13 November 2003

Blackbird flies next door

Seconding the emotion

"People for years and years have said, `Oh, comfort food is the next big thing. It never seems to really break through. It's gotta be more than meat loaf and potpie. This is comfort food from other points around the globe. It makes sense to me," Paul Kahan says on a crisp fall Saturday, sitting at one of the three heavy wooden communal tables at his new enterprise, Avec. The chef and partner of Blackbird (with Donnie Madia and Eduard Seitan) is reflecting on his much-awaited 1,500-square-foot storefront wine bar, a neo-enoteca one door east on Randolph Street, that serves a variety of intense small dishes with an ambitious cheese program, handcrafted salamis and extensive wine list.

It's a striking room, with architect Thomas Schlesser's design incorporating elements from the winemaking process, with an enormous wood-burning oven, floors that include river rock and a glass wall of bottles at the end of the deep, wood-lined space. The way the almost sauna-like room embraces diners suggests a variation on the traditional Chicago tin-wall-and-ceiling storefront.

Part of Kahan and his partners' project in staging a second act is to reward people they've worked with, such as veteran Blackbird sous chef Koren Grieveson, while keeping control. "The biggest impetus for doing this, for me, was to give Koren a place that's her own, to grow. It's her first chef de cuisine job. She'll still say I'm the chef here but she's the chef here. I'm her coach. She brings me dishes and eighty percent of them, it's like, 'This is perfect. Don't do anything to it.' She already has this huge sense of ownership."

Kahan remains an evangelist for eating as a communal act. "I always refer to this thing that I read by Alice Waters, that food is as much about the act of breaking bread and being with family and friends and loved ones as it is about the quality of the food. That was kind of the idea about this place. I hope we play good music and we serve wonderful, simple food and we have great bread that you tear to swab up the juices and it's as much about hanging out and having a good time as it is about the food."

But the food does matter. Flavors from around the Mediterranean are on Avec's menu, with plates coming okinomi style--one serving tray even resembles a sushi board. "There is a certain element of that going on," Kahan agrees. "People keep saying the `T' word, tapas, and it's not tapas. It's food for sharing, man. It's not a wine bar, it's not a restaurant. It's this foggy..." He watches traffic outside for a moment. "In Italy, they use the word enoteca, and I think it much more resembles an enoteca than anything I could describe. There's a lot of dishes here you could probably go to a Grecian taverna up on North Lincoln, or a lot of ethnic restaurants and isolate single dishes that are really warming and really incredible. But we have a whole lineup of them. I hope it works."

Kahan says people have told him, "`Man, you've got a lot of balls, there's no American wines on the list, you're serving food people are not ready for'... I think Blackbird really set a standard for a quality independent restaurant. A lot of places opened up after that. I mean, we have corporate guys coming in here right now and they're just salivating. Some guy said, `This concept is like the Starbucks of wine bars.' And I'm sure they're going to rip us off, but you know, so what? They can't--they'll dumb it down. It's not to say we're a huge hit yet or that we're even going to be, but we've been busy." Avec's kitchen is open until 1am, until recently a Chicago rarity (and one that makes Grieveson's work day a long one). And people keep on pouring in. "Repeat business early on is the sign for me," says Kahan. "Someone says hi, they've been five times in a week. People are coming back and back and back and chefs are coming back and back and back. Charlie Trotter was in here Thursday night, he said, 'I'm coming back on Tuesday.'"

Kahan has grown used to defining his terms. "We're doing American food here, you know. It's next door. Blackbird, people say it's French, well, it's not. It's American ingredients, it's our interpretation of classic cooking, Here, it's just our interpretation of dishes that people have been doing for centuries. We wouldn't call ourselves an Italian restaurant because we do a Roman-style bucatini dish. We wouldn't call ourselves a Spanish restaurant because we do octopus braised in olive oil and tomato. We play by the rules of those cuisines. We use very little butter here. It's almost all olive oil and garlic. Our pantry is really small. It's a lot of olives and figs and capers and all those kind of things that define Mediterranean flavors."

And flavors are what will bring customers back. At one of Mario Batali's Manhattan restaurants, Grieveson watched a salad being made. "They did this really great raw salad with radishes and zucchini and asparagus, seasoned with thyme," she says. "I just sat there watching, saying, `Wow, that looks so good.' I never even thought of that. `Here you go, here is it is. I didn't manipulate this, I didn't do anything to it other than add some lemon juice.' I love that. It's taking away instead of throwing crap into food, which I think is the trick."

"It's simple food, you know," agrees Kahan. "It's pretty unadorned, it's just well-executed and tasty and it's what people really want, I think."

Avec, 615 W. Randolph, (312)377-2002

[Newcity, 13 November 2003]