Chicago will forever hold a special place in my heart. Around the age of 5-7 (or so, my memory is bad for all things - that's why I am so happy this blog helps kickstart my premature-Alzheimer-esque memory into shape) my family and I lived in Arlington Heights, Illinois - we'd occasionally do a trek into downtown Chicago here or there.
I remember a massive Asian supermarket my family would always travel to (my mom being Japanese - she was always really into the place - my dad… he's not quite into Asian food - but ever the good sport, he'd tag along) - the place was called Yaohan (I think…). They had little kiosks everywhere that would serve regional little Asian street-food dishes from all around Asia; they had all those odd vegetables you simply can't find anywhere outside of an Asian mega-mart; there were Japanese toy and comic shops… sweet shops… I always remembered a smell of fresh water fish lingering back in the palette, lightly masked by the smell of grilled dough for Okonomi-yaki.
I'd always grab a bite with the folks, have them take me to see the Gundam or Power Rangers on display… beg for a new toy or sweet… then we'd wrap up grocery-shopping and head home.
Later on in life, we had a gig opening up for Overkill (!!!) at Joe's Sports Bar in Chicago. This must have been around the time I was 18 or 19 or 20 or so…
Our merch guy at the time (who I went to high school with) was having another friend of ours come out to meet us who just happen to go to the Chicago Art Museum School (not AI, but SAIC) - Ashley. Ash and I went to middle and high school together, but were never really friends (but not not friends). Amazingly it was one of those love-at-first-site (since school) moments… the rest is obviously history.
Off tour, I would juggle time between living in my parents house and living at Ashley's apartment off Briar and Broadway (in boy's town). We were two broke-ass college-aged kids who'd wander around the icy, snowy streets of Chicago - go to the museum for free, grab cheap eats where we could afford - it was great. We'd hit the soda fountain for massive banana splits, or the super cheap local Thai places for meat and noodles (although Ash was a vegetarian at the time (I fixed that in the years to come)).
Eventually we both settled back to Florida - but it was many fun years in Chicago. (Except for the goddamn snowstorms that would pile up 2-3 feet of snow… delaying my flights back to catch the Chevy Conversion van and get back on whatever support tour we were trucking along on).
Fast forward a bit to when we first brought ol' Nicky Augusto on tour with Trivium. Nick was ("officially") "filling in" for Travis at the time (he was already the drummer from rehearsal one in my eyes/brain) and him and I decided to celebrate him being on tour with us by heading to a place I kept hearing about. Unfortunately, it was just me and the sonny-boy, but we'd be able to put down some chow.
We hit up Avec… a place new to me at the time - and were completely floored. Since that initial first taste of the restaurant, I kept talking about how eff-ing good the place was. Flash forward to the Dream Theater show in the outskirts of Chicago…
We had a day off, sort of a walk-to-train, train, walk - from the city. Our manager, Justin (one of the people responsible for my food obsession) had flew in to visit us - and I said I had a "band dinner" spot picked out. The four band and J did the walk, train, and walk to Avec.
Avec's owners also own a handful of other incredible restaurants (Blackbird, Publican, and a few other new ones whose name's slip me) - and one of Avec's "things" are no reservations. I warned everyone it'd be a little bit - but worth it…
Everyone was dizzily hungry before even putting our names in for the wait list - it'd be about an hour and a half… so we walked to the nearest pub. We hit Haymarket pub and brewery (a large, loud local sports-bar sort of place) - I had the Mathias Imperial American IPA and their Mathias III IPA. Nick and Paolo both had some food from there - I wouldn't dare curb that appetite however.
We trekked back by our supposed "reservation" time, and it was time to sit and eat.
Avec is beautiful. Somewhere along the lines of looking like a sauna, a sushi bar, and a bento box… it's all clean lines; a rectangular-shaped place; always packed; very communal. The tables and seats are all pretty close to each other - the idea of Avec is basically a place that does Spanish-style tapas with a Chicago flare; a place that has food that goes avec wine.
This is the kind of place a food-lover flips over… if you go with the right amount of people - you can try several things at once (since tapas usually are more sharing-sized than anything). I did the ordering, naturally.
Our wine was the Muschen '07.
The house-marinated olives were meaty, big olives - everything an olive should be, just better. The bread at Avec is thick, Euro-style and perfect. I am a big fan of dates… and dates stuffed with stuff is even better than a date alone - Avec's chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce were (and still are) the best date-dish I've ever had. Honestly, it wasn't until I checked the photos out again that I realized that was the date dish… they were so damn big I thought it was the meatball dish. The sweet-date flavor and caramel-y chewiness went perfectly with the crumbly, fennel-hinted chorizo (I think it was fennel at least).
Heirloom tomato and white anchovy salad with market beans, mint and pepitas are certainly for fans of fishy-anchovy-greatness. If you aren't into that - first of all, you're missing out… second of all - you wouldn't dig this. Clean, simple salad - delightfully ocean-y anchovies: salty, fishy, fantastic. The "deluxe" focaccia with taleggio cheese, ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs was quite possibly one of my favorites that night at Avec. The cheeses end up so gooey, liquified and fantastic that it's like a melted-buttery-cheesy-cheese concoction. The focaccia itself was sort of like a super thing almost-Turkish lavash bread, only flattened - the cheese rested inside both lids.
Wood-oven roasted market shishito peppers with pickled feta was an even simpler dish than the previous eats - and such a bold statement. Shishito peppers are spicy peppers - they more so have the chew of of something like an ancho chili, with a flavor more like a bell pepper - the lightly-flavored-sharpness of the feta and oil was the perfect pairing.
Wood-roasted pork shoulder with roasted baby carrots, black rice and basil pistou had ultra-soft pork, very much so like a mini pot-roast or stew; Marinated hangar steak with baby squash, asparagus, blueberry and bone marrow was a far more interesting cut than the average strip or filet. I'll take something like hangar over the aforementioned cuts any day - it's more interested… granted, tougher - there seems to be more interesting pairings with the hangar (like the obvious blueberry and the bone marrow).
The house-made turkey sausage with black-eyed pea stew, rapini and Calabrian chili fennel relish found the 5 of us all majorly full. The stew was again very reminiscent of the Spanish-influenced cuisine that is Avec. Fantastic use of interesting ingredients that just went well together.
Since I always need a sweet, we went for something smaller due to our over-capacity stomachs: Peach seasonal sorbet. Simple, delicious. Sometimes even just a sorbet is required amidst over-indulgence.
We rolled ourselves out of one of my favorite North American spots and headed to Liar's Club for a nightcap. I had the Glenlivet '12 neat - the bar was surprisingly empty that night… I was beat any how from far too much great food.