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  • Avec [Iberian small plates]

    Post #1 - September 23rd, 2008, 12:52 pm
    Post #1 - September 23rd, 2008, 12:52 pm Post #1 - September 23rd, 2008, 12:52 pm
    Image

    What's the best tapas restaurant in Chicago?

    We're lucky to have acquired Mercat this year. Emilio Gervilla is still finishing paella tableside in Hillside. Azucar's staff is making sweet-pepper meatballs and empanadas fresh every day. The same people that rail against the Mag Mile and Lettuce Entertain You will tell you they have a soft spot for the gambas a la plancha at Iberico, and the patatas bravas at Ba-Ba-Reeba. Garlic and sangria anoint Little Tuscany and Wicker Park and Naperville and all sorts of places in between. Decontextualized Spanish cuisine may just be the red-sauce Italian of a generation ago, or the Cantonese of the Jazz Age, pervasive and comforting, evocative and complacently uneven. You'll find huge fans of certain dishes at certain places, ducking in for scallops or queso de cabra and then dropping the check and heading for the door faster than Mike G. after a Kow Kow eggroll.

    But my friends, in our community of travelers and thinkers and lovers of food, there is unusual consensus on a banner for the complete Iberian experience. The best tapas restaurant is not, strictly defined, a tapas restaurant at all.

    It's Avec.

    Image
    Photo: ndgbucktown

    And with the preamble aside, it's so much more. Its dishes can calm those lamenting the lack of a Portuguese restaurant in Chicago. It's therapy for those tired of standard French and Italian, deftly incorporating the best elements of both like pragmatic Occitan chefs, recalling a time when national allegiance meant very little on fast-trading shores. And sometimes it is a secret gathering place on a windswept coast, a haven from the warcries of the city. (Particularly in February).

    Avec feels like Spain to me. It transports me to the best taverns and cider-gardens of Galicia and of Cantabria (Santander) and of Andalucia. House-cured meats, olives brined and citrus-laced under the counter, plank tables, steaming iron pots of rich stews, crisp bread from the oven in back, a wine list of diverse, handcrafted vintages, selected with care. I've heard others say it takes them back to Provence, to the Algarve, to Liguria. It is essential Mediterranean, connecting richly with whatever experiences you bring to the table.

    When she got this place on the map, Koren Grieveson worked with the most resonant culinary memories of her multi-national upbringing, and then the best of the advice and training from Paul Kahan, and stripped away everything else. I think she's improved on the Blackbird methodology, and also on the standard Mediterranean small plate paradigm in Chicago. O, that more places would work this hard. I could rhapsodize all day on specific dishes - the dates stuffed with imported chorizo and wrapped in bacon and served piping hot in fresh pepper puree and accompanied by the perfect bread, or the life-changing saffron pasta with rajas and kalamata olives and serrano ham and anchovy fillets, a dish I make regularly now for entertaining, or the truffled flatbreads, or the baccala, or the crispy duck - but it's the philosophy of quality and unity of ingredients scattered along one of the most beautiful coasts in the world that brings me back, for new delight in whatever I order.

    So you've got the Great and the Restaurant, and perhaps only the Neighborhood warrants a caveat. I personally enjoy the West Randolph corridor, where I used to work, and where you can walk from a hot dog at Fast Track over the Haymarket Square Memorial to cassoulet at Blackbird, hand-grated wasabi at Meiji, and then across the expressway to a $3 gyros. It doesn't really have a residential feel (yet); it's primarily still the domain of power lunches and after-work wine/sake and hobnobbing, with a good sprinkling of honest diners and greasy spoons (Jim Ching, anyone?). I don't love the crowds, particularly just after the workday gets out, and might not recommend you sit out on the dusty sidewalk in August. Some service issues arise at these hot, busy times. But come here later at night - you can come really late if you want, another joy - or on the weekend, or during a major sporting event, and the neighborhood is right there at the bar. Mine is a little bit of Las Ramblas. What's yours?


    Other recent comments of interest:


    Darren72 thinks it's one of the best restaurants in town, and a top recommendation for those seeking tapas.

    Chezbrad ranks the salmon among the best dishes of 2008.

    Verdigo flew in for the dates with bacon this summer and was not disappointed.

    Our collective running photo-essay on Avec, one of my favorite LTHForum threads.


