Thursday, October 11, 2012

Avec

When people ask me what the best restaurant in Chicago is, my reply is "I have no idea, but if it's the best cooking you want, that's at Avec."  When I've felt down about what I've eaten lately or about food in general, Avec has cheered me up.  Has an inedible bowl of cartilage-laden crab at the hot new Italian restaurant pissed you off lately?  Go to Avec and discouragement will vanish.  Avec takes food seriously.  Even restaurants I like sometimes fail to clean shellfish completely, occasionally overcook a piece of fish, or forget to taste a dish for seasoning once in a while.  In dozens of meals at Avec, it's been my experience that that kind of thing just doesn't happen there.  Never.  Of course, it's not enough to merely avoid screwing up.  Right now, Avec is also putting out some of the most flavorful, exciting food in town.

On a cold fall afternoon, you won't find a dish that warms the soul more than the wood-fired squid cooked and served in a piping hot cast-iron cazuuela with fideos, tomato, and guanciale.  The fideos seem to wiggle around in your mouth, adding a playful texture to an otherwise seriously rich, garlicky, and smoky dish.  I had a similar dish at Avec a year ago, and while I liked it then, this was a whole different level of delicious.  One difference came in the aioli that topped the cazuela; last time it was a somewhat bland cream that didn't add much, but this time the aioli was flavored robustly with fennel, simultaneously adding a jolt to the dish while bringing all of the ingredients into harmony.

The sweet, moist flesh of merluza at Avec is going to make it hard for me to eat fish anywhere else.  Merluza isn't the cheapest type of fish at the market, but it's not the most expensive of luxury ingredients either.  If what's served as Avec is representative, merluza should cost double what lobster or dover sole are fetching.   This fish tasted similar to but even sweeter than halibut, but was substantially meatier and more interesting to eat.  I don't know if it's the fish or the cook or, quite likely, a combination, but I want more merluza right now.  As with the fennel aioli with the squid, the creamy garlic sauce with the merluza was robust but sweet, rounded and not overpowering.  With a bit of grapefruit juice that seeped from the bright pink segments garnishing the plate, the garlic sauce turned into something magical, and with bitter treviso and sweet, tiny olives, it was a wonderful complement for the fish.

Veal sweetbreads seem to be the ingredient du jour around town these days, and perhaps excepting The Trenchermen, nobody is doing them on par with or better than Avec.  One huge, meaty, crisp but incredibly tender specimen was served with pungent cauliflower caponata and a slice of crisped Serrano ham across the top.  Nothing fancy, just absolutely delicious.

That's Avec.  No soil on a plate, no delicious liquids turned into chalky powders, no gimmicks.  Just straightforward, fantastic food.  Just the best cooking in Chicago.