On Epic Birthdays And Such / by zhaophotography

This past Thursday I turned 30. I have been dreading this since the day I turned... 29. I have this completely abnormal fear of getting older and every year this fear only grows. It's not that I necessarily want to stay 20 something forever. But looking back, my 20s were really amazing years though of course I totally didn't realize it at the time. This is the decade when I started dating my best friend and the love of my life and eventually married him, ran a small time catering/chocolate truffle business with my dear friend Brian Wong, traveled to Europe, lived and traveled around Asia, completely switched careers and pay grades, became an aunt- which by the way is the best job in the world, bought a house and a dog, and finally learned how to take a proper photograph. Of course, I'm the most proud of that last accomplishment. heh.
With all that in mind, I couldn't let my 20s go out without a bang. And I mean, a really big bang. A few weeks ago, when Jared placed second in the cooking contest held by Leela of SheSimmers.com and Curtis Duffy, we already knew we'd be calling in a reservation at Avenues for my birthday. And after our epic meal last Thursday, I've come to the conclusion that all of my epic birthdays begin and end with a combination of Jared... and Curtis Duffy.
Wait, what? Let's rewind.
Six years ago, when Jared and I first started dating, he was really looking to win my heart through my stomach. When I think about it, it's pretty amusing that he did so since my palatte at that time was so untrained and so unsophisticated. So unsophisticated that when I asked Jared to take me on a real first date, I jokingly asked him to take me to Rock and Roll McDonald's in downtown Chicago. Well, maybe I wasn't joking, but we never went on this date since they soon after tore it down to build the less exciting futuristic McDonald's. Instead, that night we ended up feasting at Fogo de Chao. Talk about culinary gorging. The second you turn that disc to its green-means-go side, suited men flocked to your side offering you mouthwatering meat on a giant stick. Um, how can a girl resist? This was also the night I had my first taste of creme brulee. I distinctly remember Jared was in total shock when I told him I'd never had creme brulee before. And I'm almost certain that this was the moment when Jared made it his mission to introduce me to food. Real food. (Though in all honesty, I kind of resented the fact that I became a pet project of his. That jerk! hahaha)
So for my first birthday that we celebrated together many years ago, Jared decided to make it a really special treat and as a surprise he took me to Trio in Evanston. This was also when Grant Achatz (along with Curtis Duffy) was running the show. This meal was truly a defining moment in my personal foodie history (and probably for Jared too) because it completely changed my perspective on food. From the earth shattering amuse bouche, to the cherry smoke trapped in a glass released over the perfectly cooked beef tongue, to the creative birthday dessert that I had to pop with a needle in order to get to the candy inside, every dish completely blew my mind. To this day, I still remember so many elements of what we had eaten that night and we can both describe them with such detail. Unfortunately, back in 2004 we were not the awesome food bloggers and food photographers we are today (ha!) and left without any presentable photos of our food.
Fast forward 6 years, now with many many amazing meals in many different countries under our belt, we were given the opportunity to essentially come back to where it started. And as I said, it begins and ends with Jared... and Curtis Duffy.
Tucked away in the corner of the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel is Avenues. The little sign at the door signaled we were at the right place. As we stepped in, we were politely greeted by the hostess. The room is dimly lit but opens to a spectacular skyline of the city. We reserved our spots at the Chefs bar so that we would be able to watch the kitchen in action while we feasted on what we knew were to be amazing dishes. Jared parked himself directly in front of chef Curtis Duffy while I hopped onto the next seat over. It was exciting to see how each of the dishes were plated up. The team at Avenues sure made everyhting looked easy. Each team member crowded around a tiny serving table, each putting their element on the plate with great precision and ease all without running into each other or getting into each others way. Much like a well excuted play in basketball or football. This was a type of "dinner and a show" we could get used to.
The amuse bouche led us off to an amazing start. The briny and salty black sturgeon caviar goes perfectly with the creaminess of the meyer lemon sphere that was further encapsulated by gelee. I would say this is comparable to the oysters and pearl dish we had the French Laundry. The meyer lemon added the perfect amount of acidity and a Spring time flavor. This definitely got our taste buds ready for the meal ahead.

cucumber, wild steelhead roe, kalamansi, tangerine lace

Crab is one of Jared's favorite food groups next to fried chicken. So when he saw the the crab dish on the non-vegetarian menu, it was an easy decision for him on what to order. This dish is quite a playful dish as the chunks of king crab meat swam in a pool of cucumber consomme. To eat it, you must crack the thin layer of tangerine lace sitting on top with the wild steelhead roe. I felt giddy like the scene in Amelie, cracking into the sugar layer of her creme brulee. This is the perfect summer time dish, the cool cucumber juice, the tartness of the kalamansi puree, briny roe and crab meat and finally the sweetness of the shell complimented each ingredients. Last but not least, you can taste the spiciness from the togarashi at the end, which was a bit of surprise. This is also the dish chef Duffy will be serving at the James Beard Awards Dinner. I hope they like it as much as we do.

