Kasparov, Euwe, Capablanca, and Spassky – none of them have occupied a more magnificent “KB6” than I did recently on the seventh floor of the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago.
A 2-inch square of black anywhere else in the world, “KB6” at Avenues is a swivel-top throne, last in a row of six (thus, aptly coded by the staff), occupying a stretch of marble Shropshire blue right in front of the chef. That seat is the Park Place and Boardwalk of Chicago dining, and, for nearly five hours on a recent weekend night, I was its lucky mayor.
This was my fifth dinner at Avenues, my fourth time at the chef’s counter, and my first meal with Executive Chef Curtis Duffy on the line.
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Since Graham Elliot’s departure from Avenues in spring of 2008, I had been hesitant to return to that marble pass. I was skeptical about Curtis Duffy’s cooking. A veteran of alinea, his food, I feared, might be too molecular, too derivative.
But the restaurant’s general manager, Michael Muser, whom I had befriended under Bowles’s tenure, was persistent about getting me back to the restaurant for a visit. Every few months, I’d cross paths with him on the internet: Come, he beckoned, the food is great.
I kept my promise, and I’m a much happier man for doing so.
Avenues was terrific.
If it’s not already apparent to you that I was known to the house, I make that disclosure right now. Curtis Duffy offered to cook for me. He presented an extended tasting menu that included dishes from both the “Vegetable Tasting” (at the time of this post, $115) and the “Chef’s Tasting” (at the time of this post, $125). A succession of wines were poured and paired with each course, inaugurated by a rosé Champagne and capped with an antique tawny port. All of this, Mr. Muser attempted to generously gift me. At my insistence, the bill was run. I did my best to overcompensate for the fact that it arrived heavily discounted.
CLICK HERE to see the entire set of photographs from my meal at Avenues. Or, click on the course titles for the individual photos.
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Brioche, egg yolk, CHIVE BLOSSOM
Hyssop, HOJA SANTA
Alaskan King Crab
Golden brook trout, kalamansi, LEMON MINT.
Kiralyadvar, Tokaji Furmint, Sec, 2007
Faroe Island Salmon
Brandade, Pommery mustard, FENNEL BLOSSOM.
Grains, Seeds, Nuts
Amaranth veil, sultana, SUNFLOWER.
Lardo, yuzu, PURSLANE.
Candy stripe figs, matsutake, OXALIS.
Beef Short Ribs
Lime, pinenuts, CILANTRO FLOWERS.
Togarashi, HOREHOUND MINT
Croissant, Pere Jacques, SAGE.
Thai black pepper, mascarpone, OPAL BASIL BLOSSOMS.
Norman Love Chocolates
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Overwrought. That’s how I might have described Curtis Duffy’s food before I ate it.
On his blog, it looked precious, tweezered, and unnecessarily complicated – a highly pettable ride, with style in the driver’s seat and substance in the trunk.
Drop dead gorgeous? Undoubtedly. Engine under the hood? Questionable.
However, what I experienced dispelled my skepticism and upended my expectations.
Molecular gastronomy? Surely, his cooking did not escape it – his pedigree is evident. But neither was it bound by it.
Rather, Duffy’s cooking struck an unexpectedly wonderful balance of classical and modern techniques. And it was presented in a way that was smart without being smug, fun without being flippant. High on beauty – a true artist, Duffy’s plates were nothing shy of jewel box vignettes – it was low on gimmick. For the most part, function and form here worked in concert.
Angel hair strands of goat’s milk butter, more smooth and silky than I’ve otherwise known it, and emulsified olive oil infused with citrus and herbs were creative accessories to a whimsical collection of bread, for example. And they were all excellent – especially a waffle perfumed with coconut and threaded with basil. Dusted with powdered sugar, it was impossibly fluffy and fragrant, an unexpected joy.
What impressed me most about Duffy was his versatility. His menu showcased a full range of flavors, colors, and textures.