    Avec
    615 W. Randolph Street
    312.377.2002
    Last edited by Santander on September 23rd, 2008, 10:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #2 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:15 pm
    Post #2 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:15 pm Post #2 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:15 pm
    Honestly, I thought that Avec, given the support it gets on this board, was already a GNR - - and I was quite comfortable with this view.

    So, for me at least, this is an easy choice. Avec isn't perfect, and the no reservations policy is certainly irritating (I'd go more often if I knew I could get a seat without a long wait). However, it is a unique restaurant with good, and often great, food and friendly service. For me, Avec sits in its own category - - I can think of no other restaurant in Chicago that consistently delivers such great, interesting Mediterranean small plates.

    I'm happy to second Santander's nomination.
  • Post #3 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:26 pm
    Post #3 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:26 pm Post #3 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:26 pm
    With Avec being smack-dab in between my two neighborhoods (the Loop & West Town), I find myself there frequently. My issue with this nomination is not whether it is in a "neighborhood" or can be a "neighborhood" restaurant, but rather, whether the press accolade-upon-press accolade has alienated it from being in the truest sense of the word, a neighborhood restaurant.

    I do not find that it has, so I heartily support a GNR for one of my favorite restaurants. While Avec had its share of pre-opening buzz, I think the buzz actually grew in an organic fashion out of what Avec was doing as a restaurant, not because a Marcus Samuelsson or a Rocco DiSpirito was helming the kitchen. The bastard stepchild of Blackbird when Blackbird was still finding its footing as a young prodigy itself, Avec took its chances on Koren Grievesen, who was virtually unknown as a Blackbird under-chef. What Avec offered in terms of food and drink filled a niche that Chicago didn't even know existed -- and that's when the accolades came in. Housemade charcuterie? Write it up! Inventive but authentic takes on Mediterranean food? Write it up! In a world where buzz usually precedes certain restaurants (see The Publican, Graham Eliot, etc.), Avec actually earned its praise, not the other way around.

    What is more, in a world that is beginning to look more like LTH every day and which is just starting to open its hearts to those overlooked holes-in-the-wall that we and nobody else loved, there is no reason why LTH can't open its hearts to a more refined, imaginative style of dining that the mainstream also loves, so long as it fits the "GNR" definition. I think that Avec's flexible menu and pricing and casual ambiance encourage regular customers and regular visits. As such, I think that it qualifies as a "neighborhood" restaurant.

    Regarding the "no-reservations policy:" I actually think this policy is a boon to the neighborhood rather than vice-versa. If it took reservations, the tenor of the restaurant would change as out-of-towners would eat up seats and local folk wouldn't bother to go in knowing they couldn't get in. That I know that I can walk in at 5ish and get a seat at the bar only encourages me to visit regularly. I know I wouldn't do that if I had to call in advance.

    So, who wants to go to Avec?
  • Post #4 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:46 pm
    Post #4 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:46 pm Post #4 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:46 pm
    Oh yes, I just wish it was in my neighborhood! (but it is an easy ride on the Milwaukee ave. bus)
    Leek

    SAVING ONE DOG may not change the world,
    but it CHANGES THE WORLD for that one dog.
    American Brittany Rescue always needs foster homes. Please think about helping that one dog. http://www.americanbrittanyrescue.org
  • Post #5 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:51 pm
    Post #5 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:51 pm Post #5 - September 23rd, 2008, 1:51 pm
    In spite of what I believe is quite possibly the most uncomfortable seating in any restaurant in which I've ever eaten (ironic, since it won a Beard Award for Best Design), I continue to return to Avec because their food is truly compelling and distinctive. This is a restaurant of which we in Chicago should be very proud.

    A fine nomination!

    =R=
    Gardening is a bloodsport --Meghan Kleeman

    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #6 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:00 pm
    Post #6 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:00 pm Post #6 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:00 pm
    Avec is the closest thing I have to a personal GNR -- it is adjacent to my neighborhood, certainly within walking distance, and my wife and I go there usually at least twice a month. Avec actually became a regular part of our rotation during my wife's first pregnancy and then we picked it back up in her second pregnancy and then have just stuck with it as an every-other-Thursday kind of thing -- primarily because the small plates/tapas concept worked well with what her appetites are like during pregnancy. The folks there are very nice -- we have enjoyed several evenings of casual conversation with the chefs at the "chef's table" portion of the bar and we get "regulars" treatment from the hostess and bartenders (we always sit at the bar unless we are dining with others). And the food is (obviously) great -- one of the advantages of going somewhat early for childcare-related reasons (in addition to the fact that there's almost never a wait) is that the rotating specials on the chalkboard that often sell out as the night goes on are still on offer, but the regular menu has old standbys and new entrants that I just keep coming back to.

