Do you remember that television show “Thirtysomething?”
I was like ten years-old when it was in syndication, and I thought it was about old people.
Now, I’m one of them.
Recently, I crossed that border from being young and irresponsible, to being older and irresponsible: I turned 30.
In anticipation of this momentous occasion, I assembled a core group of food devotees who were generous enough to travel great distances to join me for a weekend of celebratory eating in Chicago.
For the “main event,” I enlisted the help of my friend, Graham Elliot Bowles, the soon-to-be ex-Executive Chef of Avenues, at the Peninsula Hotel. Under his stewardship, Avenues has, over the past three years, become my favorite restaurant in Chicago, and indeed, one of my favorites in the nation.
It is no secret that Chef Bowles is leaving Avenues at the end of this month (March, 2008) to open his own restaurant (more on that later.). He will be succeeded by Curtis Duffy, currently the chef de cuisine at alinea. Given Bowles’ timely departure, I could think of no better place than at his famous “Chef’s Bar” to celebrate my milestone. Eating at his marble pass is truly a unique dining experience that I have not seen replicated anywhere else at this level of fine dining.
Diners perch atop specially designed swivel chairs at a marble counter overlooking the (cooking) line (think sushi bar without the glass case). From this vantage, one enjoys a quick survey of the entire kitchen, which is no larger than the size of my walk-in closet. Not only do industrial hoods suck up smoke and heat quite effectively, leaving us cool and smoke-free, but one also gains the benefit of interaction with the kitchen staff. Over the course of my three previous visits, I had come to know Alex, the sous chef, whom I had the pleasure of having cook for me on this last visit under Chef Bowles.
With four cooks, a sous chef, and Chef Bowles personally expediting at the pass, it’s amazing how much finessed food this crew can produce in one night.
Despite being at near-full capacity, with a private party, and a celebrity chef dining in the house, Chef Bowles and his team managed to outdo themselves for my birthday dinner.
They assembled a 19-course tasting menu of epic proportions. It ran the length of the restaurant’s 15-course “Repertoire” menu with the addition of a few “works in progress” – previews of what Chef Bowles will be offering at his new venture (more on that later). In addition to pouring a fine flute of bubbly, compliments of the chef, Michael Muser, the restaurant’s affable (and HILARIOUS) wine director, even-handedly selected 6 wines to pair with our extended meal.
I won’t go into detail of all of the courses we had; you can see and read more about them on my flickr set. Instead, I’ll list the dishes, divided by wine pairings, and touch on a few highlights:
“Chips & Dip” Gougeres
Amuse Bouche: Parsnip Panna Cotta with Carrot Gelee
1st Wine Pairing: Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Pinot d’Alsace, 2005
1st Course: “Hamachi” (yuzu, soy, cucumber)
2nd Course: “Caviar” (potato, gravlax, dill)
3rd Course: “Caesar” (romaine, parmesan, brioche)
4th Course: “Cauliflower” (cauliflower, cauliflower, cauliflower)
2nd Wine Pairing: Albarino do Ferreiro, Rias Baixas
5th Course: “Lobster” (kumquat, grapefruit, lemon)
6th Course: “Pea” (yogurt, eucalyptus, shoots)
7th Course: “Foie” (rice krispy, pop rocks)
8th Course: “Sturgeon” (cabbage, sauerkraut, rutabaga)
3rd Wine Pairing: Burlenberg, Mercel Deiss, 2001
9th Course: “Risotto” (apple, bacon, cheddar)
10th Course: “Cod” (chorizo, saffron, paprika)
11th Course: “Quail” (roquefort, celery, budweiser)
4th Wine Pairing: Pagos Viejos, Rioja, Artadi, 2002
12th Course: “Duck” (cardamom, date, pistachio)
13th Course: “Lamb” (lentils mirepoix altoids)
14th Course: “Pork” (collards, grits, barbecue)
5th Wine Pairing: Yalumba Hand Picked Tricenteniary Grenache, Barossa Valley
15th Course: “Stroganoff” (beef, mushroom, crème)
16th Course: “Chevre” (hibiscus, blackberry, mint)
6th Wine Pairing: Yalumba Botrytis Vionier, Wrattonbully, 2006
17th Course: “Apricot” (honey, citrus yogurt)
18th Course: “Chocolate” (chocolate, chocolate, chocolate)
19th Course: “Surprise” (crème, chocolate, raspberry)
Mignardises: Pistachio Nougat, Peanut Praline Truffle, Lavendar Caramel, Pate de Fruit.