No dish captured this better than the visually arresting, double-decker verrine with amber pearls of fresh brook trout roe and baby vegetables suspended on a sugar glass pane above a slices of Alaskan king crab in a cucumber soup. This first course presented so many components that one wondered what there might be left to eat for the rest of the meal; every corner was a different experience, every bite a different world. I can’t say it was the most straightforward or delicious dish – sugar and crab was a challenging couple to accept (in fact, most of Duffy’s savory dishes had a bold hit of sweetness in them) – but I’d be a fool to deny that it brimmed with adventure.**
Duffy’s rib-sticking row of risotto, studded with matsutake mushrooms and mounted with crème fraîche, however, was non-stop delicious. Riding the crest of porridge were blushing, ripe figs; strips of duck confit; and black truffle slices – an awesome collection of early autumn flavors and textures.
Note the added emphases on his menu: Duffy loves herbs. And he used them to great effect, coloring his dishes with a rainbow of flora and forest of flavors.
Opal basil blossoms intensified the fragrance of strawberries in my favorite dessert of the night. Leaping straight off the canvases of Will Cotton, this frozen, candy-striped barber’s pole, filled with a milky punch perfumed with Chambord, arrived nestled among buttery pillows of financier cake and a garden of strawberries in various forms – macerated, dehydrated, and reformed into mini meringue kisses. It was strawberry shortcake in all-caps.
Sunflower sprouts, quickly blanched to round out their grassy edge, blew a refreshing breeze through a toasty assortment of “Grains, Seeds, Nuts.” This was surely one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve had this year, made even more memorable by a fantastic wine pairing.
And fennel blossoms – along with every other part of that plant – helped brighten a stunning landscape of Faroe Island salmon so buttery and perfectly poached that it melted away without much effort.
If there was one disappointment, it was “Hamachi.” Pan-fried until fully cooked, the yellowtail was too meaty for me. And, despite being veiled in tissue-thin slices of lardo and hugged by a wonderful carrot froth, I found the fish boring to eat. The rest of the dish, however, was wonderful: a soft bed of cooked chard, tender slices of carrots, and a strip of toasted cardamom meringue kissed with citrus oil. More compelling was dish’s vegetable counterpart, which substituted roasted cauliflower and a meaty fan of maitake mushrooms for the hamachi. I wish I had that version.
Who was the amazing pastry chef? Muser nodded at Duffy.
Duffy’s desserts were extraordinary.
“Strawberries,” as I mentioned above, was peerless. “Crabapple,” too, was pretty terrific, even if the Pere Jacques ale ice cream wasn’t as yeasty and boozy as I had hoped. And the predictable chocolate ending was predictably unpredictable, with huckleberries, brown butter, and chamomile playing supporting roles. That dessert was finished with a nugget of chocolate ice cream scooped out of a bowl of bubbling liquid nitrogen and shattered on the plate, table-side. Campy? Okay, just a bit. A page from alinea’s table-top plating? Perhaps. But it was a welcomed, and I think permissible bit of theatre after such an epic meal.
If I tell you that service was excellent, will you believe me? You have every right not to believe me. But I hope you believe me.
My servers knew every item on every plate – not a small inventory to master. Pacing was clockwork – dishes, wine, and silverware arrived and disappeared seamlessly. I couldn’t fault the staff for a single thing.
Where does this leave us?
Well, it left me lingering at KB6, reluctant to give up my mayorship.
Michelin stars? Yes. Avenues will get at least one star. Judging by this dinner, I would give it two. Avenues is, undoubtedly, one of the best restaurants in the United States right now.
Curtis Duffy’s name will not rest here, nor, I suspect, will it rest at Avenues. Though there’s a noticeable overlap of techniques, and some familiar ideas from his training ground (i.e. alinea), I do think Duffy has developed his own voice, one which he will surely refine with time. He is a chef with tremendous talent and tremendous potential. If you haven’t already, you should visit him at the seventh floor of the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. And if you are lucky, you’ll get to be the mayor of KB6 for one night.
To read about each dish in depth, refer to the notes and scribbles section of this review.
108 East Superior Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
* The theme to this year’s James Beards Awards gala was “The Legacy Continues.” All of the guest chefs at the gala were nominated by their mentors, past-winners of James Beards Awards. Curtis Duffy was nominated by his mentor, Chef Grant Achatz of alinea.
** Curtis Duffy presented this dish, in miniature form at the 2010 James Beard Awards gala earlier this year in New York City.