For my last dinner on this trip to Chicago the choice came down to Graham Elliot, Ria, or Avenues – not a bad one in the bunch from what I’d been told, but with one standing far above the others amongst the palates I tend to trust and with rumors swirling (and subsequently confirmed) that Chef Curtis Duffy would soon be leaving The Peninsula to open his own restaurant I figured now was as good a time as ever to see what was happening at Avenues.
Having already mentioned Duffy I have to admit I’m not really sure why it had taken me so long to visit Avenues given my frequent trips to the Windy City. A former chef at Alinea well known for his ability to work modern (“molecular?”) technique into his classical training I’d always been curious as to what was going on in the kitchen just off North Michigan Avenue, but between the confounded website menu and other great dining options in Chicago I always found myself compelled to look elsewhere until now, dining alone and with the option to sit at a Chef’s counter peering directly into the open kitchen where Duffy doesn’t so much cook, but rather directs like a maestro and educates like a professor.
With reservations made well in advance it was a bit of a surprise to me when I arrived at the Peninsula and found that I actually had to ascend to the lobby and subsequently the seventh floor to visit the restaurant, but never one to stay at high end hotels when I’d rather spend my money on high end dining I must note that outside of the rare exception The Peninsula Chicago proved to be one of the most classy and well adorned hotels I have ever seen. With polished marble abound and gilded fixtures gleaming at each turn I made my way past the famous “Lobby at The Peninsula Chocolate Bar” (complete with full jazz quintet) to the door of Avenues just moments early for my 7:00pm reservation and greeted by a young woman who greeted me by name (perhaps I was the only party of one that evening?) I was led swiftly to the otherwise empty chef’s counter – to a seat perhaps 5 feet from Duffy and even closer to the rest of his team.
With the swivel-top high-backed stool soft and supple beneath me and a counter of polished marble topped first with a bronze mat and then an artistic waxed menu featuring a photograph of one of Duffy’s previous creations before me it would be mere seconds before one of my three person team of servers would arrive to offer water (still or sparkling) and a menu of wines and cocktails. Deciding that a place with such unique presentations would likely do something equally interesting with their cocktails I decided to take a look and within seconds was left to decide between which of three sounded best – a rarity to say the least – and in the end a decision that a surprise comp at meal’s end for unknown reasons save for perhaps my praise for Duffy’s talents at meals end (and chuckling at his ongoing banter with the sommelier about pressure from management to “push the wine pairings” – an issue he was clearly a tad disgruntled about throughout the meal.)
With the menu explained – chef’s tasting, vegetarian tasting, or any/all of the choices available ALC – and a small modification requested (no beef for the main course) ordering was a breeze and with greetings by a number of the chefs as they did their work plus an invitation to ask questions about any dish or technique it would be a short wait before things would begin – first with the aforementioned cocktail, a glass entitled “Toblerone” and without exaggerating a drink that tasted almost identical to the celebrated candy bar with notes of thick cream and honey muffling the almond and coffee tones of a blend of Frangelico, Bailey’s, and Kahlua.
Sitting back and sipping my drink while browsing the dining room – a fairly dull but well spaced area with floor to ceiling windows, chandeliers, and flowers – I was a bit surprised that Avenues sat half-empty during prime dining hours on a Friday, especially with reservations near impossible to nab at other spots in Chicago’s upper echelon of dining, but given the economy and the packed Lobby I can only note that perhaps it was for the better as the server to diner ratio was seemingly one to one and throughout the evening I was never for want for anything from water to dish descriptions to conversation from my servers or the men and women in the kitchen – as a matter of fact I was even offered magazines to read while I waited between courses; an offer that was appreciated albeit largely unnecessary given the action before me.
With servers circulating and each station churning out beautiful plate after beautiful plate my first taste of Duffy’s cuisine would arrive in the form of an amuse bouche every bit the size and complexity of any of the proper plates – a dish described as “Uni – Rhubarb, Licorice, Pea Puree” Beginning first with the urchin tongue the plate began with briny sweetness quickly balanced by green “Peas” that were actually liquid nitrogen frozen pea puree slightly muted by bitter notes that harkened faintly of licorice. With strands of poached rhubarb adding a fibrous component to the dish and a shrimp chip providing some crunch this plate would prove a sign of things to come with each of the subsequent presentations displaying a great degree of manipulation, nuance, and character yet at the same time superior sourcing, balance, and technique.
