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Ode to Avec

March 22, 2013

In no uncertain terms, I consider Avec restaurant to be the single most important restaurant in Chicago today, and depending on how many drinks I've had when we are speaking, I might argue that it might be Chicago's most important restaurant ever. I have a distinct memory of first entering Avec in late 2003, at the very beginning of this restaurant's history. I was 20 years old, and I had just begun to explore the culinary world outside of Seasons Restaurant, which I had moved from Baltimore to work at. I had never been to the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, and retrospectively, I don't think that anyone had been to the West Loop before Avec existed. Here was a space, a tiny, bowling alley of a space, set into a stand alone city townhouse (the all wood interior certainly helped conjure the bowling alley allusion) that couldn't hold more than 60 guests. I remember the restaurant being packed, crawling with humans of all sorts (and packed it remains 10 years later). I elbowed my way between the tall, Swedish minimalist bar stools crammed with eager patrons and the other eager patrons who were rammed into the large communal tables on the west side of the room, to find a seat with my fellow line cooks who were already hip to the place. The communal table should be noted. This was not a commonly accepted type of seating in society at the time, it gave you the same feeling of tenseness and standoffishness as you might have on a public bus. I actually think that I'm a better adjusted human at confined public spaces because of continued exposure to such circumstances at Avec. Next, a wine list that might as well be written in Bahasa. A bizarre listing of esoteric grape types and growing regions that only the quirkiest of cork dorks might relate to. Indeed, I think the list is intentionally disorienting. And I still love that; the unknown, it's energizing. The words on the menu were crossed through, also intentionally. An anti-menu kind of thing. Cheap card stock. No capital letters. Very punk rock. No stems on the stemware either, the then new Riedel O series added to the progressive feeling of the wines. Kitchen towels for napkins. On the food side, an nonescript format separating the available dishes into "small plates" and "large plates" awaited your ordering contemplation. The menu didn't tell you that this was an appetizer or that that was an entree. It was up to you. Order as much or as little as you like (always more than needed has been my thought process for the last decade). This is now the status quo in restaurants who consider themselves to be a part of the modern age. And of course, there was the food. The goddamn best food. Light years ahead of the rest. Chorizo stuffed dates. Braised Pork Shoulder. Brandade. Focaccia with Taleggio. Sides of bread baked from the hearth, which was the...

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