chardonnay:


    and truffle risotto with 1999 Bricco Botti barbera:


    This was the reverse of the foie gras course, the gals' Dover sole would have been a standout dish in many another meal (and has encouraged me to experiment with poached raisins and a glaze on fish) but it was blown away by the truffle risotto, a real flavor bomb which arrived piping hot at the table, giving off powerful wafts of truffle smells, oak and burnt plastic and new car smell, hip-high white leather boots and just-waxed high school gymnasium and roasted gazelle. Pure truffle is an overpowering flavor, like so many French ingredients it exists on the borderline between rapture and revulsion; and some would probably find this the one dish that was too, too much. I wanted to take off my clothes and swim in it.

    With it came the best wine of the night, indeed, very possibly the best wine I've ever had, an amazingly complex, thoughtful and supercilious barbera which the sommelier introduced with real excitement in his voice. Gary and I both gave it the full Sideways treatment after he poured it and we were rewarded with an amazingly rich nose, again reminiscent of leather (hell, a whole shoe store) which alone was enough to get drunk on. Our heads swam after trying the wine and truffles together, like we had just taken a quick jaunt to an eight-dimensional universe and weren't quite sure how to move in only three directions at a time any more.

    7. Sturgeon with a caraway crust and Cote de Beaune white:


    and cod with chorizo and a Willamette Valley pinot noir ("I thought pinot noir was red." --Thomas Haden Church, Sideways):


    I was just wondering if Bowles had ever tried Mexican food when this turned up.

    8. Lamb with salsify and endive, one of them Indian-spiced, with a Ribera del duero:


    and kangaroo on some fancy oatmeal (Gary had actually had them before, they must bethe oats du jour) with eucalyptus, with a Catena cabernet.

    First of two red-meat courses was most interesting for just having kangaroo. Just a hint of game flavor, otherwise, The Other Red Meat, Mate.

    9. Kobe beef with a Haut-Medoc:


    and braised buffalo on some fancy grits with a Mclaren Vale red:


    Kobe was exquisite, big surprise, but I was glad to have the braised buffalo, which had a very rich, slow-cooked flavor quite distinct from the buffalo burgers you occasionally run into.

    10. Violet ice cream with "surprise"

    We had made some jokes after the foie gras about wanting the 21-piece foie gras basket next time (I think they weren't entirely sure at that point, from our analytical expressions, whether we were enjoying the meal or getting ready to slam them online, so we made sure they knew how much we liked that dish). Sure enough, alongside the violet palate cleanser at the end came a little plate of foie gras triangles. I'm not sure, actually, if it was supposed to be eaten with the violet ice cream, but by that point we were ready to be as experimental as the kitchen was, so we ate it all together and the salty-buttery foie gras and the sweet cold violet balanced each other well.

    11. Carrot cake with ginger and hazelnut:


    and banana mousse with truffle ice cream on the side, both served with a delightful Riesling ice wine, and followed by petits-fours:


    Desserts were nice although I wouldn't rank either among the best I'd ever had, seemed to be a little bit of an afterthought compared to, say, Trio where they'd really been a standout and as imaginative and flavor-packed as any main course. (On the other hand, there wasn't any green olive in the chocolate, either.) Maybe they just didn't seem as impressive because neither banana nor carrot cake can quite show off the depths of a chocolate dessert, say. The most interesting thing was the truffle ice cream on the side of the banana dish, again, something that many might have found too strong but a challenge I was happy to dig into.

    During the course of the dinner we had the chance to chat with sommelier Aaron Elliott quite a bit, and then after dinner:


    Chef Bowles himself came out and talked with us for quite a while about his approach, his training at Trotter and Tru (and also Evil Ronnie's old stomping ground The Mansion on Turtle Creek), and the differences between his approach and that of Homaro Cantu at Moto-- he confirmed that he's toned down some of the more Moto-like touches talked about in the Chicago magazine piece. (One question he asked us: "What's this Hot Doug's place all about?") I got the impression that he still has the occasional hotel guest who finds his cuisine too exotic, but I think we all felt that he's done a marvelous job of creating a cuisine that's creative and new and yet still meets the demands of a restaurant in that environment. It was a privilege to be his patrons last night and enjoy his outstanding cuisine and hospitality.

    The Peninsula Hotel
    108 E. Superior
    Last edited by Mike G on May 4th, 2005, 5:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #2 - February 26th, 2005, 11:17 pm
    Post #2 - February 26th, 2005, 11:17 pm Post #2 - February 26th, 2005, 11:17 pm
    Wanted to just add to the superb summary above some of my feelings about my favorites (and I acknowledge I do not have Mike G's way with words):

    4. Seared foie gras on apple slices, foie gras mousse, and cinnamon ice cream with pecans, and a Chateau Coutet Sauternes: Wonderful and the wine paring really brought out the flavor of the food.

