I've said it before and I will say (write) it again. Pound for pound (dollar for dollar) Avec is the best restaurant in Chicago.
We were treated to a rare dinner out last night, sans Melrose, and we spent it at Avec, not only because of its proximity to our home (about a five iron), but because we love it. We chose it over other good options (including Sepia, which has one of my favorite lists in the City).
What's the occasion for dining at Avec? Big night out? Casual bite with friends? Something in between? All are possible and probable at Avec.
We make friends every time we eat there, and last night was no exception, when we befriended Matt and Chelsea, a disarming young couple from Detroit and Georgia, respectively. Matt works at the Atwood Cafe, a destination for Daniel Burnham fans if not food cognoscenti, and informed us that it offers killer Sunday brunch. We intend to visit there soon.
Avec's kitchen did not disappoint. Smelts atop a creamy but restrained spinach romesco, finished with speck, began our restoration on a frigid Chicago night. Crispy burgundy snail polenta with lemon aioli, chervil and chives really struck a cord with us, delicious and balanced. To cap the meal we devoured braised pork cheeks with blood sausage, barley, cabbage and artichokes. The chemistry of Koren Grieveson's dishes demands attention- always unique and nuanced.
The wine list is adventurous by almost any measure, as VDPs and IGTs abound. We chose a Calabrian rosso to warm our souls- a Ciro Rosso Classico from Fattoria San Francesco. Calabria is a special place for us- we visited in 2008, and stayed in a beautiful seaside village called Tropea. The region is one of many in Southern Italy that are largely unknown, although some top flight restaurants in the U.S., like A16 in San Francisco and Convivio in New York, bring well deserved attention to Southern Italian cuisine and wine. Based on what we read before the trip, we were expecting a barren landscape; quite the opposite, it's vibrant and apparently bountiful, but rural and poor, which probably leads to its reputation as no-man's land. The people were very kind, and it's the only place we've been in Italy where we didn't encounter anyone who spoke english.
From Gaglioppo grapes, this is the kind of wine I want on my table most nights of the week- simple, satisfying, enough character to keep you coming back. Ciro is probably the best known DOC in Calabria, and home to Librandi, a notable producer that's well distributed in the States (I saw some at Whole Foods a while back). I think Ciro Rosso Classico is a relatively recent designation, but I haven't researched it. Perhaps the good doctor can confirm or disabuse me.