Our dinner at Avenues got off to a bad start. We had scheduled a dinner for six people on the day before our Alinea reservation, but with various cancellations and replacement diners, it turned out that Mrs. P and I would be dining there solo. So on Thursday afternoon when I checked into the hotel (we were conveniently staying at the Peninsula where Avenues is located), I phoned the restaurant to tell them we were going to be two instead of six. Unfortunately, nobody answered the phone. It was about 5:30, and I thought this a bit odd, so I decided to try again. This time, after the phone rang for a while, a man finally answered. I asked if I had reached Avenues, and told him I was trying to change my reservation for the next night. At first it seemed that he was going to tell me to call back later, but he changed his mind and said he could help me. He asked my name, and after a few moments of searching, he claimed that there was no reservation for a Mr. Plotnicki on the night in question. “What's the name again, sir?” His second crack at it wasn't any more fruitful than the first one. Finally, he said he would just make a reservation for two people on Friday evening at 8:00 p.m.
When Mrs P and I walked into the restaurant on Friday evening, I had a dinner at Moto from the night before under my belt, two Chicago beef sandwiches from lunch that day, and a second lunch of a shared carnitas platter at some Mexican joint on the South Side. Fortunately, the amount of food I had consumed over the last 24 hours bolstered me for the semi-disaster that followed our entrance. After I announced that I had a reservation for two, the hostess did a little searching but came up empty. “What was that name, sir?” I told her and she tapped her screen in various locations. But no matter which page she went to, no reservation for me. “Tell me the name again.” After more tapping, she asked if I would wait while she said she was going to speak with the manager. “Just tell me your name one more time.” She walked into the dining room, approached a man about 20 feet away from where we were standing, and he quickly walked over to us and said, “Right this way, Mr. Plotnicki.” Somebody knows my name besides me.
One hopes that dining disasters and mishaps don't come in bunches. But unfortunately, lost reservations were just the beginning of our troubles. I asked the first server who approached our table if she could tell the chef I would like to speak with him. (The request was not without foundation—I had been communicating by email with Avenue’s chef, Graham Elliot Bowles, about my upcoming meal at the restaurant.) She told us she would get him, and a few moments later we saw her speaking with him. But for reasons we didn’t understand, he never did come over to our table. Instead, a few minutes later a second server approached our table with menus. There were five different tasting menus listed, each based around themes, as well as an à la carte menu. We chose what the restaurant calls the “Chef's Palate,” but told the server that if rabbit or buffalo were included in that menu, to please replace those dishes with something else. The server then asked me if I wanted to order wine; I told him that I needed to know what we were eating in order to choose the wines properly. For some reason, upon hearing this he assumed I didn’t know anything about wine—he said he’d get the sommelier to come over and recommend a bottle of red and a bottle of white. As he began to bolt away from our table, I stopped him dead in his tracks and said, “Thanks, but I could probably recommend wines to the sommelier. I just wanted to know what dishes we are having so I could properly pair the wines.” He finally understood and left to go talk to the chef.
After a rather long interval, the manager who had originally seated us approached our table, introduced himself, and shook my hand. He launched into a rather tedious and awkward explanation about how the chef's tasting menu has preset dishes, and how they didn't want to, or possibly couldn't because of preset portions, make substitutions. Being an expert on the topic of chef's tasting menus (read "Tasting Menu Struggles") and sometimes a wiseass to boot, I started to interrogate him about the restaurant’s policy regarding substitutions on tasting menus to demonstrate to him that it didn’t make any sense. After I led him around the loop a few times, even though I think he believed I’d made my case, he smiled and politely held his ground in a way that I will describe as British inflexibility with rules (he was a South African chap so the apple didn't fall far from the tree). He then said, “Let me give you a few minutes more to make a choice. I'll be back in a moment.”
As if two lost reservations, the chef ignoring our request to speak with him, the server mistaking me for a wine dummy, and the restaurant blowing off my request for a modified tasting menu weren’t enough, we then had to sit there for 25 minutes before anyone ever came back to our table. We had been seated around 8:10 and it was now 8:50. “Can you believe this?” asked Mrs. P. I really wanted to leave. But it was a Friday night, and where were we going to go in a city that was not our hometown? Uncharacteristically, I cooled my jets, and finally the server who brought us the menus came over to take our order. Mrs. P ordered the Seafood tasting menu. But I ordered three dishes from the à la carte menu and added two dishes from the various tasting menus, asking if they could devise the rest of my menu around these choices.
