Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day Three

On the final day of my self-proclaimed Dining Out Week, we visited Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel.  Avenues is located at 108 East Superior and its website is

I always suspected something was wrong with Avenues, even though I had no real basis for that suspicion.  Maybe it was because Graham Elliot Bowles was the chef there (and I do have a problem with that) or maybe its because it was in a hotel.  Whatever the reason, whenever we were deciding what restaurants we want to eat at, Avenues very seldom makes an appearance in that conversation.  I even had a vision of getting in an argument with the head waiter tonight about how bad everything was.  However, it was Dining Out Week, and I have eaten at every other multi-course style restaurant in Chicago, so this was the final frontier and I had to go.

We walked in and got semi-lost walking around the Peninsula (so if you are keeping track, that's 3 for 3 on getting lost during Dining Out Week).  Eventually one of the hotel people pointed us in the right direction and we arrived a few minutes before our reservation.

From the outside of the restaurant, Avenues looked kind of interesting.  There was a long granite bar on the left that overlooked the kitchen, so you could watch the chefs in action if you had one of those seats.  Along the far wall directly in front of us was a windowed wall facing out at the Water Tower.  The room probably had about 18 tables total, so it was relatively small.

We sat down and were nearly instantly ambushed by our waitress Amy (who was very good) with the champagne cart.  She explained the three choices of champagne, and we ended up picking a Schramsburg Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine (which I've always wanted to try).  I was not particularly a fan of the champagne cart coming at me as I did feel like they were pressuring us into buying it.  I would have gotten champagne either way, but I wasn't a fan of having it forced on me (sort of like health insu...ok again, I'll just stop there).  The champagne was very good and had a strong taste of green apples.  It went very nicely with our first three courses.  Next, the sommelier, Aaron, came over and discussed the wine list with us.  I was kind of disappointed that they did not have a wine pairing to go with the meal, but he recommended a Gaja Chardonnay and a Chateau Beaucastel Chateaunauf-du-Pape in half bottle format.  This actually ended up being less than I expected to spend on wine, which is always a nice surprise.

So after getting all the wine choices settled, our first course came out.  It was, as is common in many of these restaurants, a caviar course.  This one; however, was a bit deconstructed and had all of the traditional elements, but in a one bite format served on a spoon.  It had caviar, lemon, oyster, and crumbled brioche to mimic the usual toast points.  This was one of the better caviar courses I have ever had, perhaps just behind the French Laundry's Oysters and Pearls.  The caviar was nice and salty, and the toast and oyster was just a bit sweet.  The Schramsburg wine was a nice complement with its sweet green apple taste.  A very auspicious start that almost immediately broke down my skepticism of Avenues.
After the caviar course, we moved on to the real start of the dinner - what the menu described as King Crag, cucumber, golden wild char roe, and something called kalamansi.  This was interesting because it a two-level course.  It was served in a cup.  On the bottom was a cold cucumber juice with some chilled king crab.  On the rim was a sugar tuile (like a piece of glass made from sugar) that had some piles of roe, orange, and some sort of white sauce (maybe that was the kalamansi).  The waiter, Colin, who looked like he purchased my friend Mike Warren's body on Ebay then jumped in a time machine and went forward ten years, explained that we should break the tuile with the spoon, let the sugar and flavors mix with the cucumber, and then eat it all with the spoon.  All I could think about was how much like Spring this dish tasted since it was so light and colorful.  It was like eating a salad only if salad was good.  The cucumber absolutely popped with vibrance and flavor, and the sugar enhanced the sweetness of the crab.  Finally, the roe added a bit of saltiness to the mix and the few mint leaves added an interesting element of complexity.  As much as I liked the caviar course, this was even better.  Here is a picture from the top and from the side of the cup, so you can see how it was arranged. 
The next course was the Faroe Island Salmon Belly with apple milk that Colin poured over it (they really like pouring stuff onto plates) and whipped chloropyll.  It also had what I think was snail roe on it.  When I asked about that element, they described it as earthy almost "like playing in a playground."  I guess that makes sense, so I let it go.   This course was positively delicious.  The fish was so delightfully fatty and just a touch chilled (after being lightly poached).  The apple milk was very interesting if for nothing else than it was apple milk.  The champagne with its apple-y goodness was nearly perfect for this dish.  The whipped chlorophyll had a strong fennel taste, so I wasn't a huge fan of that, but if you like fennel, then you will probably like it a bit better.
After having three solid courses, I was waiting for the meal to take a turn for the worse (otherwise I would have eaten here already, right?).  I was positive I was not going to like something soon.  The next course was described as Japanese Pumpkin, duck confit, finger limes, and miner's lettuce.  I'm pretty sure they changed this course after they printed the menu because it ended up being some sort of squash soup that they poured over the duck confit with a strip of dark chocolate.  Every single element on its own was absolutely ambrosial (word of the day!), but together they were; somehow, even better.  The duck was incredibly flavorful and the soup must have been made with some sort of meat stock that accentuated the duck perfectly.  The chocolate added a nice hint of bitter and sweetness to the mix.  This was the best course thus far, and I figured that if they hadn't let me down by now, they probably were not going to at all.  This was also where they broke out the Gaja Chardonnay.  It was big and oaky, and as the sommelier described, "a white wine that wishes it was a red."  He was right.  It amply stood up to all of the strong flavors contained in this duck dish.  I think we could have probably gotten away with a nice pinot noir here too, but I'm glad that we went the white wine route since this was such a Spring-y menu.
The next course can only be described as Alice in Wonderland on a plate.  It was beets with strawberries, black garlic, and red sorrel.  On this plate, there were 4 different types of beets: red, golden, candy stripe, and one other that I don't remember.  There were random smudges of fermented black garlic puree all over the plate and different preparations of beets strewn throughout.  On the front right, there was a golden beet ice cream atop the candy stripe beets.  There was a roasted golden beet and a roasted red beet on the plate along with some fresh strawberries, dried strawberries, some fruit jellies, and some extruded beets.  There was an unbelievable amount going on with this course.  I don't often eat beets, but I greatly enjoyed this course and all of its craziness.  I feel like if I liked beets more, this would have been even more tremendous.
The next course on the menu was the one I was most worried about since I've never had a gnocchi that I have enjoyed.  Every version I have had has been a soggy mess that felt like eating a sponge, so I have given up totally on the whole idea of gnocchi.  There were 5 seared gnocchi in a bowl with some herbs that they poured proscuitto broth over.  While the gnocchi was seared and had a decent crust on it, I thought it still tasted a bit spongy even though the proscuitto broth was excellent tasting.  This is also where we switched to red wine.

