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avec Chicago, aka, "how much more fat can I eat?"

I found myself in Chicago this past weekend, you know, just for a change in scenery.  And an interview that could change my ENTIRE FUTURE.  Not that there was any pressure or anything.

Anyway, I like Chicago a lot, and from what I’ve heard, it’s becoming quite the culinary center of the midwest.  Maybe I’m biased since I was born there, but I always have felt some sort of strange connection with the place, even though I have never lived there as an adult, and I have only visited it a couple times while cognizant of my surroundings (although I was a very astute toddler).

I arrived on Friday evening, after nearly having a panic attack that my flight would be delayed hours and hours because of the storm, and I wanted to be on my A-game before the BIG INTERVIEW.  Fortunately, everything went as planned, and I found myself at the Hotel Allegro (it’s a KIMPTON property, fools!), located on West Randolph and North La Salle.

Now, for a little bit of a background– Thursday night, I had gone to Lupa for a work dinner, and chatted with my new buddy Mike, who happens to be a manager at Lupa, and also happens to be a native Chicagoan.  I asked him for some solid recommendations, being that I would be rollin’ solo in Chi-town.  He dropped me an email with a litany of places, and I knew that I would be lucky to get to even one of them.

(For those of you who are curious: “Chicago restaurants: Blackbird and avec. Schwa. Doug’s Dogs. If you wanna go very fancy then you must try one of the best restaurants in the world: Alinea. I also have a good blues club: rosa’s. I have more ideas but that’s the top of my head.
Brunch at Anne Sather. If you get up North go to Sarki’s in Wilmette or wings at Buffalo Joes in Evanston. Deep dish pizza at Giordanos. Walker bros pancake house on greenbay rd in Wilmette.”)

Looking on Google maps on my phone, I saw that Avec was a mere stone’s throw away from my hotel.  With a grumbling stomach, I headed west on a mission.  Upon arrival, I was slightly scared by the fact that there was a mass of people waiting both outside and in.  It was already 730 and I needed at least a good night’s sleep before the BIG INTERVIEW.

However, Avec looks like this:

See the big bar?  This is where I was hoping I could make my move.  Being a solo diner, I nonchalantly walked up to the host and said, “hey man, how are you doing?  I’m all by my lonesome tonight.”  Now, at the time, and actually up until I just wrote that down, I didn’t realize how much like a pick-up line that probably sounded.  In retrospect, it would have sounded maybe a little bit cooler had I said it to the hostess (featured picture left) instead of the large awkward man (also featured left, sorta).  Either way, my point was that I was eating alone on a Friday night, and I had to make it sound cool.

I was surprisingly seated within about 5-10 minutes, after which the hostess APOLOGIZED that I had to wait.  I knew I wasn’t in NYC anymore when that happened.  I’m so used to feeling like I need to apologize when I make restaurant hosts do their jobs.  “Sorry I decided to eat here and ruin your staring contest with the Opentable screen– should I come back?  I hear there is an open reservation for two at 10:45?”

Anyway, I sat down and perused the menu, which was composed of mostly small plates.  Now, small plates are truly only “small plates” when you are eating with someone else.  When you are by yourself, it’s more like eating four meals.  But I was hungry, so it was all good.

The menu was great, and I can only imagine what it would be like if I could have tried more than only a handful of things– they had great looking and smelling flatbreads, and a laundry list of pork and offal products.  I knew that I had to go with the braised berkshire cheeks with blood sausage and cabbage, and also the stuffed dates with chorizo, wrapped in bacon.  At this point, I felt that I had already too much on my plate, so I decided to ask my man behind the bar how much more I would need:

“How hungry are you?”

– I mean, I can eat (that’s my code for saying, are you calling me a wimp?  I can eat more than anyone you know.)

“Well, what are you thinking?”

– Definitely the pork cheeks, and the dates

“Aight, we’ll do a half order of the dates and the cheeks.  Maybe one more thing.  The squash is good, the fish is good, the salad is actually pretty good”

– (I knew this guy was speaking my language when he said, “the salad is actually good”) What about the veal liver?

