With both kids overlapping at camp for one all-too-brief week, Donna and I took a quick trip to Chicago and were immediately rapt by its fantastic architecture, open vistas and clean river. What a gorgeous, friendly city. First thing we did was take an architectural river tour which set the whole tone of the trip. Highly recommend these.
Paul Kahan and Avec chef Koren Grieveson had just been in Cleveland the weekend before doing an SOS dinner at Lola and we'd seen them and so were inspired to visit Paul's new restaurant Publican, and then, of course, have a second meal at Avec immediately after. Why are Paul's restaurants so successful? Yes, it's that he serves crispy pig skin and an awesome duck heart and liver open-faced sandwich, but also he's there working these restaurants. When we arrived he was fussing with a sprinkler out front and would soon be in the kitchen shucking oysters. He's a cook's cook. He has no interest in writing a book or doing a show. He makes restaurants, serves the food that he personally loves, and as he pointed out, he gets simpler and simpler with each new place. Blackbird is fine dining, Avec goes more casual, Publican has an awesome beer list and serves very rustic fare, and his next spot will be a tacqueria.
We met Martin and Lara Kastner here (that's him at left, photo by Lara). Lara shot the photos for the Alinea cookbook. Martin designed the entire thing, and the two went to China to oversee the printing. Martin's seems to me, well, not unsung but not sung enough in the success of this award-winning and innovative restaurant, having conceived, designed, and made many of the serviceware pieces that are integral to what have become signatures of the Alinea, where Donna and I concluded our trip. Items such as the squid, the antenna, the antibowl, and the paraffin bowl in which the hot potato cold potato soup is served.
I was delighted that Grant has rethought his no-old-dishes mandate and fits some of his signature dishes into his tasting menu, for us the aforementioned soup and the black truffle explosion.
Our meal was excellent, service more accomplished than ever, but what stood out for me besides the remarkable wines was the lack of pyrotechnics. Grant Achatz has been a leader in progressive cuisine, pushing the envelope in terms of unusual ingredients, unconvential serving devices. While there was some of this, the food and its flavors and textures were the focus.
Though one of the final courses, a dessert course, was one I hadn't seen before and I found fascinating and fun and, yes, delicious. A dessert course in which the the table is cleared, a silicon table cloth is laid down, and one or two of the chefs appear and throw down your dessert. This really is doing a Jackson Pollack, sans cigarette. It would all be for nothing, of course, if it weren't such a tasty mix of chocolate and sauces. (Grant discusses it here, in one of his many excellent pieces for The Atlantic online.)
What a fun, beautiful, beautifully designed city Chicago is. Our biggest regret was how many great restaurants we were unable to see. Next time, more time.