Hidden inside the Peninsula Hotel, you’ll find Avenues, a hotel restaurant that is anything but typical. There, Chef Curtis Duffy is cranking out some of the most inventive, flavorful and elegant food I’ve ever tried. The third in a line of famous predecessors who have expressed and sharpened their talents at Avenues, including Graham Elliott, thirty-something-year-old Duffy is putting his own stamp on the place by creating an experience for his diners with simple, fresh ingredients. He constructs complex looking dishes that look a lot more like art than food, but then you bite right into an explosion of clean, bold flavor, and it’s obvious that food is the main attraction here. It’s not fussy or understated or just for show — and it effectively overshadows the formal surroundings of the dining room with cutting edge taste that’s in your face.
We joined a select group of fellow bloggers and Internet foodies for a media dinner at Avenues Tuesday night, where we all shunned our note pads during the meal in favor of savoring the experience, relying on taste-memory and fun food-related debate to carry us through eight courses. (Note: At Chicago Bites, we always save note-taking for after the meal so we don’t detract from the dining experience. Plus it’s pretty hard to go incognito when you’re writing everything down!)
Until Michelin bequeathed it two stars, I’d heard little buzz about Avenues locally, and it has never sprung readily to mind when I’m thumbing through my mental rolodex for a memorable fine dining experience. But it should have, and from now on, it will.
I won’t give you a play-by-play of everything we ate because it’s one of those things you really need to go eat your own way through to appreciate. Besides, the photos speak for themselves. If what we had is the standard — and I’ll be going back to check — it’s well worth the $135 price tag. Here are some highlights:
- We started with what was effectively all of the elements of a caviar plate on one spoon, and I’ve decided that all caviar plates should be served this way from now on.
- The crab, Hamachi, and grain courses pictured were my very favorite, but I didn’t meet a course I didn’t like or that didn’t surprise me during this meal.
- The menu has some built-in flexibility, allowing you to order al a cart and there are vegetarian and vegan options too. Food allergies are also accommodated without hubbub.
The service at Avenues is impeccable, and comparable to its two-starred sister, Ria, where I’ve eaten recently. The staff lines up and parades out with your dish, a la Moto, and wine glasses rarely go empty. Speaking of wine, there isn’t a course-by-course pairing option, rather a series of bottles and glasses available to complement several courses at a time.
One of the things I was most impressed with was Duffy’s desire to keep moving forward with new ideas. Already, he finds himself mentally “done” with his winter menu, and has new things all lined up for the spring and the new year. He wouldn’t give us any substantial sneak peeks of what’s to come, with the exception of a mention of pork belly.
Duffy says his recipe ideas keep him up at night — that he can’t shut off the flow of ideas at the end of the day. To stem the tide and turn it into a set of actionable ideas, Duffy has taken to sitting in a quiet, dark room when he gets home, madly scribbling down everything he’s thinking. And he does what he has to to will his vision into reality. If the best fish is in Japan, that’s where he gets it from. He works with local vendors and farms when possible — a list of roughly 20 at the moment — and finds it worth it, but says it takes a lot of time and coordination to cultivate those relationships.
Duffy says he’s in Chicago to stay — that the vibrant food scene here gives him the chance to try things and be creative in ways couldn’t necessarily be elsewhere. That’s a very good thing for us indeed.
108 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL 60611
This was a media event and we ate and drank free-of-charge.