Omnivorous: Bowles's Big Shoes | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

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Omnivorous: Bowles's Big Shoes

The new kid at Avenues, plus post-Brazilian meat on a blade and more

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In taking the reins at Avenues at the Peninsula, Curtis Duffy has a job that's two, maybe three times as difficult as that of his predecessor, who only had to convince the world that he could make magic in an institutional hotel dining room. Now Duffy has to follow Graham Elliot Bowles's formidable act, and do it in a market that's far more competitive than when Avenues first drew the national spotlight. As Grant Achatz's right-hand man at Alinea, Duffy was an important soldier in the city's post-Trotter's/Tru/Trio surge to prominence, but his selection suggests a conservative continuity that doesn't do him any favors either. About that dining room: it acts like fog, its only virtue the view of NoMi's Chihuly chandeliers across the street. It's so stodgy I had trouble focusing on the first few courses—out of more than a dozen we tried from the spring prix fixe menu. But gradually Duffy got my attention, anchoring the familiar powders, granules, bubbles, and froths in concert with unprocessed ingredients like baby greens and tiny blossoms. By course number four—a spoonful of Dungeness crab claw with macerated cherry—I was in his thrall, and wowed over and over again as the rest of the courses, each with a dizzying array of elements, arrived: entries like tangerine-oil-poached lamb with mint blossom, mint-oil powder, Greek yogurt, dessicated bits of black olive, and a black olive jus. Before dessert a devastating piece of grilled Wagyu with smoked coconut and basil puree simply destroyed me. When it was over we were exhausted but awed, and not too worried about Duffy or the substantial bill. That came the next morning like a hangover. —Mike Sula

The Orlando investment firm that snapped up Sal & Carvao three years ago must have known there were enough knickered "gauchos" scampering around River North's Brazilian-themed feeding factories to occupy a flattened rain forest. But it also knew that the all-you-can-eat-meat-on-a-blade concept still has juice, especially if marketed to Sex and the City wannabes who don't care as much about eating as about being seen in the right place eating. I was no fan of Sal & Carvao, but I don't remember feeling as blatantly manipulated there as at its replacement, Zed 451. The game began the instant we approached the host stand and were directed into a holding pattern in the bar, where we were free to order weak pours at stiff prices before finally being permitted to feed at one of several long-available tables. In the dining room, the Brazil-on-Disney shtick and the simple, reasonably palatable flame-roasted meats have been replaced with white-coated "chefs" who table-shave a less beef-centric variety of proteins gussied up with global-fusiony marinades and accents, such as bricks of Parmesan-crusted pork loin, citrus salmon, and mango mahimahi. The "Harvest-Table" is laden with salads and vegetable dishes in enough sugary dressings to accommodate heroin withdrawal (bok choy with orange-chile glaze, sweet potatoes with ginger maple syrup, etc), and if the trio of "artisan cheeses" was any less industrial than supermarket deli-case varieties, I'll go bag groceries at Jewel. This is the human counterpart to confined animal feeding operations, the industrial meat (and shit) factories that supply the sort of unexceptional product served here. —MikeSula

With a revamped menu and repainted walls (formerly shades of green, now deep red and blue), the tiny ten-table storefront that was the Mexican Brioso has morphed into the southwestern Jack Rabbit. It should still satisfy fans of the previous incarnation; I overheard a regular at a nearby table declare the slow-roasted pork nachos "awesome." Affordable prices, ample portions, and an agreeable (if not exactly authentic) lineup that includes chopped salad and chipotle-rubbed baby back ribs may even win converts. But there were some annoying little problems (the foil-rolled flour tortillas were dried out on the edges, and the guacamole that cost an extra buck came in a minuscule ramekin), and the food I sampled lacked soul. Cutely named "Three Little Pigs" consisted of too-well-done pork loin wrapped in Nueske's bacon, which didn't moisten it, and two taquitos with barely-there slow-roasted pork filling. The garlicky spinach was far more salty than garlicky. Appetizers fared better, even if the so-called "ahi tuna ceviche" was more like a tuna tartare tostada with mango salsa mixed into the chopped fish and thick coconut milk painted on. I didn't taste any of the promised habanero chile, either. The nicely crisped wild mushroom quesadilla had a well-balanced filling, though some might find it skimpy. An extrafirm Mexican cinnamon bread pudding was disappointing, but velvety-moist chocolate cake was a winner. Drinks include flavored margaritas (e.g., blood-orange raspberry) and a house vodka martini with lime and prickly pear juice. Before this was the short-lived Brioso it was the short-lived Toucan, so if you're curious you should probably go now. —AnneSpiselman

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Transformations

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