    This is the place we usually take out of town guests when they come visit. It has charmed friends of ours from both coasts, and points in between, including a medical school classmate of my cousin's from Arkansas who proceeded from "what's a date?" (to which the only rational response is "if it's wrapped in bacon, why do you care?") to "we use those as bait where I come from" in commenting on the sardines on a pizza to "damn, is that good" in response to the pork shoulder and more or less finishing the whole (large plate) dish herself.

    A strong GNR as far as I'm concerned (and one I thought about nominating myself, but too busy/lazy).
  • Post #7 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:04 pm
    Post #7 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:04 pm Post #7 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:04 pm
    It's about time someone nominated Avec. And no caveat is needed with respect to the word "neighborhood." Be it West Loop, Market District, Randolph Street, I don't care . . . they're all neighborhoods and you will not find better food in any of those areas than at Avec (except maybe Blackbird). It has been one of my few favorite dining spots in Chicago for several years now. And it's always one of the first places where I bring visitors from out-of-town to show off Chicago's food scene.
  • Post #8 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:15 pm
    Post #8 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:15 pm Post #8 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:15 pm
    I have a tough time answering the question, "What's the best restaurant in Chicago?" But when asked "Where does the best cooking take place?" the answer is easier: Avec.
    ...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

    Fuckerberg on Food
  • Post #9 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:42 pm
    Post #9 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:42 pm Post #9 - September 23rd, 2008, 2:42 pm
    Santander wrote:What's the best tapas restaurant in Chicago? ...
    It's Avec.


    Don't I even get an assist for being the first guy on the board to call out Avec as Chicago's best tapas restaurant? ;)

    Excellent nomination. Avec is one of the best restaurants in town and deserves any and every award that is given to restaurants.

    Best,
    Michael
  • Post #10 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:21 pm
    Post #10 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:21 pm Post #10 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:21 pm
    eatchicago wrote:Don't I even get an assist for being the first guy on the board to call out Avec as Chicago's best tapas restaurant? ;)


    You get full credit! It's your post I linked in the punchline:

    Santander wrote:
    It's Avec.

    Last edited by Santander on September 23rd, 2008, 3:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #11 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:22 pm
    Post #11 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:22 pm Post #11 - September 23rd, 2008, 3:22 pm
    Santander wrote:
    Don't I even get an assist for being the first guy on the board to call out Avec as Chicago's best tapas restaurant? ;)


    You get full credit! It's your post I linked in the punchline.


    Ahhh. Missed that. :)
  • Post #12 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:27 pm
    Post #12 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:27 pm Post #12 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:27 pm
    Great call. I also thought that Avec was already a GNR. I strongly support this nomination.
    -Josh

    I've started blogging about the Stuff I Eat
  • Post #13 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:33 pm
    Post #13 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:33 pm Post #13 - September 23rd, 2008, 4:33 pm
    jesteinf wrote:Great call. I also thought that Avec was already a GNR. I strongly support this nomination.

    Terrific nomination!!

    For reference here is the list of all current GNRs

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #14 - September 23rd, 2008, 9:31 pm
    Post #14 - September 23rd, 2008, 9:31 pm Post #14 - September 23rd, 2008, 9:31 pm
    Count me among the people smacking her head thinking Avec was already a GNR. To me, Avec is one of the most satisfying restaurant experiences in Chicago. Great nomination.
  • Post #15 - September 24th, 2008, 8:37 am
    Post #15 - September 24th, 2008, 8:37 am Post #15 - September 24th, 2008, 8:37 am
    A well-deserved nomination; great call, Santander. Not that tiny, ethnic restaurants don't often need and deserve the recognition that the GNR provides, but it's great when a finer-dining spot gets tapped, especially when the food is just this good.
  • Post #16 - September 24th, 2008, 9:36 am
    Post #16 - September 24th, 2008, 9:36 am Post #16 - September 24th, 2008, 9:36 am
    I had the pleasure to visit Avec the week it opened with a party organized here, or maybe via CH before there was a here, but the point is the same. It was great.

