Even in tough economic times, there is a place for the four-star restaurant.Good times or bad, there always will be moments when splurging is justifiable, even imperative. The big promotion. The Big Question. The milestone birthday. Good news from your radiologist.
Avenues is a luxury-level restaurant in a luxury-level hotel (the resplendent Peninsula Chicago, a five-diamond property). Dinner for two can reach $500 with minimal effort. Yet even at this rarefied level, there is price sensitivity.
"I think everybody feels the impact [of the economy] for sure," says chef de cuisine Curtis Duffy, hired in April to run the kitchen after the departure of Graham Elliot Bowles. "We researched every restaurant in the city; we certainly didn't want to be the cheapest restaurant, but we didn't want to be the most expensive."
And so Avenues offers three prix-fixe menus: A 4-course menu for $75, a 9-course for $115 and the Tasting, 15 or more courses for $140. There's no explicit mention of an a la carte option, but it's there; anyone can come in and order a couple-three courses for about $17 per.
Budget concerns aside, I don't think I could be happy with just two of Duffy's dishes.
The current amuse that begins each meal is a fanciful, single-bite re-creation of classic caviar service, except here the "toast" is a globule of gelatinized Meyer lemon filled with liquid brioche, alongside some lightly pickled onions, brioche crumbs, osetra caviar and eggs cooked in clarified butter. This is followed by a surfboard of frozen bacon consomme propped on two cubes of fingerling potatoes, which commingle when warm potato-leek broth is poured into the bowl.
And then, as though Duffy had been using the early dishes to establish his fancy-food credentials, subsequent courses become less showy and more ingredient-focused. A beautiful piece of parrot fish picks up sweetness from a cocoa emulsion topping and braised pistachios. Japanese hato mugi (barley) is cooked into risotto, with Spanish manchego cheese and a wide gel strip of French red wine. Butter-soft wagyu beef, with a precise charcoal crust, is matched to African basil and smoked coconut.
My favorite dish is the lamb, in which gentle folds of thin-sliced loin are accented with a bit of tangerine sauce. Elsewhere on the plate is an array of do-it-yourself accompaniments: dark flecks of dehydrated black olives (which you sprinkle on the lamb like salt), tiny compressed piles of mint and a mound of Greek yogurt with a well of olive oil in the middle.
In a tip o' the toque to formal dining of yore, Duffy bridges his savory and sweet courses with a tart palate cleanser. But of course, it's not what one expects: a shooter glass of cabernet verjus, with champagne grapes suspended in the liquid. Think liquid sorbet, with a textural bonus.
Then it's on to the sweet stuff, be it broken bits of devil's food cake (vacuum-compressed for a slightly different mouthfeel) scattered about a plate that also contains a frozen malt capsule filled with Chambord, or noodles of gelatinized banana, topped with a capsule that oozes blueberry sauce and is surrounded by sweet curry sauce.
The meal ends with a flurry of wonderful mignardises, but I would be remiss if I didn't note the remarkable bread service, which brings to the table breads tailored to specific courses -- in the mix are Italian country bread, a baby English muffin, brioche and an apricot-glazed focaccia. Not to mention the Maine butter, goat-cheese butter and olive-pesto emulsion for spreading.
Service is everything you expect at a top-level restaurant, from the warm greeting on your arrival to the treats that accompany your departure. Wine service is smoothly professional; I especially like the champagne cart that entices diners early in the meal, an Avenues signature touch.
It's true that nobody needs to dine at Avenues, any more than anybody needs a $75 steak or a $100 bottle of wine or a $300 pair of shoes. But life is more interesting when such options exist.
108 E. Superior St.
Open: Dinner Tue.-Sat.
Prices: $75, $115, $140
RESTAURANT REVIEWS ****