[Looking extremely pleased, like I had just passed the “lonely loser at the bar on a Friday night surrounded by couples” test and unlocked our everlasting friendship] “You like the gamey stuff, huh? Excellent.  Let’s get it started.”


I then entered the world of arterial pain.  First, the dates arrived.

Now, it might be hard to tell from the photo, but “date” is really a misnomer here.  I would call it “bacon wrapped chorizo ball with a touch of date.”  It was served with a freshly heated mini spanish bread loaf, and came in a spicy-sweet tomato-based sauce.  It was tremendous.  This paired with a nice carafe of rioja was going to be put in a good spirit for the rest of the evening.

After devouring a half-order of the dates, which was probably enough to be my meal, the seared veal liver arrived.  I didn’t get a chance to take a picture because I immediately started to stuff my face with it.  It was a simple veal liver accompanied by parsnips, rapini, and bacon.  The liver itself had a little bit of gristle, which is to be expected, but the flavor was excellent and the bacon was a perfect complement without overpowering the dish.  I was innard heaven.

Now, between the two dishes, I probably had consumed far more than I needed to.  Bear in mind, people around me were getting TWO dishes, sharing them, and leaving.  I was by myself and was outlasting people by a good hour.  The time was about 9 o’clock, and I still hadn’t done my preparations.  But in the moment, I didn’t care.  I was eating great food and was in a good place.  Much better than staring at a TV while stressing out.

I finished my carafe of rioja and decided to live a little and get a beer.  I got a Belgian La Binchoise Amber Reserve Speciale, which paired nicely with my (second to) last course: the braised pork cheeks, served with blood sausage and cabbage, barley and artichokes.

Just a little side note at this point.  You see how all of the dishes arrive in a vessel from which you are supposed to serve yourself?  Well, they continued to give me a clean plate with every course, and despite the fact that I was eating by myself, I continued to serve myself small portions, as though I would leave the rest for someone else.  It made me feel like a dignified gentleman, and not some sort of ruffian eating from the serving bowl.

Now, back to the cheeks.  They were amazing.  I don’t know if it was the euphoria from eating my favorite part of my favorite animal, or some sort of other drug-like quality of the dish, but I was in heaven.  I can still remember the feeling from eating it, not just the taste.  I am a bit partial since I love blood sausage, as announced in my DBGB post, but the dish was perfectly balanced, with salty but creamy sausage pieces and chewy barley bits and sweet artichoke bits and big pork cheek bits.  It was chock full of bits.  I could only muster a satisfied thumbs-up when my buddy the bartender would walk by to see what was going on.  When I finally was able to get a couple of words out, I could just say, “this is awesome, man.  You guys are rockin’ it.”

I finished everything in that bowl (in four smaller servings) and poured out every last bit of the sauce (the bowl had a nice pouring spout).  When the guy took away the plate, I finally plead guilty to having over-eaten.

“You good?”

– Man, I’m cashed.  Everything was awesome.

“Alright man, I was gonna say, if you had room in your stomach, you should get the pasta, it’s phenomenal.”

I had seen the pasta.  It looked phenomenal.  But the time was 9.40 and I still had that little meeting (yeah, I had downplayed it by this point) in the morning.  But the pasta looked so good.  I saw man orders of it go out from my bar/kitchen vantage point.  So creamy, so delicious-looking.

– I’m gonna have to come back for that.  For sure…  But let me do some cheese.”

So I got some cheese.  Some Tomme de Savoie and some Torta del Casar, to be exact.  It came with more of that delicious bread and a small parsley and marcona almond salad.  And my buddy threw another beer at me just for kicks.  Maybe he saw how sad I was when I looked at the pasta on the menu: “Housemade pasta with veal and offal bolognese, cream and fresh herbs.”  It was like a dish created just for me.  It didn’t even say what offal were included, and it didn’t matter to me.  A quick google search yielded this twitter update from some dude that I don’t know: “Avec was en fuego last eve..lots of offal…pumpkin/ginger soup w/ crispy veal heart, awesome and the offal Bolognese, terrific.”

