Yay, Top Chef is back! Last year I watched the entire season from start to finish, and I was totally hooked. So I found it appropriate that the weekend before the newest round of this culinary competition was set to begin, Jim and I took a quick trip to Chicago, where last season was filmed. We even had dinner at Avec, Chef Koren Grieveson’s Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and the more casual cousin of neighboring restaurant Blackbird. Chef Grieveson was a guest judge on Top Chef last year. (See, I told you I was hooked.)
I have to admit, I hadn’t read much about the restaurant before we jumped in a cab and sped over from our hotel. But once I started recognizing some of the faces behind the bar and made the Top Chef connection, I was even more excited about our newest dining adventure. We started with a drink at the long, stainless steel bar while waiting for seats at one of the restaurant’s communal tables. (Avec does not take reservations.) After ordering from the lengthy wine list, we observed the bustling scene and listened in astonishment to the noise emitted from the room. Top Chef notoriety aside, Avec hosted one of the most festive—and loud—crowds in town.
After about half an hour, Jim and I were led through the narrow, blond-wood dining room to a table near the back of the restaurant, close to a glinting wall of green wine bottles. As our neighbors settled in around us, we perused the menu, which was divided into “small” and “large” plates. I suddenly understood the use of the word avec—which means with in French—as the name of the restaurant: As the menu made clear, this was food to be shared and experienced with other people.
We ordered some meaty house-marinated olives to start our meal ($5). Next, piles of deliciously oily, house-pickled sardines with shaved apples, red onion, radish sprouts, and fresh parsley tumbled over thick slices of buttery bread ($12). The contrasting interplay of crisp fruits and vegetables with the tender, salty fish created a dish that Jim is still raving about. Without a doubt, it would have won any Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef.
But the preserved lemon sausage with fresh kidney beans, one of Avec’s daily specials, was also a strong contender that evening ($8). Lemony bits of crumbled meat were gently tempered by the smooth beans, and Jim and I scooped spoonfuls onto our plates, enjoying the textural jumble of flavors. Perhaps the ultimate champion of the night was the “deluxe” focaccia, a closed pizza-like dish oozing with warm taleggio cheese, fresh herbs, and musky truffle oil ($14.50). Chef Grieveson would never lose an Elimination Challenge, not with this decadent focaccia.
As Jim and I ate our meal, we noticed our neighbors striking up a conversation with each other. Soon these once-separate parties were sharing dishes such as the chorizo-stuffed dates and buying each other shots of limoncello. The jovial spirit of Avec is infectious, and makes friends out of strangers. Jim and I were so stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but we left feeling thrilled with our dining experience. I can’t wait to return and try more dishes from the menu, as those chorizo-stuffed dates and the house-cured salumi are still calling to me. I’m certain that a second visit to Avec would never feel like a repeat of Top Chef—or any other show for that matter.
Avec, 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago 60661 T: 312-377-2002