    I have only been back a couple of times since, not because of anything other than too many other places to choose from. Avec is great, of that there is no question in my mind.

    Seems an excellent nomination to me, and I support it most heartily. It is a great excuse to go back soon, too.
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #17 - September 25th, 2008, 5:51 pm
    Post #17 - September 25th, 2008, 5:51 pm Post #17 - September 25th, 2008, 5:51 pm
    Avec is an excellent choice: it is a restaurant that combines high quality, innovative food with a sense that it belongs to its diners. The restaurant design encourages connections among groups of diners. I warmly support this nomination.
    Toast, as every breakfaster knows, isn't really about the quality of the bread or how it's sliced or even the toaster. For man cannot live by toast alone. It's all about the butter. -- Adam Gopnik
  • Post #18 - September 27th, 2008, 8:35 am
    Post #18 - September 27th, 2008, 8:35 am Post #18 - September 27th, 2008, 8:35 am
    I went to Avec, several weeks ago, for the first time in quite a while. As usual, the place was packed to the rafters (which is why I hadn't been there for a long time). I sat at the bar and was amazed by the drill team like precision of the chefs as they turned out dozens of perfectly prepared and presented small plates simultaneously. As I sank my teeth into what is arguably the best hangar steak in the city, I thought, "this place really should be a GNR". In fact, I actually started composing a GNR nomination for Avec last week, which due to other pressing issues I never completed. Now Santander has saved me the effort (thanks). I expected the nomination to be somewhat controversial, not because anybody would dispute the fact that Avec is a great restaurant, but rather whether or not it fits the definition of a "neighborhood" restaurant. In many ways, Avec is the antithesis of what most people might perceive a GNR to be. It is not exactly an undiscovered gem that needs to be promoted, but it is certainly one of Chicago's culinary treasures. Whenever food-savvy Chicagoans are asked about the "don't miss" restaurants of our hometown, Avec invariably makes the list. Needless to say, I heartily second this nomination.
  • Post #19 - October 3rd, 2008, 3:06 pm
    Post #19 - October 3rd, 2008, 3:06 pm Post #19 - October 3rd, 2008, 3:06 pm
    I support this nomination. If I were to recommend one meal in Chicago, it would be here.
  • Post #20 - October 7th, 2008, 9:28 pm
    Post #20 - October 7th, 2008, 9:28 pm Post #20 - October 7th, 2008, 9:28 pm
    Some have criticized this place as not being in much of a "neighborhood."
    But a restaurant like this, that manages to successfully shove strangers together on benches around communal tables, you meet new people, hold conversations with them even on an intimate evening like an anniversary... it becomes a neighborhood.

    I wholeheartedly endorse this nomination.

    Oh yeah, the food rocks too.
    What is patriotism, but the love of good things we ate in our childhood?
    -- Lin Yutang
  • Post #21 - October 9th, 2008, 12:59 pm
    Post #21 - October 9th, 2008, 12:59 pm Post #21 - October 9th, 2008, 12:59 pm
    I support this nomination. It is one of the places we've consistently had great meals at and always pleases our guests that we take there.
  • Post #22 - October 9th, 2008, 1:40 pm
    Post #22 - October 9th, 2008, 1:40 pm Post #22 - October 9th, 2008, 1:40 pm
    I braved the rain on Tues night and stuck to my plans to dine at Avec after work. Despite the rain, this place was packed by 6:30. The staff is so warm and friendly - I think this really lends itself to that "neighborhood" feeling. The couple at my table were clearly regulars or friends of the staff as they were hugged and warmly greeted by staff from both the foh and the kitchen. This was my first time at Avec, and I am looking forward to many more. The focaccia with taleggio cheese and truffle oil knocked my socks off, and my appreciation for it grew w/each bite. The zeppole with ricotta, pistachios, and candied orange peel was a wonderful combination. Each element on its own was ordinary, but a bite with a little of everything propelled into something very delicious.
  • Post #23 - October 15th, 2008, 12:36 pm
    Post #23 - October 15th, 2008, 12:36 pm Post #23 - October 15th, 2008, 12:36 pm
    Pucca wrote: Each element on its own was ordinary, but a bite with a little of everything propelled into something very delicious.


