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.