Curtis Duffy: Dining with the (Michelin) Stars / by zhaophotography

In the last several months, very few conversations amongst Chicago chefs and serious foodies alike have transpired without a mention of the much anticipated release of the first Michelin Guide for Chicago.  When the official announcement of the Michelin stars came out on November 16th, we were in no way surprised that Avenues, led by Chef Curtis Duffy received the coveted 2 Michelin stars.  Chicago only has two 3 star restaurants (Alinea, L2O) and three 2 star restaurants (Avenues, Trotter's, Ria).  With all the new and well deserved press, we were worried we'd never be able to eat at Avenues again.  Luckily, we had made reservations at Avenues to celebrate Jared's birthday prior to the release of the Michelin Guide.  This also turned out to be the perfect time to sample Chef Duffy's fall menu.  We normally don't get to eat this extravagantly when we dine out, but for a special occasion like this, we allowed ourselves to splurge.

Arriving at our scheduled reservation with our friends, we were greeted by the maître d' who gladly showed us to our table.  Along the way, the tiny opened-space kitchen housed a handful of staff, each busy at their stations. Like a well oiled machine, the kitchen cooked and plated dishes at amazing speed and precision.  At the helm of all of this was Chef Curtis Duffy.

We were seated at one of the best tables in the restaurant with a window view overlooking the magnificent mile and water tower. The streets below were busy with shoppers and tourists which made for a completely contrasting juxtaposition to the silent and focused kitchen on the 5th floor of The Peninsula Hotel.  The dining room is of grand elegance decked with art decor, exposed wine cellar and fresh cut flower arrangements.  This is probably more representative of the 4 star hotel than the modernistic cuisine of Chef Curtis Duffy.

At Avenues, you can select from a choice of two tasting menus: the chef's tasting menu or the vegetarian menu.  Each course description is highlighted by several key ingredients and offers a glimpse of what to expect.  You may also order separately from their a la carte menu as well.  But since this was a special occasion and we were entertaining guests, we asked for an extended menu which featured items from both of the menus.

Once situated, we were first served a glass of champagne of which the nutty flavor was a welcoming taste. Neither overly sweet nor dry, it was the beginning of a great meal.  The service staff carried over the amuse bouche. Two servers, one on each side, lifted a spoon from their tray and placed it in front of us in unison.  A generous dollop of osetra caviar sat beside the brioche sphere encapsulated by a thin layer of meyer lemon gelee, garnished with a chive tip and a single ring of shallot. Eating this in a single bite allowed you to taste the saltiness of the caviar which was a perfect complement to the creaminess of the sphere. Pairing this with the extravagant glass of champagne certainly aroused our appetites.

After each course, the staff outfitted our table with new silverware suitable for the next course. Not a moment later another member of the wait staff came over with a plate of a bread pairing.  Avenues most definitely has one of our favorite bread services we've ever experienced.  All breads are baked in-house and made especially for Avenues. The first of many is the Manchego cheese bread roll.  Along with it, we are given an assortment of butter/emulsions to enjoy the bread with.

From the left is piped cows milk butter with black Himalayan salt, meyer lemon emulsion with pink Hawaiian sea salt and an herb emulsion with fleur de sel.

For our first official course, we were served the famous Alaskan king crab, the dish that was the talk of the town at the James Beard awards dinner. Sweet and succulent crab leg chunks sat in a light and refreshing cucumber juice. Suspended near the top of the cup is a thin layer of sugar lace topped with golden brook trout roe, togarashi and herbs. To eat it, you must crack the shell like a brulee. It is a playful dish as the large chunks of crab meat begs to be eaten, but one must break the shell before you can enjoy a spoonful. Once cracked all the components fall into the cup and the sugar lace begins to dissolve immediately. I can see why people from around the world would come here to taste this. It has all the elements of a well balanced dish- the saltiness from the roe, sweetness from the crab and sugar lace, spice from the togarashi and acidity from the kalamansi. Since Jared's most favorite food in the world is crab, he could of have eaten this all night. But seeing this was only the first of many more courses to come, we had to reserve our appetites.

Next came the first fish course. The Faroe Island salmon was poached at a very low temperature, resulting in an incredibly smooth and silky flesh. Elements of fennel were scattered around the plate. And true to Chef Duffy's style, every element of the fennel was used, from the bulb, to the stem, fronds and blossom. To further enhance the liquorice taste, Absinthe foam adorns the fish.  Our second wine pairing was a glass of 2007 Kistler sauvignon blanc, a nice and easy-to-drink wine with a fruity tone from Sonoma County.  The second bread offering was a pretzel roll. It was so delicious when we tasted it with the meyer lemon emulsion that we forgot to take a picture of it.

We also received a couple dishes from the vegetarian menu, the grains as well as the risotto.  This grains dish offered great crunchy texture.  The amaranth veil as explained by the chef, is a disc made from amaranth that is set over the grains/seeds/nuts base.  The whole plate is placed underneath a broiler which allows the disc to melt and form a shell. As the final component, the server poured a savory broth over the dish at tableside. With each bite you can feel and taste the different grains, seeds and nuts.  Knowing that we weren't vegetarians, Chef Duffy added bay scallops that were seared to perfection to give this dish an additional sweetness and umami flavor.

This risotto dish was one of the best risottos that we have ever tasted. Not only was it adorned with generous shavings of white and black truffles, but it was also served with black mission figs. Jared was astounded and asked us outloud, "Who knew figs would go so well with risotto?" The soft semi-sweet figs lent themselves perfectly to the creamy risotto which was full of an earthy mushroom and truffle flavor.

At most restaurants, the vegetarian menu is an afterthought, but under Chef Duffy, the vegetables really shine. The vegetarian menu is certainly on the same caliber as the Chef's tasting menu. Whenever we have vegetarian friends or family that come to visit Chicago, we send them to Chef Duffy. Even if you are an avid meat eater, he can make a vegetarian believer out of you.