Moving next to the tasting menu proper, the first course of the night is perhaps Chef Duffy’s most famous – a layered dish titled “Alaskan King Crab – Golden Brook Trout Roe, Kalamansi, Lemon Mint” with so many textures and flavors that it really must be experienced to be understood. Deliverd with the roe, mint, and other creams and textures atop a sugar chip with the supple crab, more roe, and refreshing cucumber broth below the diner is instructed to crack the chip and “explore” the dish – a great suggestion as truly no two bites are alike with some sweet, some briny, and all entirely delicious.
With the first course now a lovely memory on my palate the next item to arrive at my table was the first of a number of “bread pairings” served with an ornately sculptured plate of Cows Butter and Black Salt, Olive Oil Emulsion with Mixed Herbs and Fleur de Sel and Olive Oil Emulsion with Meyer Lemon with white Balsamic. Beginning first with “bolillo bread” – a bread something like a whole grain baguette with a crunchy exterior and open crumb I can only say that while this bread lacked in flavor and complexity compared to later offerings it did prove to be the best for highlighting each of the spreads – both the butter and the herbal olive oil excellent while the lemon emulsion was a bit too potent for my tastes.
Moving forward and with courses arriving uniformly just about ten minutes after completion of the prior dish “Cortez Bay Scallops – Romaine Marmalade, White Poppy, Nasturtium” arrived first as a collection of bright and bold colors only to be completed tableside by the addition of the white poppy broth. With the scallops nearly raw yet sweet and smooth the most impressive aspect of this dish for me was again the balance – specifically that of the clean romaine lettuce notes punctuated by peppery nasturtium.
Moving on to the next course I was given two choices for my bread pairing – both relatively straightforward but both archetypes of their respective genre – a dense butter roll and a fluffy salty pretzel roll, both excellent on their own but all the more so with a spread of extra butter and sea salt.
Having declined the beef main I’d heard Chef Duffy relay my order to the kitchen with two specific differences compared to the other tastings ordered that evening and as it turns out the two differences proved to be two separate courses meant to replace the beef – the first of which was my third course, an item from the vegetarian menu that would prove to be the best dish in an evening of great dishes. Titled “Chestnut – Perigord Truffle, Quince, Garden Herbs” and served in a hand-blown double glass vessel looking quite like the start of a potted plant this amazing dish featured a creamy chestnut pudding at its base topped with large chunks of summer truffle, small micro herbs, and cubes of quince gelee. Ornate and again focused on multiple textures and flavors the dish was subsequently finished with shaved truffle powder and a mildly acidic vinaigrette just prior to service and with the flavors all melding into a sweet earthy porridge it was the scent of this dish that thrilled me the most – the scent of truffles that met you a good two feet away and perfumed the palate with each bite.
Course four was another of Duffy’s more famous dishes, a service entitled “Grains, Seeds, Nuts” and featuring no less than six variations of those ingredients including a ‘veil’ of toasted Amaranth and Herbs paired with roasted sunflower seeds, sultana raisins, hazelnut-oil powder and sunflower blossoms resting atop a blend of texturally complex barley, quinoa and chopped hazelnuts. Again presented with a broth added tableside, this time ‘sunflower seed tea’ the aroma was something like a fresh field during summer in Ohio while the tastes and textures were light, complex, and lightly sweet.
Progressing towards heavier proteins my next dish would feature “Hamachi – Lardo, Yuzu, Rainbow Chard” but that limited list of ingredients told nothing of the story of this dish – my second favorite of the night and one of the best fish preparations I’ve ever tasted. With the tender hamachi first grilled and then topped with a drape of melting lardo before rainbow chard and balls of yuzu were added the smoky centerpiece of this dish was further complimented with a dollop of carrot froth, sliced kumquats, grilled morels, poached rhubarb, and a buleed cardamom marshmallow all adding a significant degree of variability to individual bites. It was sweet, it was smoky, it was savory, and although complex (perhaps even ‘fussy’) nothing on the plate seemed extraneous or out of place with each component contributing to the overall effect.
