Tribune Dining, Revisited: Vettel Gives Avenues 4 Stars

Phil Vettel, where have you been all our life?

Or, perhaps more accurately, where have you been all our yesterday? Because seriously, honestly, your four-star rave for Avenues most certainly was not on the Tribune’s website Thursday morning. Or afternoon. Or at all.

To read this review properly, we need to approach it with a little bit of a sense of context. Friends, Chicagoans, blog-readers — lend us your ears, and read what happens when we write a review-review before we’ve even had our coffee.

This isn’t the first time Vettel’s reviewed Avenues, of course. Up until fairly recently its kitchen was helmed by former wunderkind Graham Elliot Bowles (who, now that he’s past thirty, is just a wunder), and back in 2005 Vettel saw to it that the formerly three-and-a-half star restaurant was elevated to four, largely carried by Bowles’ irreverent, flavor-driven, class-busters approach to ingredient sourcing (pop rocks on foie gras, lamb-and-mint beefed up with crushed Altoids).

But this past January, Bowles left in order to put his own name over the door elsewhere, and now the kitchen at Avenues belongs to Curtis Duffy, another young gun (he’s just a year older than Bowles) whose formidable skills have been well documented during turns as chef de cuisine at Alinea and, before that, a pastry chef at Evanston’s seminal Trio.

Okay. Now you know what you need to know.

There are two questions that run through Vettel’s new review of Avenues. One: Has Curtis Duffy proven himself? And two: Considering our tanking economy, does the mega-high-end experience at Avenues justify itself?

Vettel’s answers to both questions is an easy yes: Duffy’s food takes center stage here, there’s no compare-and-contrast with Bowles’ very different take on dinner. Instead, Vettel outlines Duffy’s plan of attack over the multi-course meal: wow ‘em early on (meyer lemon gel filled with liquid brioche as the vehicle for the classic caviar service), and segue into the talent portion of the evening, with top-notch ingredients prepared in straightforward ways that highlight their flavors (“straightforward” here referring to things like parrot fish with a cocoa emulsion and braised pistachios, or a risotto of japanese barley, manchego, and gelled red wine).

As for the question of economy, Vettel makes a case for the necessity of extravagance during lean times. And here we begin to feel like Avenues is getting the short end of the stick: The tasting menu here is on par, cost-wise, with those at comparable institutions like Alinea and L2O, and those restaurants didn’t get the same kind of self-conscious price justification in their Trib reviews — because when they were being reviewed, the fiscal longview wasn’t in the shitter. Unfortunately, this accident of economic fate does make an editorial review of such a high-priced meal require justification, and the narrative conceit of “Justify This Meal!” that pervades Vettel’s review serves as a subtle tint, painting Avenues as a much less accessible destination for John Q. Dinnereater than its peers. But that just isn’t true — if anything, in our opinion, Avenues is a much less intimidating venue than many of the city’s other high culinary temples. Still, it’s a subtle slight, and one we’d guess is unintended, so Vettel: no harm no foul.

One final note, economy-wise: When we went back and checked out Vettel’s 2005 Avenues review, we noticed that the price for the most ambitious of the tasting menus (15 courses) has gone up only two dollars, from $138 to $140. Which by our calculations might make this one of the best deals in town.

[Photo: Puffed tapioca, Curtis Duffy’s offering at Chicago Gourmet, courtesy Tammy Green. All rights reserved.]

Tribune Dining, Revisited: Vettel Gives Avenues 4 Stars