Jared's favorite dish of the night was the grilled hamachi with lardo. How can you go wrong with lardo on anything? However, Chef Duffy's pastry background is prevalent here. The sweet cardamon meringue, tapioca pearls and the young carrot offered a nice counter balance to the salty lardo and purslane. If the plating looks familiar, as seen here, that's because Jared's dish was inspired by Chef Duffy.  The final bread offering of the night was not a bread at all but a sweet and savory basil waffle that was light and airy. We've never wanted to buy a real rotating waffle iron until we tasted this. You just can't achieve incredible airiness with our regular waffle iron at home.

We were poured a glass of 2007 Termes Numanthia. This wine is full bodied and not overly dry which easily stood up to the strong flavor of the upcoming meat course.

By now we were six courses deep into our meal. And not counting the bread we ate, we were already really stuffed.  But we also knew we still had the meat and dessert courses to follow.  For a tasting menu, Chef Duffy's portions are incredibly generous.  I don't have to tell you, but the short ribs were juicy and tender.  The short ribs was braised then glazed a total of 3 times so that the meat becomes nice and lacquered. The perfume of anise was apparent in the glaze. To contrast the tender short ribs, pine nuts, broccoli florets, shaved radish and what we called an elegant shoe stringed potato completed the dish. Though we've never had fresh hibiscus leaves before, we found it to be a refreshingly tart addition as well. Chef Duffy's use of herbs to replace conventional taste elements are unmatched.

Sudachi spheres

Ahhh, this was a sight of relief- the intermezzo course, i.e. the passage to dessert.  Frozen sudachi spheres were dipped into white chocolate and cocoa butter with a faint taste of togarashi, which produced a delicate shell. The spheres were then refrigerated to melt the frozen center. We were told to eat this in a single bite, specifically with our mouth closed.  There is a good reason for this.  When eaten in a single bite, the citrus liquid bursts in your mouth, filling every void possible. What a surprising and whimsical intermezzo. What could only have been more impressive than this dish was the trained staff that had to balance these sudachi spheres on a long branch. Kudos to our server, Amy, who brought the course to us with the steady hands of a surgeon.

We have to admit, we had a hard time eating the crab apple dessert. It wasn't that by this point in time we were way too full, but the presentation was just too beautiful to eat. The color, shapes and textures looked like a piece of art painted on a black slate canvas. Each element on that dish worked perfectly with one another, from the twice baked croissant to the perfect quenelle of Pere Jacques beer ice cream, to the crab apple chips. This was a masterpiece.  We were also revisited by a dessert we've had before, and this time it was made with a cylindrical strawberry puree. What I love about this dish is the use of basil in this dessert. African black basil, basil seeds and basil puree went perfectly with the tart strawberry sorbet.  Breaking open the sorbet cylinder will allow the mascarpone and Chambord liquor center to fill your bowl and elegantly bring together all the elements in the dish.

As our final course, our server brought out aerated frozen chocolate mousse. The liquid nitrogen that was used to freeze the chocolate mousse can be seen as the gas escapes into the open air. A large chunk of mousse was spooned onto the plate decorated with huckleberries, stevia leaves, and my favorite chamomile custard. The large chunks of frozen mousse are then broken into smaller chunks by our server. The mousse was rich with chocolate flavor, yet not overly heavy after so many courses.

And just as we thought our meal was complete, we were presented with the mignardise- exotic truffles from different regions of South America. We had to pack those as we were both full beyond belief.  Though our guests thoroughly enjoyed each and every single bite.

To match the quality of the food, the service at Avenues was also top notch.  The atmosphere doesn't feel pretentious, as the staff was knowledgeable and friendly.  Each guest was treated with the utmost respect and they were willing to go out of their way to meet your needs.  Each time Jared left his seat, a staff member moved stealthily like a ninja to your table and folded your napkin.

Every experience at Avenues has been a culinary adventure.  Each visit, Chef Duffy has surprised us with new uses and combinations of flavors that one would never expect.  And after each meal, we continually feel inspired to explore new ingredients and expand our culinary boundaries.  We can't wait to come back again in the spring to see what new surprises we may find.

But wait, there's more!
One particular thing about Chef Duffy's dishes is that they are so incredibly beautiful.  The photographs that we took during dinner could never truly represent what was being placed before our eyes. We privately asked Chef Duffy for permission to come back and re-photograph some of the dishes from our meal during the daytime and he graciously obliged.  The next day we happily returned and felt we were finally able to capture the beauty of his work.  I really wish you can see and taste these dishes yourself, but alas these photos will have to do.  (Chef Duffy also prepared a couple dishes that were not a part of our meal, including the chestnuts and tom kha gai).

Alaskan king crab with golden brook trout roe, kalamansi, lemon mint

chestnut, black truffle, quince, garden herbs

tom kha gai, finger limes, lemongrass, coriander blooms

hamachi with lardo, yuzu, and purslane

grains, seeds, nuts, amaranth veil, sultanas, sunflower

beef short ribs with pine nuts, lime, and cilantro flowers

crab apple, croissant, pere jacques, sage

raspberry, thai black pepper, mascarpone, opal basil blossoms

Curtis Duffy, a portrait

We'd like to thank Chef Duffy for opening our minds to the various combination of herbs and the use of sweets in a savory course, and for generously re-preparing the dishes for our photoshoot as well.  We'd also like to thank the team of Avenues for an unforgettable night.  It certainly was a meal to remember.  Good food, good folks, good fun!

Curtis Duffy Chef de Cuisine Avenues, The Peninsula Hotel 108 East Superior Street, Chicago, IL (312) 337-2888 ‎

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