Avec retains hearty Mediterranean flavor

December 29, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The West Loop charmer attracts food lovers from around the country. Despite its notoriously uncomfortable seating, the food has always been the draw.

"Like hot food out of a wood-fired oven… Dates, focaccia, brandade; open late, open early. Great wine. Lots of wine. Sitting close to other people," said Erling Wu-Bower, Avec.

Wu-Bower should know the scene at Avec. He worked there for three years, then left to go to the Publican- only to returned a month ago to take the reins from Koren Grieveson.

Grieveson had run the kitchen since it opened. Wu-Bower has big shoes to fill, but he's not changing the philosophy.

"Focusing in on the Mediterranean; on the Mediterranean rim, like Southern Mediterranean: Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica, Spain," he said.

Merluza- also known as hake- is seared skin-side down, eventually basted in brown butter, over a bed of white gazpacho thickened with raw almonds, fried bread and sherry vinegar. The fish is plated, then crowned with a bright salad of ruby red grapefruit, charred Italian lettuces and scallions. It is seasoned with pastis and vinegar, and drizzled with a jolt of chili oil.

Wu-Bower says he is not about to mess with all-time favorites like the chorizo-stuffed dates or the focaccia- made to-order, split and spread with a rich combo of ricotta and taleggio cheeses and a healthy drizzle of truffle oil. But he's making incremental steps.

"Doing a few more braised meats, working with a little more peppers; little more butter here and there. A little bit more spice, more vinegar," said Wu-Bower.

Veal breast, for example, is braised for six hours, Portuguese style with chilies, lemon, oregano and garlic.

Capers, brown sugar and chili flakes are added to the pan- along with the veal's braising liquid and a bit of butter. The luscious meat is plated with coins of sweet potato, then showered in pomegranates, almonds, parsley and herbs.

Another new addition: a hearty bruschetta featuring 'nduja - a Calabrian salami spread - slathered on thick, olive oil-laden sourdough, plus a mound of farmer's cheese and basil. It's new to regulars, but its style is absolutely old-school.

So the philosophy hasn't changed at Avec. You'll see a little more vinegar here, some more chili there. But at its core, you will taste the same rustic, hearty, peasant Mediterranean food that's come to define this restaurant over the past decade.

The restaurant opens at 3:30 p.m. On weekends, the kitchen stays open until 1:00 a.m.

Website: www.avecrestaurant.com

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