pineapple, coconut, blackmint

Next came a dish from the vegetarian menu courtesy of the chef. Boy were we in for a treat. Too bad we couldn't order both menus so that we could have tried all the dishes. The vibrant green English pea soup was poured over the frozen coconut milk dome. The vine you see there is actually black mint puree drizzled into liquid nitrogen. I even saw chef Duffy fish it out with his bare hands...his bare hands people!! (Kids please do not try this at home and leave it to the professionals)

Once you crack open the dome, you will find ripe pineapple chunks, cashews for the crunchy texture and bread pieces to soak up the soup. As you take a spoonful of this chilled soup, the frozen coconut shell quickly dissolves in your mouth followed by the taste of the sweet and mild green pea soup. This takes the concept of the chilled english pea soup into the realm of... fantasy!

fennel, dark chocolate, mataki

One of the requests Jared had for the chef was for us to taste the dish he envisioned when he and Leela created the cooking contest. Chef Duffy was generous enough to oblige with our request and make this particular dish in place of the salmon dish already on the menu. The chef's description of his dish can be found here. When we first saw his version, we wanted to taste it for sure. The hardest element of this dish was pairing the dark chocolate with the fish. So we were naturally intrigued by his use of ingredients and technique to blend these them in a harmonious way. Let me just say chef's Duffy combination lived up to his reputation. Sure, Jared's version was tasty, but this was on a whole other level of awesomeness. The first thing we noticed was the perfectly poached Faroe Island salmon belly. I'm not sure where Faroe Island is located, but I want to go there and fish their salmon and then eat their belly. The fish was mild and so creamy, and then tasting it with the semi-bitter smooth chocolate custard and cool fennel sorbet, you can see why these ingredients that normally not seen together now seem so right.

The gnocchi was light and fluffy with a nice crunchy exterior. By itself it is mild in flavor, but when you soak up the salty prosciutto consomme, it was the perfect combo. The consomme was poured table side so the gnocchi wouldn't be soggy when it arrives.

By this time we were already full and it was only the 3rd item on the menu. YIKES!! But like a good troopers we ate on without much of a complaint. =)

hibicus, sweet curry, nasturtium

The lamb dish came with a super flavorful braised lamb tongue. The lamb was cooked perfectly and went well with the eggplant and eggplant puree you see in the corner.
pistachio, summer truffle, scallion

Ah, the Waygu beef from Shiga Prefecture in Japan. This was another dish we were really looking forward to ever since reading the tweet from chef Duffy. I guess there are less than 10 restaurants in the US serving this type of beef. Now, we have had Matsusaka and Kobe beef before in Japan, but never Ohmi. So we felt pretty special to be able to taste it here in the US and we were not dissapointed. The beef was tender and juicy from the oh-so-many layers of fat running through the meat. To make this dish even more extravagant, truffle elements were found throughout the dish. One of Jared's favorite element was the white truffle creme caramel. It was sweet and creamy and the truffle taste takes it over the top. We could of eaten this dish all night even though we were so full.

tapioca, rose, lemon balm

What a cool way to present our first dessert course. The halved passion fruit shell sits on top of a molded ice plate. The dessert was light and tart. For some reason I can still taste this dish hours later, maybe it was because of the stuck piece of tapioca in my teeth? =)

thai black pepper, mascarpone, African blue basil

The best dessert of the night I think goes to this dish. The raspberry sorbet log is filled with mascarpone cream. We were instructed to crack open the log before eating. As you can see the cream with chambord came oozing out onto the bowl. I am a big fan of basil and cream and this was truely outstanding. There were so many little elements to this dish and looked almost too pretty to eat.

saffron, honey, bergamot

A creamy rich chocolate dessert that will satisfy the cravings of all chocolate lovers. The chunks of frozen honey was a nice touch.

As a special treat for my birthday, chef Duffy prepared a frozen chocolate mousse dome. Again the caramelized milk came flowing out once dome was cracked open. It was the perfect way to end an epic meal on an epic birthday.

If this is a preview of things set to come this year, I am going to have to fervently wave goodbye to the last decade and welcome this one with open arms!
Avenues at The Peninusula
Curtis Duffy, Chef de Cuisine
1o8 E. Superior
Chicago, IL 60611
By the way, at some point in the meal, Jared asks the chef "Excuse me Chef, have you had the KFC double down?" I gotta say, I was more than a little mortified.