What I enjoy about Chef Bowles’ cooking is that it achieves all of the following, all at once:
1. It’s innovate: Unlikely combinations enjoy successful marriages, like korn nuts and buffalo (still one of my favorite of his dishes) and kangaroo with lime caramel.
2. It’s witty: Likely (and traditional) combinations find creative new twists: Altoids subs in as the minty counterpart to lamb, lox and bagels gain upmarket appeal with quail eggs and caviar, and foie gras, almonds and lingonberries make a convincing bid to unseat PB&J as a childhood favorite.
3. It’s fun: “Foielipops” and “Chips & Dip” gougeres chase out the playful kid in even the oldest fart.
4. It’s natural: No twisting roller coasters of chocolate (or foie), no sculptured landscapes of malted pastas, nothing smokes, or bubbles, or alights at your table. No fruits or vegetables are transformed into “caviar” and nothing cooked from the inside-out. Bowles’ cooking is simple, straightforward, and natural.
5. It’s gorgeous: Colours pop, plating is elegant, and symmetry and asymmetry are manipulated with aplomb.
6. It’s tasty: Who could argue with baked potato soup, rife with cheddar and bacon?
7. It’s balanced: No hyperextensions of flavors or over-played ingredients.
Without a doubt, my favorite dish of this evening was “Pork;” more specifically, pork belly. The cube of bacon was fried until crispy – the outside somewhat like crackling, the interior soft and supple with hot layers of collagen, fat, and meat. I’ve had a lot of creative treatments of pork belly in my time (and my guests have as well), but this one, which was painted Southern with molasses-braised collards, grits, and a bourbon-maple barbecue sauce and black truffles (Southern France), was truly extraordinary. The barbecue sauce was fantastic. It beat the best of what my hometown of Kansas City has to offer in the way of sweet sauces.
Running a close second was “Pea,” an off-menu creation that featured a warm velouté of peas poured, table-side, over a tuft of pea shoots sided by greek yogurt and a eucalyptus marshmallow. The eucalyptus marshmallow didn’t do much – the eucalyptus element was completely lost and obscured. However, the soup was extraordinary: velvety, rich, and warm. The intensity of the pea, sweet and verdant, was unimaginably great, and the tangy, creamy yogurt was the perfect foil. I only wished that we had (1) gotten more of the soup, and (2) that it had been served in a deeper rounded bowl instead of a flat square bowl, to conserve heat and minimize waste (it’s difficult trying to greedily spoon soup out of corners with much dignity).
Other highlights for me included “Cauliflower,” which presented a delightfully refreshing contrast of creamed cauliflower (think gratin) against pickled florets of the same. With naturally neon-bright colours, this was also the prettiest dish of the evening.
And, “Snapper” poached in butter and chestnut honey. This dish was an accommodation for a crustacean-allergic friend. In my opinion, it struck a better a balance of sweetness than my lobster version, which I found overwhelmed by the candied kumquats. The chestnut honey was more discernible in the snapper as well, permeating the flesh between the flakes. That being said, I think the chestnut honey, though less detectable in taste, did enhance the natural sweetness of the lobster meat; it was just difficult to tell where the sweetness of the lobster ended and the honey began. Both were delicate dishes featuring perfectly butter-poached seafood. The snapper was a little more nuanced, in my opinion.
The tartare portion of the “Stroganoff” course was fantastic. The tidy cylinder of finely chopped beef sat atop a bright béarnaise panna cotta whose vinegary brightness helped cut through the creamy and heady smoked ice cream (try to figure that one out) it was paired with.
