Chicago Day 2 – Avenues at The Peninsula: An Epicure’s Dream

This was the ultimate culmination of a bunch of seemingly insignificant events over the past month into one grand experience.  Just one month ago, I made a reservation for Avenues. This was a result of some rather unorthodox (for me anyway) research techniques to find the best Chicago had to offer. Along the way, I stumbled upon EatADuckIMust‘s wonderful blog. I sent them a quick email commenting on their wonderful photos and asking for advice. They wrote back in record time (I honestly thought they wouldn’t have time for someone like me!) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the next few weeks, J & A were extremely generous in their advice about cameras, taking photos and Chicago in general. I felt like I got to know them really well over that time. Lucky for me, they were about to be headed to Boston for an East Coast vacation. We met, laughed and ate great food (like all good foodies would). We made plans to meet again when we were in Chicago and kept in touch over the weeks.

Avenues @ The Peninsula:

108 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 337-2888

J & A arranged a seating at the Chef’s Table so that we could all view Chef Curtis Duffy & his team work.  From the moment we arrived, to the absolute last moment in the restaurant, the Avenues Team were on their A-game. Barring one or two tiny missteps, our meal was almost other worldly.

Upon sitting down, we were presented with Champagne and given menus to peruse. We already knew we were getting the tasting menu. What we didn’t know was how good a value it was. $125 for an 8-course Chef’s tasting menu, or $105 for an 8-course Seasons/Vegetarian menu.  And unlike Craigie on Main, the vegetarian tasting menu wasn’t an afterthought with only meats removed as a finishing touch from regular dishes. This was a truly unique experience and I was pleased when we decided to go with one of each menu.

After placing our orders, we were presented with Chinese Soup spoons containing an Amuse, courtesy of Chef Duffy and his team. They each perfectly encapsulated what they had to offer in one flawless bite.  Mine was a vibrantly coloured tea gelee encased gooseberry. E got a healthy serving of caviar atop his spoon (I was jealous! And E didn’t want to share). The colours and flavour were so lively and bright. I immediately became very excited about the meal to come.

Our first courses were similarly presented, but on complete opposite ends of the flavour richness spectrum. E got the much lauded (and now we know why) and celebrated King Crab starter with wild steelhead roe and lemon mint. First, a comment about the presentation: It was like gazing into an underwater world; the Crab and Calamansi seemed suspended in the glass vessel.  There was a fine layer of crystalline sugar perched atop his Crab concoction which was meant to be shattered and incorporated into the dish itself.  The flavours were light, fresh and delightful.  The colours were incredibly vibrant and it tasted of the richness of the sea.  I was presented with a Chestnut Puree with generous shavings of black truffle, sweet punches of quince and fresh garden herbs. The truffles were crunchy and added a layer of texture to the velvety smooth puree. My dish was incredibly rich, almost too much so (but oh-so-decadent!). This was how vegetarian food was meant to taste; nothing bland, nothing boring.

The next course offered a fresh take on a classic Thai soup: Tom Kha Gai (but vegetarian) for myself, and Faroe Island Salmon for E. E commented that this was the best rendition he’s ever had of the soup (but, really, what even holds a candle to Chef Duffy’s take on this dish?). Once again, the freshness of the seasonal herbs came to the forefront of the dish and filled the air with their aromas.  The lemongrass paste was sweet and may have been my favourite element of the dish.  Have you ever seen a soup with so many different textural components? The salmon was a winner for E as well. Of course, E loves salmon more than any other fish in the world (I know, cheap date, right?).  He claimed that the textures and flavours were bang-on and that he was as happy as a clam because of it. The salmon didn’t really stand out for me, but that’s not to say it wasn’t stellar as well. I just thought my soup won that round!

Avenues: Grains, Seeds & Nuts

The next course was common to both meals. It was a Grains, Seeds & Nuts dish that featured seasonal offerings. I really loved this dish because it opened my eyes as to what Grains could achieve when handled properly (i.e. by a Master Chef).  The fact that it was featured on both menus shows that the Chef & Team were proud of their creation and wanted Meat-atarians to appreciate the world of Grains as much as Vegetarians do.  Vegetarian menus should never be a dumb-downed/water-downed version of the Flexitarian Menu. Each menu should aim to showcase what each side has to offer, without one being of inferior quality. Chef Duffy’s dish shows that even a humble grain can achieve great culinary standing.

Throughout the meal, we were also presented with a Bread Tasting. It’s in the details such as these that make me think: “Wow, Chef Duffy is inspired”.  Bread is usually an afterthought in a restaurant such as this (especially in a restaurant that offers at 10-course tasting menu). But not at Avenues. They decide to pair breads with accompaniments throughout the meal.  The first course featured a lovely and subtly pungent cheese bread. Its accompaniments were a floral herb paste, a citrus lemon paste (with a hit of fleur de sel) and a decadently flavoured butter spread.  I loved every dip and every bread course. It was followed up by a Pretzel Bread (my favourite), a Savoury Waffle course, and many others.  By the 4th or 5th bread course, I was completely full, and that may have been my only disappointment in the entire meal: not being able to eat more bread. A hearty bravo goes out to the Chef’s team for this addition to my experience!