With compliments flowing forth after the fish my bread pairing for the last savory arrived in the form of half of a whole wheat waffle topped Lime salt – a tasty bite to be sure, though I’m uncertain as to how it ‘paired’ with either the beef on the tasting menu or my final savory, a fowl-fortified dish from the vegetarian tasting.
Entitled “Hatomugi – Duck Confit, Artichoke, Idiazabal, Oxalis” and again finished tableside – this time with almond milk broth my sixth course was explained to me as an heirloom grass soup and like the previous grain and seed based dish it was sublime. Beginning first with the Hatomugi – it was toothsome like cooked barley (something I eat on a nearly daily basis at home) but with a more grainy/herbal flavor that melded beautifully with the smoked cheese and smooth almond milk. With the base set and the duck adding its characteristic gamey flavor the addition of a touch of acid from both the oxalis and fibrous artichokes simply served to bring everything to a peak on the palate.
With my plates now cleared the palate cleanser for the evening would arrive on a branch described as “Sudachi – Togarashi, Nepitella Mint” and instructed to consume it in a single bite I did as I was told with the spheriphication bursting into a wash of spice, sour, and sweet all at once with the final effect being something like a citrus tinted apple.
With the dining room now winding down and cleanup beginning at the prep-stations I was impressed to see that Chef Duffy also oversaw the preparation and plating of both desserts at Avenues, though given his predilection for sweetness in his savories perhaps I should not have been. Utilizing a technique I’d admittedly seen once prior – at Los Angeles’ Providence – the first sweet course of the evening was titled “Coconut – Pineapple, Freeze Dried Saffron, Vietnamese Balm” and with a capsule filled with pineapple jus bursting on light pressure from my spoon this dish wowed first in visual effect and later in flavor as the icy coconut capsule and pineapple broth formed a tropical backdrop to caramelized bananas and roasted cashews with top-notes of minty citrus and saffron filling the sinuses.
A somewhat typical American in my love of chocolate based desserts I was excited to see the second dessert of the evening arrive in the form of “Sambirano Valley Chocolate – Brown Butter, Mandarin, Stevia” and I was even more pleased on tasting it as it proved to be even more texturally interesting than its predecessor. Clearly unwilling to settle for subtle presentations, this dessert centered on dense ‘noodles’ of chocolate ganache traversing the long plate and intermingling first with hazelnut cake and freeze-dried mandarin orange, then frozen blood orange sorbet followed by sliced citrus and chocolate cake, and finally flaked stevia and huckleberries – a veritable roller coaster ride that served not only to keep the presentation interesting, but also to highlight the myriad nuances of the chocolate.
With desserts finished and the hour now just past 10:15 my final bites of the evening would arrive as yet another exploration of chocolates – this time “Chocolates from 3 countries” including Venezuela, Ecuador, and Madagascar. With each entirely unique I meant to ask if any had been used to form the previous dessert course as the Madagascar particularly had a lovely floral bouquet that seemed similar while the Venezuelan bite leaned more towards lighter caramel tones.
With the bill in hand Chef Duffy made his way over to chat for a bit and thanked me for coming in – a humble man and very appreciative of my compliments for a great meal it was here that he noted the cocktail was on the house and thanking him again the bill was paid with the cocktail price added to the tip as a thanks for the great food and lovely service. With a copy of the menu gathered and bid farewell by the team (both in the kitchen and the front of the house) I made my way back out to the lobby where the chocolate bar was still hopping and met my family outside the hotel to tell them what they had just missed out on – a meal that blew “NEXT” out of the water and rivals L2o (under Gras) and Alinea for best in the city with a Chef every bit as capable as his pedigree would suggest…a chef whose next venture will not take me nearly as long to visit.