    11. Carrot cake with ginger and hazelnut: I disagree with Mike on the desserts. I really am a chocolate fan but thought both desserts, especially the carrot cake, were delicious and as good as anything chocolate. I am usually disappointed not to have a chocolate dessert (or to have the chocolate dessert ruined by the inclusion of green olives as was the Trio experience) but this time I was not.

    Excellent meal and really enjoyed the discussion with the Chef (and I am only an lth'er by marriage!).
    Last edited by King's Thursday on May 20th, 2006, 5:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
    We have the very best Embassy stuff.
  • Post #3 - February 28th, 2005, 6:42 am
    Post #3 - February 28th, 2005, 6:42 am Post #3 - February 28th, 2005, 6:42 am

    What a treat, with your incredibly evocative post we are able to relive the evening.

    Our meal, like the room, was understated elegance. Nothing glaring, blaring, shouting for attention, harmonious, but with depth and the occasional pulsing burst of intensity. It was adult, a grownup meal if you will. playing to intellect and imagination, assuming a certain level of understanding.

    Accent, subtlety, nuance, whiff of eucalyptus here, crunch of Fleur de Sel there, then Wham, truffle risotto studded with nuggets of frog leg, scent from freshly shaved truffle so intense it's recognizable before being placed on the table.


    GEB's Turbo Bentley as opposed to Cantu's Dodge Viper.

    Best part of the evening was the company, followed closely by our conversation with GEB, followed even more closely by the foie gras with cinnamon ice cream. At one point in conversation with GEB I said, "cinnamon ice cream and foie gras, who'd of thought" Mike, astutely, responded, "Chef Bowles, that's who"

    I found GEB's use of ice cream as catalyst for savory one of the more interesting aspects of our meal. Though as slightly sweet flavors go so well with foie gras, Sauterne, fig, apple, to name a few, cinnamon ice cream and foie gras should have been no surprise.

    GEB also paired a surprise course of foie gras

    with Violet Ice Cream.

    Which we, though as Mike mentioned we were not sure if that was the intention, ate together. resulting in yet another appreciative Wow!

    My first experience with out of the ordinary ice cream was a couple of years ago at NoMi, white cheese sorbet was a revelation. I'm also fortunate to be on MAG's Ice Cream of the Month list, which has further opened my eyes to ice cream's amazing range.

    Service was impeccable

    The room beautiful.

    Sommelier Aaron Elliott has the ability to engage and guide with the confidence that comes only from knowledge.

    Potato, Leek, Vodka, Osetra with Tentaka Kuni "Hawk in the Heavens" Junmai

    Pheasant with lentil, Ried Stermetzberg Sauvingon Zwetick Styria 2003

    Chef Graham Elliot Bowles is a personable, extremely talented young man, count me among his fans.

    Hold my beer . . .

    Low & Slow
  • Post #4 - February 28th, 2005, 2:23 pm
    Post #4 - February 28th, 2005, 2:23 pm Post #4 - February 28th, 2005, 2:23 pm
    Great post - makes me rue my decision to take the bride to Blackbird when we could have done this.

    Mike, you gave me a couple of chuckles, to wit:

    giving off powerful wafts of truffle smells, oak and burnt plastic and new car smell, hip-high white leather boots and just-waxed high school gymnasium and roasted gazelle.

    Sounds like it evoked some teen memories of, well, I will just imagine.

    And then, after the Sideways reference, you come up with:

    an amazingly complex, thoughtful and supercilious barbera

    I am just a simple guy, so perhaps you can help me. How I would expect a "thoughtful and supercilious" wine to taste? I am picturing a particularly good British manservant here, based on the adjectives, but I cannot quite make the leap to an Italian red wine from there. And I really do not want to go too far speculating on how the manservant might taste, though I started with Bay Rum, which does not get me to a Barbera, either.

    Still, forgive me the nitpicks, nicely said, and great review.[/quote]
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #5 - February 28th, 2005, 2:35 pm
    Post #5 - February 28th, 2005, 2:35 pm Post #5 - February 28th, 2005, 2:35 pm
    Ah yes, making out with Betty Lou in her Nancy Sinatra boots (what I was doing in her Nancy Sinatra boots, I'll never know) while a freshly-caught gazelle roasts on the campfire... my high school job at the zoo had many perks not open to the average teenager.

    I would say in both cases, adjectives up to the word "leather" may be taken seriously, but beyond that...
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  • Post #6 - March 4th, 2005, 2:25 am
    Post #6 - March 4th, 2005, 2:25 am Post #6 - March 4th, 2005, 2:25 am
    If only everyone we cooked for were as excited about food as you guys. Thanks for the great post as well as the calender you recently sent. The crew at Avenues can't wait to try some ant larvae salad!