Thursday, June 30, 2011

Avenues: The Best Seat in Town

Avenues is a restaurant that I've had my eye on for awhile now. The restaurant where Graham Elliot first made a name for himself is currently helmed by Chef de Cuisine, Curtis Duffy. Just like Elliot, Duffy boasts a stellar resume himself, having spent time in the kitchens at Charlie Trotter's, Trio and Alinea. Needless to say, I was more than intrigued, and booked a reservation with a request for seating at the Chef's Counter. All of six stools, these coveted seats give diners an intimate perspective of the kitchen, which greatly appealed to the both of us.

Located inside the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, Avenues has long been known for its modern cuisine. After checking in with the hostess, MW and I were led to our seats at the Chef's Counter. Essentially tall stools that (thankfully) contained backs, a small stool was absolutely necessary in order to get on or off and was awkward to say the least. Fortunately, our view of the open kitchen more than made up for this small inconvenience and was quickly forgotten.

With the guidance of the restaurant's sommelier, we selected a 2006 Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch (Erben Müller-Burggraef) Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese. The wine had a fruity nose and a nice level of acidity that was wonderful with our meal.

All of the bread served throughout the meal was baked in-house and served with three different spreads: a Cow's Milk Butter, an Olive Oil Emulsion with Herbs and an Olive Oil Emulsion with Meyer Lemon and White Balsamic. Paired with various courses, we received a Bolio, Sea Salt Scone, Black Lava Salt Pretzel and Whole Wheat Waffle with Coconut, Basil and Lime Powdered Sugar.

The kitchen quickly sent us our amuse bouche for the evening, Santa Barbara Sea Urchin with Rhubarb, Tapioca and Hoja Santa. This was very good. The pea purée had been frozen with liquid nitrogen to resemble the vegetable in its natural state, but contained a smoother texture. The brininess of the sea urchin with the sweetness of the peas and tart rhubarb was an exhilarating combination of different flavors, textures and temperatures.

Our first course was a signature of Duffy's, and was the same dish he presented at the James Beard Awards in 2010, Alaskan King Crab with Golden Brook Trout Roe, Kalamansi, Lemon and Mint. Absolutely stunning in its presentation, orange orbs of roe and other components sat on a razor thin sugar disk that separated large chunks of Alaskan King Crab in a mint soup. We were instructed to break the disk with our spoons to incorporate all of the elements together before eating. The flavors were unbelievable; the sweetness of the crab married beautifully with the salinity of the roe and kiss of acid of the kalamansi, but the unexpected surprise of the dish was how well the sugar worked against the refreshing mint soup.

The second course consisted of Cortez Bay Scallops with Romaine Marmalade, White Poppy and Nasturtium. Finished table side with a white poppy broth, this was another overwhelming success. The bay scallops were sweet as candy and perfectly fine on their own, but the addition of the peppery nasturtium really elevated this dish.

Next was yet another Duffy signature, and after one bite, it was perfectly clear why. Listed as Grains, Seeds, Nuts this dish contained Amaranth Veil, Sultana and Sunflower and was finished with a broth that was poured tableside. Amaranth, a type of grain, was reinforced with nutty sunflower seeds and had hints of sweetness from Sultana raisins. Unexpectedly light but complex, this was a clear example of how such an unassuming dish can often be one of the most memorable.

The fourth course was Hamachi with Lardo, Yuzu and Rainbow Chard. Sitting directly next to the grill, we had the best view in the entire restaurant as this dish was being prepared. A brick of hamachi was grilled and topped with a thin layer of melted lardo before rainbow chard and yuzu pearls were added. The lardo and grilling process lent the hamachi a nice smokey flavor that was cut by the yuzu pearls and rainbow chard.

Our final savory course of the meal was a Wagyu Beef Ribeye with Spring Ramps, Smoked Paprika and Garden Mustard. The meal's lone disappointment, the richness of the wagyu never came through as the beef was overpowered by the pungent ramps and smoked paprika.

Arriving on a curved branch was our palate cleanser, Sudachi with Togarashi, Nepitella and Mint. We were instructed to eat these little yellow spheres in a single bite as to avoid a potential mess, these were a fun and delicious intermezzo.

Our first dessert, Coconut with Pineapple, Freeze Dried Saffron and Vietnamese Balm, was one of the meal's best courses. An ivory coconut cylinder was adorned with a few threads of saffron and coconut powder. Once pierced, a vibrant pineapple liquid flooded the shallow bowl. Flavor wise, Duffy hit a proverbial "home run" with the refreshing coconut-pineapple combination.

The meal concluded with Sambirano Valley Chocolate with Brown Butter, Mandarin and Stevia. Fashioned into long strings, the chocolate coiled around both fresh and freeze dried mandarin segments. While admittedly chocolate is not among my favorite ingredients, the citrus and tart sorbet were nice touches that kept the dish interesting.

We sipped an espresso and tea respectively while the bill was paid. As a final parting gift we were given a trio of Chocolate Truffles, each made from a different type of chocolate: Madagascar, Argentina and Venezuela.

At first glance, many would likely assume that Avenues is another run-of-the-mill luxury hotel restaurant, but after our meal at the Chef's Counter, we understood just how inaccurate that assumption was, and feel that in actuality, Avenues is an excellent restaurant that just so happens to be located inside a luxury hotel. Thanks in large part to the incredibly talented Duffy, the restaurant earned two Michelin Stars. With his skill, focus and creativity, it seems only plausible that more accolades will follow in the near future.

108 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 337-2888

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Avenues on Urbanspoon

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