By now, I was REALLY getting full. This was a foreign and new experience for me. Usually during tastings, I leave mildly hungry. And because of that, Avenues gets even MORE points from E & I. The next course was a Risotto course in the Vegetarian Menu and a Hamachi dish for the Chef’s Tasting Menu. I was ecstatic after taking my first bite of the Risotto. I’ve been searching far and wide for a risotto that would live up to my expectations (I often create expectations based on what goes in a dish, how much it’s fancied by others and just how it reads on the paper). This risotto was by far the best rendition I’ve ever had. It was rich, toothsome and was perfumed with mushroom aromatics (matsutake is featured).  The figs helped cut the richness of the risotto by introducing a sweet component. And did I mention this giant slivers of Truffles? I loved the aroma of the earthy treasures and the texture they added to my silky risotto.  E’s yuzu scented hamachi, though fancifully presented, wasn’t as mind-blowing a hamachi dish when compared to how amazing my risotto dish was. But E liked the hamachi better. Throughout the meal, I really took note of how Chef Duffy introduced dishes of varying temperatures. Some preparations were cooked throughout, while others were left alone in their raw state. I enjoyed the variety and it really prevented any of the courses from becoming mundane.

The next course was the Short Ribs for both E and I. Yes, the short ribs. At first I thought it was a mistake, but I learned that the Chef saw me nibbling of E’s plate and figured I wasn’t vegetarian after all (and was merely an impostor). Since the next Veg course was meant to be a Cauliflower dish with similar preparations and flavour to the Hamachi, he decided to treat me to some meat and potatoes. How sweet, indeed! Unfortunately, even though the Chef had the best intentions, and his Sous-Chef was laboriously glazing the ribs over and over in front of us – the rib was our least favourite dish of the evening and was a bit of a let-down (mostly because we were getting our appetites whetted by seeing the glazing process for the previous 20 minutes). The ribs were a bit dried out and the flavours weren’t as nuanced and punchy as the other dishes. The ‘shoe-string fries’ (OK, that’s what I’m going to call them. It was not their official name) were the highlight of the dish. Great fries. Seriously. I could have eaten a tub of those and been very happy. But I guess that wouldn’t be very sophisticated of me, so I won’t digress and instead move on to talk about the rest of the meal.

Our next course was presented on what appeared to be an elaborate branch made of pewter. A single sphere of Sudachi essence was encapsulated in a frozen shell. When bitten into, a tidal wave of citrusy notes filled my mouth. Even though I was warned it would burst, I was caught off guard due to the sheer amount of liquid that came forth from such a tiny globe.  It was an amazing experience (I wished that I could have a couple of more, but I’m sure that feeling of longing is what Chef Duffy wanted to create).

Desserts were amazingly just as strong, if not stronger, than the rest of the meal. Though cucumber is not often thought of as a sweet ending to a meal, Chef Duffy created a masterpiece, both visually and taste-wise.  Tender slivers of fresh cucumber were presented on my plate alongside shavings of ‘cured’ cucumber. The ‘Cured Cucumber’ was created through a process that involved simple syrups and vacuum sealing, as we were later told by the Chef. I was amazed and simple thought this was the best dish of the evening. E got a Strawberry-based dessert that looked like it came off the pages of Alice In Wonderland.  The vivid colours were only surpassed by the taste sensation one got when biting into the icy sweetness of the frozen dessert. Inside the cylinder was a syrup made of liqueur.  When eaten with the paired Opal Basil, I was truly in heaven!  The basil accentuated the strawberries and it was unlike any other flavour combination I had ever tasted. It was definitely the work of a Mad Hatter, err… Inspired Chef!

And since everyone loves chocolate, whether they’re vegetarian, meat-atarian, or what have you, the next course was an experiment in science featuring chocolate mousse and liquid nitrogen. Balls of frozen Mousse were brought to our table and placed on our plates. The servers took care in breaking each chunk into manageable sizes. E’s mousse had a temper tantrum and decided to burst – sending mini shards of chocolate shrapnel across the table. The bits of flying debris were promptly whisked away and we were left with an eerie presentation – almost like a dream scape – of frozen mousse and chamomile custard.  I now knew that I was living a dream: my chocolate mousse proved it.  What a way to end a fantastic meal.

At the end of the meal, we were queried as to whether or not we were full. I wholeheartedly proclaimed yes! They then said they would wrap up our chocolate truffles in a take-home package. Another course?! Another way to impress me? Do they ever stop? That was an incredibly thoughtful gesture and it made me realize how rare it is to find a restaurant and its team take so many steps to ensure you had a wonderful evening. When we were finished they asked if there was anything they could improve. E and I both said we were so happy with how the dinner went. As an aside to me later, E said he was a little disappointed from being left out of the plate description process. The waitstaff unfortunately only spoke loud enough for J & A to hear the Chef’s Menu and a separate explanation was given to only myself for the Vegetarian Tasting. Poor E was left out of the fun. In the end, E was more than happy with his meal, so all was forgiven.

Chef Duffy & Team made each dish a complete departure from its predecessor. When you thought you figured out their style, they introduce another element. When you think they don’t have any more tricks up their sleeve, they present a Liquid Nitrogen-infused dessert.  This was a lesson on theatrics in dining that other Chefs should take notes on.  WD~50’s Wylie Dufresne – I’m talking to you (I kid, but not really). Using elements of Molecular Gastronomy to create an experience for the diner was used expertly in creating this meal. Nothing was done without a purpose. No foie gras knots were tied (thus ruining the silky texture of the foie), nor were any Combos created with exotic ingredients (I can buy a pack for $2.50 at the convenience store, thank you very much). The Front of House team was also especially fantastic and rivaled the team of Jean Georges during my first visit (which still edges out the Avenues team by just a hair, but mainly because it was almost ridiculous how well orchestrated that team was in presenting our meals. I still laugh about it to this day when reminiscing about their choreography). But overall, it was probably the best meal of my life so far (just narrowly edging out Degustation in NYC – but to be fair, I didn’t have their tasting menu).  It was just a Culinary Masterpiece: from Amuse to Mousse.  I cannot wait to return.


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