    I find this to be true of much of what's on the Avec menu. They consistently seem to find a perfect balance of textures and flavors, in nearly every dish. I marvel at it and learn from it almost every time I go.
    ...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

    Fuckerberg on Food
  • Post #24 - October 15th, 2008, 9:56 pm
    Post #24 - October 15th, 2008, 9:56 pm Post #24 - October 15th, 2008, 9:56 pm
    Pucca wrote:The focaccia with taleggio cheese and truffle oil knocked my socks off, and my appreciation for it grew w/each bite.


    Did you try it cold (i.e., as leftovers)? Even better.

    Kennyz wrote:I find this to be true of much of what's on the Avec menu. They consistently seem to find a perfect balance of textures and flavors, in nearly every dish. I marvel at it and learn from it almost every time I go.


    Hmmm, I don't know if I'd agree: my meal tonight was excellent, but reached for the same heavy richness each time; ham hocks and button mushrooms popped in several dishes. I love Koren's cooking, but I occasionally crave greater balance from Avec's menu.

    Still, as a denizen of the neighborhood, I heartily endorse the nom. It's my go-to place to take out-of-towners.
  • Post #25 - March 19th, 2010, 9:38 am
    Post #25 - March 19th, 2010, 9:38 am Post #25 - March 19th, 2010, 9:38 am
    As I've noted in the Avec thread, recent experience has included more bad than good. I think staff turnover has had a huge effect, and the cooking is no longer what it used to be. Avec is no longer a GNR in my book.
    ...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

    Fuckerberg on Food
  • Post #26 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am
    Post #26 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am Post #26 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am
    Darren72 wrote:I support this nomination. If I were to recommend one meal in Chicago, it would be here.


    This sums up how I feel about Avec. I haven't noticed a drop in quality, though service can be hit or miss. But the food is consistently creative, unique, and most importantly excellent.
  • Post #27 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am
    Post #27 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am Post #27 - March 19th, 2010, 9:50 am
    Kennyz wrote:As I've noted in the Avec thread, recent experience has included more bad than good. I think staff turnover has had a huge effect, and the cooking is no longer what it used to be. Avec is no longer a GNR in my book.


    I've told the exact same story as Kenny in that thread. I think Avec is phoning it in.
  • Post #28 - March 19th, 2010, 9:51 am
    Post #28 - March 19th, 2010, 9:51 am Post #28 - March 19th, 2010, 9:51 am
    The GF and I went there a few weeks back. We both have pretty high salt tolerances, but the three dishes (brandade, quinoa salad, leek crostini) we tried tasted primarily of salt. They were just shy of being oversalted imo, and coming from us, that's saying a lot. We might go back eventually, but the strange seasoning practices left us fairly underwhelmed. Based on one visit, I can't recommend this as a GNR.
  • Post #29 - March 20th, 2010, 10:58 am
    Post #29 - March 20th, 2010, 10:58 am Post #29 - March 20th, 2010, 10:58 am
    I've only been once in the last couple of years - a pre-Opera outing with a group of friends, I think we opened the place up. Food was good that night, and I really like their wine list and options by the glass. Still works for me, though I can't help but note the number of negative experiences.

    I suppose it makes sense that Kahan's focus is elsewhere.
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #30 - March 20th, 2010, 11:23 am
    Post #30 - March 20th, 2010, 11:23 am Post #30 - March 20th, 2010, 11:23 am
    geno55 wrote:The GF and I went there a few weeks back. We both have pretty high salt tolerances, but the three dishes (brandade, quinoa salad, leek crostini) we tried tasted primarily of salt. They were just shy of being oversalted imo, and coming from us, that's saying a lot. We might go back eventually, but the strange seasoning practices left us fairly underwhelmed. Based on one visit, I can't recommend this as a GNR.



    Odd. I'm not a big fan of salt but didn't have your experience back on Saturday 2-27. Great night & a delightful pre-theater meal for 7. It was the perfect size group because we were able to order a large variety of options. Service was attentive without being intrusive. Standouts for me were the salsify and leeks along with that yummy focaccia with Taleggio cheese and truffle oil.

    We were scheduled to go back with friends two weeks ago. This GNR is definitely going into our rotation of nice spots. It should be renewed.
    Ava-"If you get down and out, just get in the kitchen and bake a cake."- Jean Strickland

    Horto In Urbs- Falling in love with Urban Vegetable Gardening

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