Monday, September 29, 2008

Review: Avec Restaurant

Located in the West Loop, the trendy Avec Restaurant was overflowing when I arrived near 8:00pm this past Saturday. The crowd wasn't suprising considering the restaurant doesn't take reservations and there aren't too many tables. Since there was only my boyfriend and I, we were willing to sit at the bar, and it paid off to our advantage. Despite the long line of people, we were seated after only a minute of waiting.

Perched on bar stools, we were feet away from where the cooking was taking place. We saw food slipped into wood-burning stoves, vegetables tossed on the grill. The cooks moved in a pattern, easily sidestepping one another as they put the finishing touches on plate after plate. From this vantage point, we asked our bartender/waiter, "What's that? And that?" over and over again. He patiently answered our questions, and we soon found ourselves overwhelmed with choices.

Fortunately, with the way Avec is set up, we were able to order a few different meals. As our waiter pointed out, two people can usually comfortably eat either two small plates (ranging between $4 and $12 each) or one large plate (ranging from as low as $14 to as high as $44 for the daily special).

The hangar steak, a delicious medium-rare, sat on a bed of corn and lima beans (both adding the perfect amount of sweetness to the plate) and broccoli, which was an unfortunate startingly strong flavor that I found at odds with the rest of the dish. Our second plate, a whipped brandade, was a hearty and heated cod dip that was sinfully delightful; we took solace in the fact that while there was some heavy cream, the taste of cod was perfectly intermingled with the other ingredients and was paired well with toasted garlic bread.

We were getting full but our neighbors to the left had gotten more dishes that we coveted, and so we ordered one last dish: dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon. As we waited for our food, we continued to sip our wine (available by the glass or bottle), and for the first time realized how warm it had gotten in the restaurant, one of the unfortunate side effects of having the kitchen in the same cigar-styled room as the seating area. Despite the growing and somewhat uncomfortable heat, it seemed like it was supposed to be a part of the place's atmosphere. After all, every part of the wall, floor, and ceiling was covered in slabs of wood, causing the place to appear as if it was one big sauna.

The dates arrived, carried to us in a dish resting on a wooden slab (we really sensed the theme with this delivery of food). The dates were sweet, salty, and spicy -- and we could see why, according to our waiter, it is one of the most popular dishes as well as the longest-running menu item. Alas, the waiter was right in suggesting only two small plates. We each had one date and we were more than satiated. We got the last two dates to go, and left Avec, already excited about returning and trying other dishes we saw being whisked out of the open-air kitchen.

And even though it was near 9:30 when we left, a crowd of people -- different from those we saw when we first arrived -- mingled outside, waiting for their chance at some decently priced gourmet food.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Today's Distraction: A Pigeon

Distractions—usually of people coming and going—are my problem with (and, at the same time, perhaps the wonders of) going to a Starbuck’s “patio” in the Loop to write. Granted, there are plenty of distractions in my apartment, namely the Internet, but the distractions in downtown Chicago seem to be of a different breed.

Today the distraction was in the form of a pigeon. Let’s get this straight from the get-go: I hate pigeons, the flying rats of the city. I hate seeing them everywhere, I hate how they’re so used to humans, I hate how they flock toward any grain of food on the sidewalk. But I deal with them because, well, they’re there, and, for the most part, I’m able to ignore them.

Within seconds of sitting down outside of Starbucks this afternoon, a pigeon, it’s feathers looking wet and ruffled, wandered under my table and started circling my feet. I tried to ignore it. I pulled out my notebook and the draft of my novel. I sipped at my frappuchino. I took some notes on things I wanted to work on today. But I kept looking under the table. Call me what you will for being scared of a damn pigeon, but I’ve been shit on by a bird before, and I really didn’t want that to happen again.

Luckily, the pigeon moved on, as it pecked its way around the sidewalk patio. A woman came out of Starbucks and began to situate herself at the table next to me. After the woman set down her coffee and a bagged cookie, the pigeon spread its wings and flew onto the table. The woman somehow managed to swat at the bird while still jumping back. The bird hopped onto to the back of a chair, and then just sat there, watching the woman.

The woman looked at me, her eyes wide.

I shrugged in response to her unasked question of what to do.

“I’m moving tables!” she declared to all the Starbucks patrons, as well as the people walking by who stopped and stared. She grabbed at her coffee and cookie, and moved to another, smaller, table.

The pigeon didn’t give up. He hopped onto the table next to her. He watched her (or maybe he was just watching the cookie; who am I to say?) He sat there, as the woman’s husband joined her. He was oblivious to the nervous state his wife was in as he doodled on a piece of paper and asked why she moved tables.

A few minutes passed, and the pigeon hopped down, began circling the sidewalk again. Every time it came near the woman with the cookie, she kicked at it. The pigeon didn’t get the message until the third kick.

The point to this entry (if there is one) is this: I went to Starbucks to work on my novel (which I eventually did), and I came away with a potential story about a hungry pigeon. Maybe I’ll even put it in the perspective of the pigeon. Who would of thought? Me, writing about a pigeon, maybe even being sympathetic towards the unloved bird of the city—even though it was beyond annoying today.

After all, the pigeon eventually left everyone alone—after a young girl ran up to the bird and tried to grab it. It flew to the top of one of the green Starbucks umbrellas, and didn’t move by the time I left an hour later. Apparently it wasn’t craving any human interaction—it just wanted food.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Return to the pool

Two weeks ago, I returned to the pool. I’d like to say it had nothing to do with the swimming in the Olympics, but as is hinted in my post from August 11th, watching the Olympics reminded me of my swimming days.

Granted, there were reasons I quit the swim team way back when. I didn’t enjoy the competition, but mainly I didn’t enjoy the girls I was swimming with. I got along with the entire varsity team, but as a newbie, I was on JV, with only three other freshmen girls. These three other girls had tormented me throughout middle school, so I’m proud to say I survived even one swimming season with them, considering how they pulled at my ankles when I swam laps in front of them. But high school was different than middle school. I learned to ignore them, practice with the people who were my friends when I could. And, honestly, I’m proud to say that I was the best of us four, or, at the very least, improved the most—despite the way they treated me. But there’s only so much one person can take and in that way, I understand why I quit so long ago.

But a couple weeks ago, I realized what I missed about the pool. I missed the feeling of cutting through the water, the silence when I was underwater, being able to only hear noise when I pull up to breathe. I missed doing kick turns off the wall and the feeling of accomplishment after a good long workout, every muscle being used.

So, I took to the pool again, steadily increasing how many lengths I swim every time I jump in the pool (nearly every day). This time, I practice with my boyfriend. We encourage each other to push ourselves, to swim another lap. And, sure enough, I’ve found that the reasons I used to love to swim all still hold true, and I can’t see myself ever getting out of the pool again.