Following the first course that I really didn't care for came in unquestionably the best course of the night, the Ohmi Gyu (a waygu beef from Japan) with black truffles, pistachios, roasted potatoes, and white truffle.  The meat was cooked sous vide to a perfect medium-rare and then seared to give it a crunchy crust.  The white truffle was cooked into a creme caramel and the black truffle was shaved and placed around the plate.  The combination of the meat and the white truffle creme caramel was one of the best things that I have ever eaten (and I've eaten many many great things).  The red wine was not overly assertive, so this dish could have probably used something a bit stronger like a cabernet, but it was smooth and juicy and played nicely off of the extremely savory elements on the plate.  I could have eaten just this and gone home, and I would have been happy.  I would go back to Avenues just to eat this.  They also served us a waffle instead of bread, which was interesting.

They brought us out a palate cleanser to transition to dessert, and it was gross.  It was like eating carrot baby food (even served in a jar).  I'm just going to move on from here since it was pretty bad and everything else was so good.
With that excellent course behind us, we moved into the two dessert courses.  The first was Rasberry, thai black pepper, marscarpone, and African blue basil.  The raspberry was a puree that was frozen into a log with some frozen framboise.  Again, this dish exploded with Spring flavor, and I always like the idea of basil with berries.  I probably should have ordered a dessert wine for dessert, but at this point I had already formulated a wild plan about drinking wine at Charlie Trotter's after Avenues (luckily that didn't come about).

Finally, we ended with a dark chocolate mousse with saffron, honey, and bergamot tea.  The chocolate was extremely dense and rich.  I love chocolate and it was too rich for me to eat.  The saffron and honey added some interesting floral notes to it, and the tea seemed to be imperceptible.  Overall, I think I liked the raspberry dessert better, but this was excellent too.  We finished off, as usual with some chocolate truffles of different varieties.

Overall, Avenues was amazing.  I'm kind of disappointed with myself that I didn't go as soon as Chef Bowles went to his new and not good restaurant.  The chef even came over to talk to us at the end of the meal, and he couldn't have been nicer.  The service was awesome and we even ended up talking to Time Machine Mike Warren and Amy about Das Boot.  I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants a great meal.

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