DIXIE KITCHEN & AVEC: TWO SIDES OF CHICAGO
So here’s another thing about menus in American restaurants (Take care: sweeping generalization ahead) They never use one word to describe a dish or an ingredient in a dish if they can possibly squeeze in fifteen or so.
Quite the opposite to the trend in the UK where chefs seem to take pride in the paucity of their descriptions and are hurtling towards the point where menus will simply read “pork” “chicken” etc.
Last night’s meal at Avec, Mike Sheerrin’s casual café adjoined to Blackbird, was the perfect example.
But, more of that later. First, a perfectly agreeable lunch way down on Chicago’s “interesting” South side with my chum, Yuval.
He knows my craving for Soul food and had some plans to give me some down home cookin’ with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, our first choices, Miss Lee’s Good Food and Pearl’s were both closed so we headed out to Hyde Park and Dixie Kitchen which soon provided us with what we were both craving.
Corn & crayfish fritters, came to the table bubbling hot and with a side of sweet jalapeno dipping sauce.
A main course of crayfish etouffe was a huge slosh of deep, dark seafood stew either side of a mound of rice. The crayfish were small and sweet and the roasted peppers gave a little bite.
My Shrimp Po’boy came with all the right dressings and a side order of crispy corn with some chilli run through it.
Both good examples of their ilk and even better when washed down with some peach iced tea and an Abita beer.
After taking my leave of Yuval, I headed back to my hotel by Chicago’s impeccable transit system and had a bit of a nap in preparation for my evening.
One of the “joys” of solo travel is that you, when joining a tour group, often find yourself paired off with any other solitary person when rooms are divvied up. It is a total crap shoot for both them and you if you get on or not.
On my recent trip to Japan, I was lucky, my room mate turned out to be an easy going guy from Chicago called Adam who, at the end of the trip, made the usual “look me up” offer before wandering off into the sunset. Little did the poor bastard expect me to bundle up on his proverbial doorstep a mere three months later.
We arranged to meet up for supper at Avec at around 6pm. There are no reservations and, as we found out, lines are soon out of the door.
I can see why. It is a lovely room with communal tables and plentiful bar seating. Much more welcoming than its more formal sibling next door.
The menu consists of small and large plates meant for sharing taking their inspiration from Italy, Spain and Portugal and they don’t mind a liberal sprinkling of descriptives and sources either.
So focaccia was “deluxe” and a crispy chicken thigh came with er, “crispy skin” Manchego was “wine pickled” and lima beans were “Peruvian” I can just imagine a Chicagoan asking their server “ excuse me, the lima beans on the pizza, are they Peruvian? They are, great! I have that then”
It does all get a bit wearying and reading the dish often takes longer than it does to eat it.
At Avec, however, the end result is just about good enough for you to put up with it.
Medjool dates came stuffed with a spicy chorizo and enough tomato sauce to need the best part of a loaf of bread to mop it up.
Haddock “ tomato braised” of course, was cooked perfectly with capers, mustard greens and pancetta although hid its fishy light under a bushel of unnecessary salad leaves.
Best of all was the ‘deluxe’ focaccia which came with a filling of soft taleggio and a punchy amount of truffle oil.
Adam, bizarrely enough, does not like the taste of truffles so left most of this to me while he concentrated on the last dish, a pork shoulder with squash and chickpeas. He seemed to enjoy. I found the level of salt made my eyes water a bit.
We lashed out on the wine and began with a couple of glasses of manzanilla which, typically in all restaurants, was not cold enough.
Better was a bottle of Priorat from their excellent and well priced list which had the thick liquorice notes that worked well with the food.
With tip and tax, the bill came to $180 which reflects more on our booze consumption than the price of the food. The service was polite and efficient enough without anyone ever showing any indication that they were actually pleased to see us.
After supper, we strolled over to the Park Hyatt to meet Adam’s charming and patient girlfriend for drinks which gave me the chance to admire Chicago's extraordinary skyline. As is inevitably the case in US hotels ( another generalization ahead) the drinks turned out to be mind numbingly awful.
Please God, someone tell me where I can get a proper mixed drink in this country.