DINING: WHAT’S NEW
The talent behind Blackbird embraces Mediterranean comfort food
There had been talk for months about a new restaurant from the Blackbird team, to be located right next door to the beloved hotspot in what had previously been a greasy spoon. If you peeked in the windows, you could see that the back wall was full of wine bottles, and newly added floor-to-ceiling cedar panels that made it look as if a Swedish sauna was going in. But the food-obsessed knew that it was something more: a cozy showcase where owner Paul Kahan and chef Koren Grieveson could re-create the bold, gutsy peasant food of the Mediterranean countryside.
Despite its name, Avec is alone among its peers in Chicago. It’s the brainchild of chefs and principals Donnie Madia, Eduard Seitan and Ricky Diarmit, who emblazoned Blackbird on the nation’s culinary map six years ago. Kahan’s talented sous chef, Grieveson, has shared his passion for pristine ingredients since she started working with him in 1999. More importantly, she knows his palate, so it was little surprise he turned to her two years ago to start developing a menu for the new venture.
Grieveson’s first assignment: go to New York and train with Italian uber-chef Mario Batali. Actually, she spent the better part of a month with Batali’s “meat guy,” watching how he made salami and picking up inspiration for the kinds of authentic dishes she was looking to create. The pony-tailed Batali gave her a handful of dirt he had smuggled back from Italy and six moldy salamis to serve as catalysts in her cooler, the molds and airborne bacteria would turn ordinary pork shoulder, garlic, peppercorn and white wine into hard Italian salami. Back home in Chicago, Grieveson gutted a Viking wine cooler-with perfectly calibrated temperature and humidity settings-and filled it with dozens of garlicky summer sausages and Genoa and red wine salamis hanging from tiny white strings. She now offers a daily selection, and whether you decide to try just one variety ($8), like the paper-thin, lightly seasoned capicola, or an assortment of six ($14), each plate arrives garnished with caper berries, spicy mustard, cornichons and a compact loaf of crusty, dense organic bread.
The space is, to be generous, narrow. The kitchen line is efficient, and a giant, custom-made Australian wood-burning oven gets a real workout. On both weeknights and weekends, the 56-seat space is packed with foodies and hipsters who don’t mind the ambient noise. Since reservations are not accepted, early seatings will become popular. A long row of tables stretches along the right side, while stools along the left allow singles or couples to eat at the bar. The wooden tables are long, and it’s possible you’ll be sitting so close to another party that you might be tempted to stick your fork into someone else’s cast-iron pot of Crushed Tomato and Olive Oil-Braised Octopus ($10). I know I was, with reduced tomatoes this intense, and the accompanying summer spinach, onion salad and pancetta vinaigrette pumping up the flavor of the octopus. This style of dining with other people can be convivial and refreshing, but if you’re trying to have a private conversation with your dining partner, it can also be annoying. The worst offense (and there aren’t many here) occurs directly beneath you, whether it’s the hard, red oak banquette along the wall or the square, wooden seats on the aisle, after an hour or so you’ll feel like you’ve been sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley during a double-header. From the management’s perspective, I understand the need to keep turning tables, especially when seats are so limited, and food this good could keep a party sitting all night. That said, I may just sneak a cushion in with me next time.
Avec’s wine program is dazzling. Sommelier Eduard Seitan has assembled an ambitious list, with some 40 wines presented in 250 ml. bottles, or carafinas, essentially making them glass-and-a-half pours. Traditional, often unknown varietals from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal offer the perfect complement to Grieveson’s food, and servers seem especially adept at describing and recommending food-friendly pours; they’ve clearly tried many of the wines themselves. One night, our server recommended a Viognier from Domaine de Triennes in Provence. At just $10 for a carafina ($31 for a bottle), its slight acidity, yet floral aroma was the perfect companion to many of the items from the “small plates” section of the menu.
Begin with an order of the Fresh Shell Bean Crostini ($7). It’s the kind of snack the Medicis probably served their kids during summer retreats, a light green-colored puree of garlic and shallot-scented beans, about the thickness of peanut butter, spread across three toasted bread slices that have been rubbed with herb butter. Across the top is a tangle of wild arugula, a few shavings of fresh Parmiggiano-Reggiano and a hit of lemon, all doused in high-quality olive oil. From three giant Pan-Fried Sardines ($12), with crispy Serano ham and a chunky olive tapenade, to Braised Sepia ($10), a calamari-like mollusk studded with slivers of garlic and a tangle of broccoli robe, the kitchen is fond of its seafood. Even something as relatively mundane as Brandade ($7), the classic Provençal puree of salt cod, milk, cream and garlic, is remarkably helped by snipped chives, tiny cubes of potato and a generous drizzle of olive oil.
Other highlights from the “small plates” section include a Chicken Thigh Panzanella Salad ($8), containing dark meat chicken thats been marinated for two days and then roasted with preserved lemon and served in a cocotte bowl with all of its rich jus, and roasted leg of Duck Confit ($13), blessed with black mission figs and Lucques olives that have been braised mercilessly soft.
A much smaller section of “large plates” begins with Bourride ($20), a Spanish fish stew: An enormous cast-iron pot is set before you, then a generous dollop of red pepper aioli is spooned into your earthenware bowl. Next come ladles of soup jammed with manila clams, whitefish, monkfish (the fish combinations change daily) and rock shrimp. Giant croutons arrive separately for the inevitable swim-and-sop. Other musts, a Wood Oven-Roasted Pork Shoulder ($18), breaking apart at the slightest touch of a fork, and Bucatini Pasta ($16): al dente pasta tangled up with salty, rich cubes of guanciale (pork jowel) plus Pecorino cheese, eggs and freshly-cracked black pepper. The Pissaladiere ($13), a Provencal-style pizza, had a crust that was much too thick, and the caramelized onions completely overwhelmed the anchovies and Niçoise olives, of which there were few.
There are a handful of desserts ($7 each) printed on a chalkboard, (think rice pudding or roasted figs with honey lavender ice cream), but the focus is on the cheese program, with an emphasis on domestic and European artisanal selections. Any three cheeses ($12) could come from Italy, Spain or France (Kahan says there will be some American as well) and your best bet is to try one sheep’s milk, one goat and one cow. We loved the oozy, smooth robiola from Italy, as well as the mildly blue fourme de Montbrison from from France; a stinky, slightly grassy-smelling sheep’s milk. La serena torta from Spain ($6) paired nicely with accompaniments of fruity quince paste, Marcona almonds, a dense date cake, some jammy fig mostarda and sliced grapes. It’s the kind of ending you would expect in sunny Provence, all the more pleasant in the depths of a typical Chicago winter.