When in Chicago for only one night and with maybe three hours to spare, where do you eat din din? SF chef pals gave me a chorus of ~AVEC~! Avec! Avec! (Not to be confused with Tora! Tora! Tora!) Blackbird, Avec's more refined and mod older sister, which is literally next door, also got high votes. It was clear I wouldn't have the time (unfortunately) to experience a multi-course extravaganza meal at Alinea or Moto. Avec it was.
This modern and minimalist restaurant is a like a long shotgun space, a wooden rectangular box sporting a Scando-sauna look: large slats of wood along the walls and floors, angular wood communal tables with bench seating, and a glowing installation of green wine bottles along the far back wall. There is a long stainless steel bar (like 50 feet or so) that runs like a ribbon along the length of the space, offering ringside seats right in front of the gleaming stainless kitchen and blazing wood oven that burns at 700 degrees where the pilot light fires away. There are some wickedly bright fluorescent light fixtures beaming down their merciless light on all the tables, but for some completely odd reason, it works.
The place smells delicious--like a country hearth. Chef Koren Grieveson's menu is built to share, and with the friendly communal table setup, you will most likely end up trading bites with your neighbors who are nestled right next to you (we did). The menu has all kinds of gutsy and hunger-inducing dishes, like the famed chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates ($9) that are wrapped in smoked bacon and rest in a deep piquillo pepper and tomato sauce. Scrumptious little buggers.
We ended up sticking with choices off the small plates menu, like the red pepper and tomato braised haddock ($12) with slices of caper berries, bits of bacon, and mustard greens on top--totally mopped up the delish sauce with the bread that's made in house. Our fave was our order of crostini ($8) topped with a hummus-like mash of English peas, and topped with a dressed mix of pea shoots, pickled lemon, red onion, watercress, and ricotta salata. So fresh, electric green, and gorgeous flavor.
The only clunker was the crispy chicken leg and thigh ($9) that had stunningly crisp skin, but the seasoning was AWOL. We did enjoy the accompanying salad of fingerlings, grilled scallions, frisee, and piquillos, however. Lots of dishes show a handcrafted touch, from house-made pork sausage to salumi to linguine.
Our neighbors were kind enough to share some bites of their crispy focaccia ($14) that was more like a pressed and flat sandwich with a thin exterior of crust that shattered just so (man, that oven is something special) and an interior of taleggio, truffle oil (I'll forgive it here), and fresh herbs.
Because so many piping hot dishes are sailing out of the oven (Hot! Don't touch!), Avec has some cool presentations, like casuelas with a pretty patina, cast iron mini-skillets, and petite All-Clad paella pans that are served on Japanese-esque little wood ledges.
We tried a couple desserts, but the cheese service is really where it's at, with your choice from a list of 15 formaggi (choose three for $15) and accompaniments like quince paste, date cake, and fig mostarda ($6).
And what to go avec all this bounty? Yes, fab wines! This food is built for wine pairing, and vice versa. Really enjoyed perusing (and drinking) off the list of wines from Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal. A bunch are available in 250ml pours, so you really get to commune with a wine for a bit, or share it with your friend for small DIY tasting flights. Cool Riedel glassware too (the wine glasses are stemless, and come poised over your carafina of wine). There's also a full bar that is open later, after the kitchen closes.
I totally dug this place, and would undoubtedly be a regular here if I could. Now I see why some chef pals love it so--it really feels like a chef's restaurant, from the food to the vibe to the look to the hours. Service was friendly and everyone was cool. Total hodgepodge of guests in the restaurant, from an older couple to our left to some chicas enjoying a (Monday) ladies night out to our right.
I can only imagine how slammed it gets on the weekend--it was totally popping late on the Monday night we dined there. I was also informed the outdoor seating is pretty coveted, especially when people get off work and come over for some liquid (and solid) sustenance. Oh, and no reservations are accepted, so be prepared to wait unless you are there on the early side, or later.
615 West Randolph St.
Cross: Jefferson St.
Chicago, Illinois 60661
Bar closes Mon-Fri at 2am, 3am on Sat, 12am on Sun
Small plates $5-$14
Large plates $14-$20
Other Chi-town places I wish I had time to visit/have on my list for next time:
Frontera Grill (although the website totally scares me--time to update their site, yikes)
Portillo's for a dog and garbage salad (I guess it's one of those things you just have to experience and not question too much)
Hot Doug's, The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium (yup, that's what it's called!)--was told they serve duck fat fries on the weekend!
Mr. Beef at 666 N. Orleans Street for an Italian beef sandwich or the combo (with sausage and beef), double dipped
Garrett on Michigan Ave. for popcorn
The Violet Hour for Milk & Honey-esque style and drinks, 1520 N Damen Ave., Wicker Park, 773-252-1500