The Midwestern moon beamed down on Randolph Street as we wandered through a perfectly temperate late spring Wednesday night, drifting from the bustling West Loop toward the heart of the Chicago skyline.
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We had just enjoyed dinner at the high profile Girl and the Goat and decided to walk off our food while exploring the second city nightscape.
Of course, we planned to have a meal at one of Paul Kahan’s restaurants during our limited time in Chicago, and we already had a reservation with a friend at the Publican for that Friday. Our Thursday night would be devoted to the almost-impossible reservation we had obtained at Schwa in Logan Square.
Multiple people had recommended Paul Kahan’s Avec to us, but we weren’t planning to eat there on this trip. We really couldn’t eat at two of the James Beard-winning chef’s restaurants in three days. Or could we?
After crossing over busy I90 and catching a few photos of the Chicago skyline, we couldn’t help but notice the ultra-white light of Kahan’s Blackbird followed, right next door, by the ultra-sleek, wood-adorned Avec. Needless to say, the magical vision of these spaces pulled us in like steel to an electric magnet.
Should we enter Avec? For a nightcap? Why not!
Once in and sipping some Pedro Ximenez sherry and chatting with the friendly server, we couldn’t move our eyes away from the food ordered by the bar guests next to us – an earthy, round cheese focaccia and hearty bacon-wrapped dates that looked like they were cooked by someone’s grandmother.
As we sat at the bar, we said to each other “it’s a shame we don’t have time to eat an entire meal at this place.” Or so we thought.
Fast Forward to The Next Day
As we devoured our lunch at Hot Doug’s, Daryl’s phone rang with disturbing news. Schwa called to cancel our coveted reservation due to ‘plumbing problems.’ This was a frustrating circumstance for sure, but a development that we would use to our advantage.
A visit to Avec was in order!
Dinner at Avec
Avec doesn’t take reservations, so we headed over at 8:00 with trepidation given our 10 pm cocktail reservation at the Aviary. Luck was on our side, and we got in after a relatively short wait.
After ordering a reasonably priced bottle of 5 Fincas wine from a small Spanish winemaker, we dug into the eclectic menu with gusto. With the manager’s guidance, we ordered four plates to share between the two of us.
We started the meal with a green salad. Normally, a green salad is a simple starter. Not this salad. The sweet taste of the fresh peas counterbalanced the savory dressing. The egg atop the salad was perfectly cooked and added extra flavor to the greenery.
Of course, we had to order the dates after seeing and smelling them the night before. We’ve eaten dates before. We’ve eaten bacon before. We’ve eaten bacon-wrapped dates before.
It’s fair to say that these were dates were amazing. Adding chorizo to the date-bacon pairing is genius, and serving them with a spicy tomato sauce is sublime.
The same was true for the focaccia. We had seen the dish the night before.
Little did we know that the simple looking “pie” was stuffed with funky taleggio cheese and finished with just the right amount of truffle oil. We munched on the crunchy, oozing flatbread until it was gone.
The braised lamb neck may have been Mediterranean in style with flavors of harissa and with bits of orange, almond and currants, but it also displayed the chef’s love for simple locally sourced ingredients.
Every element on the plate played an important role in support of the rich, deep, melt-in-your-mouth lamb. We wouldn’t expect anything less at Avec.
Avec is located at 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661, United States.
Dinner at the Publican
Fast forward 24 hours, and we entered another Paul Kahan restaurant – the Publican. In stark contrast to the intimate Avec, the Publican is huge. The space is a cavernous, boisterous and bustling Midwestern answer to a German beer hall.
We fully expected the meal to be a meat and pork extravaganza, but the Publican also features a wide-ranging seafood menu as well as a spectacular raw bar.
We began our meal with tender raw razor clams, a refreshing crudo of Madai snapper and, in another nod to the Mediterranean (by way of California), perfectly grilled Monterey Bay squid topped with Sardinian fregola.
Man cannot live on fish alone, so of course we had to try some the meats that put the Publican on the map. The charcuterie plate did not disappoint with its creative combination of meats and pickled vegetables served with pungently seedy mustard.
After the fresh peas at Avec the night before, we were compelled to try the Publican’s take on the seasonal vegetable. At the Publican, the peas were served atop toasted rye bread along with a melange of other fresh ingredients.
This may be the only time that we can honestly say that the peas were one of the highlights of the meal.
The pork chop ‘in hay’ completed our Publican experience with Iowan pork preserved pepper rice, fig and zhoug, a spicy herb and chile pepper relish. Yes, the ingredients are all over the place – food has gone global, and restaurants like the Publican are leading the charge!
At one point, we looked down at our portion of the communal table and marveled at the bounty of rustic fare served on a mishmash of plates. Since we were eating with our friend Susan, we were able to order a feast fit for three culinary travelers.
When we decided to indulge in a sugary ending to our meal, we were confused by the vacherin option. It turns out that vacherin is both a Swiss cheese and, in this case, a French dessert.
The silky smooth and perfectly sweet meringue and house-made ice cream were a fitting end to our protein-heavy meal.
The Publican is located at 837 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607, United States.
Drinks at Blackbird
Did we say that we dined at two Paul Kahan restaurants in two nights? That’s not exactly true.
To walk off our heavy meal we traveled back to where we started our Paul Kahan journey, to Blackbird, where three spots awaited us at the bar.
Was it excessive to dine at two Paul Kahan restaurants in just two days and drink in three? We think not.
Chicago is lucky to have such a great group of restaurants. With our limited time in the windy city, we were happy for just a small sampling of the food at Avec and the Publican. Next time, we’ll eat more.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.