Every March I head to Chicago for work, specifically for the Home & Housewares Show. Thirteen miles of products that are vying to make store shelves, ranging from cookware and tabletop to cleaning and storage. While the show is always a lot of fun, (this time I saw Rocco DiSpirito, Emeril and “met” Dr. Andrew Weil while snagging an autographed copy of his healthy new cookbook) – it’s going out to eat that always excites me for this annual trip.
This trip was pretty much all about Paul Kahn, who owns both Avec and Blackbird. Every time I go to Chicago, I always have to sneak in at least one Avec visit – it’s one of my all-time favorite restaurants. And since I was traveling with a coworker who has never been to Blackbird, we went to Avec’s big brother the following night.
It’s hard to believe that there is someone who lives in Chicago that has yet to experience Avec (which focuses on Spanish, French and Italian small plates), but there is – and she happens to be a good friend of mine. After hearing me talk about Avec for years, she was excited to meet me there for dinner. A lot of pressure was on Avec (and me) that night. After all, her husband isn’t a fan (which is why she has never been) but has heard me rave about it so she knew it was time to see for herself. Not only did she love it, she’s planning to take her mom when she visits in a few weeks – and was still thinking about those dates the next day.
To start, we shared three cheeses (all delicious, but no idea what I had), the famous Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo in a spicy and smoky tomato sauce, duck confit with sweet potato-parsnip hash and the braised chickpea special with lots of herbs and a sunny side up egg on top.
As usual, everything was delicious – especially the dates and cheese. I just love this spot and wish we had it here. From the atmosphere and decor (think long and narrow sauna-esque tiny space with open kitchen, communal tables and cool staff) to the food and wine menu and reasonable prices, it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in town. The only drawback is they don’t take reservations. Lucky for us, it was the St. Patty’s Day parade earlier in the day so most of Chicago was still celebrating.
On this visit, I learned Avec is also a favorite destination for Mario Batali. In fact, the host told me he usually sits at the first table with his entourage and drinks wine until sunrise.
Blackbird, which is literally right next door and focuses on contemporary American cuisine, I assume must also be a favorite spot for Mario. The last two times I ate at Blackbird, I saw him there (he also attends the housewares show to support his line). This time however, I didn’t – but Emeril was there the night before.
I like Blackbird, a lot. The food is consistently good, inventive and tempting. It’s the overall atmosphere of the restaurant and often pretentious attitudes of the staff I don’t care for. But being a Sunday during a busy show when reservations are hard to come by, the food outweighs the cons.
For starters, we split the scallop appetizer with banana puree, black truffles and candied oats. For dinner, I ordered the striped bass with fennel brandade, Brussels sprouts and cocoa nibs while my coworker had the cod with butternut squash, ciopinnillini onions, miso and pancetta; we swapped a bit of each.
My biggest regret of that meal is that I split the appetizer. After one bite, I knew I wanted more and came close to putting in a second order. These scallops were hands down the best I have ever had – anywhere. Usually I find people make scallops a bit too salty for my taste, not these – they were cooked and seasoned perfectly. Add the banana puree was creamy, not overly sweet and provided great flavor to the scallop and truffles. I’ve never had anything like this and can’t wait to try to experiment at home.
The fish was also good, but not nearly as good as the scallops. I enjoyed both dishes – maybe even the cod a little more. Each was very different, but equally satisfying. And while our server fit the profile of the typical Blackbird attitude, it was still a great ending to a successful work trip and an enjoyable experience.