Of course, there were witticisms aplenty, beginning with the first volley: a pre-amuse bouche of gougeres filled with sour cream and onion “dip” and crusted with potato “chips.” “Quail” took its place in the annals of bar food in a fancy take on “Buffalo wings.” (This was slightly over-salted for me, but my other three guests really liked it). Curiously strong Altoids were tamed considerably to give just the right bitter, menthol bite to the end of a rich demi-glace sauce paired with lamb. And, Hamburger Helper got a face lift in a beef stroganoff featuring braised beef short ribs with spaetzle, black trumpet mushroom puree, and wonderfully aggressive cracked black pepper sour cream.
Some of the less successful dishes included “Risotto” with apples, 9-year aged Cheddar (9 years!!), and bacon. What seemed like a promising dish of comfort, with morsels of tart, meaty apples and pockets of sharp melting cheese, fell flat for me. The ingredients had been cooked together so much that the cheese and apples had disintegrated into the warm, creamy porridge – and so too, surprisingly, did the flavors. Instead, the dish relied on dices of bacon, which had become soft in the risotto, for flavor. I wished the bacon had been a crispy element. I spoke with Bowles about this dish after our dinner. He empathized with my observations and reassured me that the presentation is intended to be different at his new restaurant. I look forward to seeing how this one develops; I think it has great potential.
“Cod” was also a little disappointing. The cooking was very well executed – the fish was perfectly pan-fried – but the accompanying flavors leaned more heavily toward the (red bell) pepper end of the spectrum. I would have enjoyed much more chorizo. I didn’t get a sense of the sausage on the plate at all.
The desserts were probably the weakest part of the dinner. Unfortunately, the pastries are not produced by Avenues; they are overseen by a separate department that caters to the hotel, at large. (However, the bread is made in-house at Avenues, and it’s spectacular – especially the sweet dough pretzel bread. It’s what Midwesterners might describe as “stand-up.” The accompanying butter (three different kinds), is also a knock-out in and of itself.)
The “Chevre” cheese course is when things began to come undone. It was a stick of fried cheese custard (looked like a stick of fried mozzarella but acted like a Cuban croquette) that was runny on the inside and lacked any sort of flavor (think blintz filling, but runny). The whipped chevre and a nice blackberry were the only redeeming parts. The following three desserts were rather unmemorable, except for a wonderful almond ice cream (“Chocolate”), toasty and nutty, and a white chocolate truffle that came out on the (last) surprise birthday course. It was filled with a ganache heavily spiked with cognac.
All the same, there were plenty of winners, many of which, I have to admit, are sentimental favorites. Chef Bowles thoughtfully wove in a number of dishes from my first meal, completing a wonderful circle in my (regrettably, too infrequent) history with him and this restaurant. “Pea,” in a slightly soupier form, was served at my first meal. So was our “Hamachi” with soy caramel. “Cod” harkened back to a chorizo-crusted “Halibut.” And, he even revived my all-time favorite hot foie gras course: Seared Foie Gras on Spiced Rice Krispy Treats (the only presentation of hot foie gras that I have ever really liked) with its famous sidekick, the “Foielipop.” Given the ban on the substance, it was a wonderful birthday gift.
Mr. Muser deftly guided us through the drinking portion of the menu. The most interesting of his six selections was the Albarino do Ferreiro, Rias Baixas. It was smoky, and, almost savory with a light body. I also enjoyed the Pagos Viejos, Rioja, Artadi, 2002, a rich, jammy, and dark-fruit forward Spanish wine that paired especially well with “Duck,” accentuating the spices in the date puree.
I could not think of a better way to end my twenties and celebrate Chef Bowles’ tenure at Avenues than with this meal. For me, there was meaning on many levels, both in the food, the place, and in the company I was lucky to have. Many thanks to Chef Bowles, his Sous Chef, Alex, and the rest of the kitchen and staff for a fantastic experience; best of luck to you all as you strike out onto new paths, soon.
I also wish incoming Chef Duffy the best as he, no doubt, transforms and takes Avenues in a new and exciting direction. It will be interesting to see how he balances his recent experiences at the forefront of molecular gastronomy with running a AAA five-diamond award winning hotel restaurant. I look forward to experiencing The Avenues under his guidance.
I also thank my friends, Larry, Curly, and Moe, for taking time out of their insane New York City schedules to fly to Chicago to join me. Thank you all!