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Cashing in at Avec

Zinny finally makes good on a promise and is rewarded with an exceptionally tasty meal.
Tuesday May 06, 2008.     By Zinny Fandel
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Herb-topped salmon and a citrusy salad
photo: Zinny Fandel
I grew up with a strong love for getting coupons as gifts. Into our Christmas stockings each year, Mom would inevitably tuck a few handmade vouchers, good for the dinner of our choice, one movie rental, and, on one particularly delicious holiday, a day off from school. My own coupon-giving efforts haven't been so successful, which is why I felt a bit sheepish as Steamer and I squeezed our way into a very packed Avec on a Friday night—a promised dinner I gave him for Valentine's Day 2006, redeemed just over two years later.

It had been on our to-eat list so long that Steamer had actually already eaten there, with a group of guys who plowed through plenty of duck sausage and $39 bottles of beer. Somehow, we just never managed to make our way to Randolph Street on a "special enough" day, and when we finally did, I had great expectations.

The seating is communal; we sat on the end of a table of eight, and I was pretty shocked to realize that, even though we were sitting 12 inches from another couple, eavesdropping wasn't a given. Steamer and I prattled along, completely oblivious to what was happening nearly on top of us.

Though Avec certainly isn't BYOB, it's notable for two reasons: First, the wine list, a lengthy Mediterranean blend of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Second, wine is served by the carafe or bottle, so while you'll fork over more like $11-$13 for a carafe, you're actually getting a glass and a half. Bingo.

I started out with a glass of French Magedeleine rose, which had an amazing coral color and a crisp, flowery finish; Steamer couldn't take his eyes off the beer list, and started with a St. Feuillien Brune, an $11 sweet, yeasty Belgian brew.

The menu's size isn't overwhelming—some small plates, some large—but just about every dish sounded like a winner, which made selecting a lengthy (but ultimately fulfilling) process. We started with the olive oil-poached organic salmon with melted lardo, grilled scallions, dill and lemon vinaigrette; and a seasonal citrus salad of curly endive, fennel, ricotta salata, hazelnuts and balsamic.

The salmon was fantastic—a surprisingly hearty portion absolutely drenched in herbs. Its richness found a refreshing match in the grapefruit-studded salad, light if not for the heavy sprinkle of nuts. Served with homemade rustic bread, it was a satisfying start.

Pizza topped with arugula and anchovies
photo: Zinny Fandel

Round two brought us another round of drinks; Steamer ordered a $19 del Ducato, an Italian beer perfect with its accompaniment—in this case, pizza topped with favas, smoked sardines, arugula, tarragon and a fried egg. Normally I'd say "hold the sardines"; normally I wouldn't eat a dish that listed "melted lardo" as an ingredient either, but that turned out to be a pretty wise move, so we kept it as-is.

The pizza was large and smothered in arugula, making it less than classy to eat, but oh-so-different and delish. I couldn't finish my last piece. Steamer was stuffed, so I choked it down, unwilling to leave a single bite on the plate. And man, oh man, this dinner wasn't just good. It was Zinny-didn't-even-ask-about-dessert good. It was also $100 good, which seems like a lot, but when you subtract our $54 dollars of drinks, it actually seems like quite the bargain. You can bet we'll be back—maybe to try that duck sausage, maybe with a little more $19-beer restraint. But probably not.

Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.


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