We started with an amuse of scallop with shad, garlic, and chervil. Nice amuse but not anything that would turn your head. Things perked up with our first savory course of a cold English pea soup with beets, peppercorn, and lavender. Very nice, with a good and intense pea flavor. Then, a risotto with frogs’ legs, fava beans, morels, and nettles was good, with the nettles fried to a crisp and creating an interesting textural counterpoint to the rice.
Then came a small slab of sautéed foie gras served on top of spicy rice crispy treats. That's right, marshmallows and all. I liked the dish, even though it was a bit goofy, but Mrs. P loved it. In fact, the restaurant gave us a container of the spicy rice crispy treats to take away with us, and we munched on them in our room the next day. The dish also had a foie gras lollipop that was dusted with pop rocks. Okay I can accept the whimsy, although I thought it was a bit over-frozen. In the center of the plate was some delicious rhubarb with verbena.
A pavé of smoked salmon with cabbage, cauliflower, and lemon was next. Going back to cold dishes was a little disconcerting after the warm risotto and foie gras dishes, but aside from the slight temperature curveball it was a fine dish that held its own. Still, there was something about the texture of the cabbage that bothered me. Salmon and cabbage are a classic combination. Two versions immediately jump to mind: Le Petit Marguery's cabbage wrapped around lightly smoked salmon, which is then steamed until the cabbage is soft and served in a pool of beurre blanc; and the Alsatian specialty of lightly smoked salmon served on a bed of choucroute with a cream sauce. In each instance, what makes those dishes work is that the tenderness of the cabbage does not compete with the silkiness of the salmon. In this variation, the cabbage was a bit too firm for the salmon and that made it slightly cumbersome to eat. But I will admit that the dish was tasty even with that flaw.
The next course was a rib of lamb, served with an artichoke on the side, with Altoids (that’s right, the breath mint) grated onto the artichoke. It had an intensely strong flavor, and when blended with the artichoke, it transcended the flavor of mint. The lamb chop was a lovely specimen that started out a bit dry, but the flavor was deep and the more I ate it, the more it grew on me.
Then either the kitchen forgot about my request for no buffalo, or maybe they didn't care, and they sent out an order of buffalo short ribs with Anson Mills grits, apricots, and sassafras. Whatever their reasoning, I'm happy they served it, as it was delicious. The meat managed to be lean while still moist and tender, and it had a nice deep flavor. The texture reminded me of the steamed ribs with a rice flour crust that I sometimes order at Grand Sichuan in New York City, although the flavor was completely different.
Although the food was a great success, our unusual series of interactions with the restaurant wasn't over. Right after they served the buffalo short ribs, our server came to the table and said, “You're Mr. Plotnicki, correct? The chef didn't realize it was you until just now when I mentioned your name to him. He thought you were coming on Tuesday, and he had a special menu organized for you, including specialty breads. He's so sorry that he didn't realize you were here until now.” Argggh. But at least they now really knew my name.
Desserts were Stilton, fig, mache, and port; a flourless chocolate cake with violet ice cream, blackberry, and cassis that was delicious; and a citrus, pistachio, espresso, and cherry dessert (which I didn't photograph) that was good as well. We drank a 2000 Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederich Emile which I thought was low on acid.
Avenues is a fine restaurant though it has a few things going against it. You have to enter the restaurant through the lobby of the hotel, which makes it seem like a less serious dining experience. Also, the kitchen is rather small, and they use a counter that is in the dining room as a pass. Chef Bowles is actually standing in the dining room inspecting the dishes as they are handed over the pass. But if you can forget these idiosyncrasies, you can eat really well here because Bowles knows how to cook. Okay, some of the stuff is a bit whacky like the Altoids on the artichoke. But if you view those things as affectations, the food is well prepared and tasty. Of the three meals I had in Chicago, this was my favorite and I am looking forward to going back. In fact, our meal was so good, it erased whatever bad feelings we had about our first hour at the restaurant. Unfortunately, Bowles's cuisine is not as attention grabbing as the cuisines served at Moto or Alinea, and it will never get the same amount of publicity that those restaurants get. But Bowles definitely has talent, and he deserves a better venue than this one in order to demonstrate his culinary skills. Hopefully it will only be a matter of time before that happens. B+