I wish I could have twittered about eating offal bolognese.

In retrospect, the fact that I ordered some cheese is completely understandable.  He employed a little of asking if I wanted another big thing (“that’s way too much food”) made me feel obligated to get another small thing (“I suppose it’s just some cheese”).  It’s simple psychology, as explained by Richard Cialdini in his book Influence, and I fell for it like a sucker.

But I didn’t care.  The meal was great, and I couldn’t have been happier and in better spirits, for that, umm, I think I had something in the morning I had to go to…

Anyway, just go to Avec if you’re in Chicago.  But take a friend.  My buddy at the bar also recommended a place called Belly Shack, which is on North Michigan near Armitage (surprised I didn’t see it, I was walking around up there).  I didn’t get a chance to check it out, but I’d like to.

Two lovely occurrences in my life.

Two things have entered my life that I’ve just got to write about on b4b.  The first is a treat from abroad, and the second is a product of the good old USA.

1) Speculoos spread.


This stuff is almost as addictive as nutella.  Speculoos are cookies from Belgium, and the spread has been featured at the Wafels and Dinges trucks in NYC.  The cookies are brown sugar based, and they are the type of treat that would normally be served with a side of some proper tea.  BG and I picked some of this up in the Bon Marché when we were in Paris, where this stuff grows on trees and is as plentiful as the wind.

Try it. And if you can find it here in NYC, tell me where!

2) Ronnybrook Farm Eggnog!


At the farmer’s market today, uberchef spotted a little bottle of magic deliciousness.  He knows of my obsession with the nog, and immediately pointed it out to me.  And now, here I am, ready to indulge in my favorite cold-weather treat.  Mixed with a little dark rum… delicious.

It looks like edible coral.

I took a pic of that romanesco cauliflower using the flash and it looks like an underwater acid trip.  More to come on the weekend’s eating exploits.  Happy Monday!


I'm feeling pink inside.

It’s Wednesday today, and that means one thing– farmer’s market day!

Today I decided to go for anything at the market that provides an illusion of some sort.  I was feeling mischievous, what can I say?

First, I stopped by Samascott Orchards to pick up some apples.  I got those scarlett rose apples that Uberchef got last week.  I have not tried one yet, but as I said, I’m all about the trickery today.

I’m going to be doing some cooking this weekend at a family event, so I picked up some bok choi at Lani’s Farm, which was formerly Yuno’s Farm.  They have pretty good bok, although some of their items are a little overpriced.  I also got some romanesco cauliflower, which was just too trippy and weird-looking to pass up.


Not sure what I’m going to do with them, but it’ll be tasty.  I also picked up some watermelon radish, just because they look cool on the inside.  Check it out.  These things are absolutely radiant inside.

Then I stopped at Maxwell’s farm to pick up those sun-gold’s I’ve been raving about.  They have been getting a bit iffy, so I bought a mix of baby tomatoes.  I think it might be some of the season’s last.  I also got some chives, because I plan on making some pork dumplings this weekend (and you know this will be documented).

Ronnybrook, where were you?? You weren’t at the party today.  Come back.  I love you.

After the market, UC and I walked back to Onya for a little udon action.  Right at the front the udon dude was pulling the noodles out of the machine and dusting them with flour.

IMG00017-20091014-1259 Went with the sanuki again, which looks the best of everything I’ve seen there.  I got some chicken and mixed vegetable tempura, both of which we pretty solid.

IMG00018-20091014-1304Perfect lunch.


Le Fooding update coming soon.

A sneak preview… wait for it…

There’s the sneak preview.  And what it was like, mostly.


bloggingforburgers is helping out the World Food Programme, which helps fight worldwide hunger.  It’s pretty easy to help, just click on the link on the right of the page and watch a quick preview (or just wait like 10 seconds) and then click “next.”  That’s it, it’s super easy, and it helps support a worthy cause.