In 2003, right after we moved to Chicago, Paul Kahan and Koren Grieveson opened Avec. After our first visit, a pan-Mediterranean small plates feast, my wife and I both knew this was going to be the beginning of a long love affair. Not necessarily with Avec itself, though we've always loved our meals there, but with how Grieveson paid such particular attention to acid in food (haven't had Erling Wu Bower's rendition yet).
I grew up in Iowa, my wife in Ohio. Acid is not a thing there. Neither is garlic. Or pickled onions. Or parsley. Grieveson's Mediterranean plates driven by a perfect touch of acid was a revelation. Her collection of ingredients on each plate were always original and delicious but it always tasted like the success in each dish came from how graceful the acid component brought everything together. Avec's style has informed much of what we've craved since and one chef, Cleveland's Michael Symon, a guy with a bevy of home recipes out there on the web, became one of our leading go-to sources for food that copied the acid success of our original Avec love.
Michael Symon roasted chicken and salsa verde, a staple in our house over the last year, brings all of the above, tasting simple and clean, yet deep and entirely satisfying.
Food: Roasted chicken, salsa verde, potato cakes, cacio de roma cheese and radishes with arugula, basil and pomegranate seed salad to finish
Five pound Trader Joe's chicken ($12). Symon's recipe isn't much of a diversion from other roasted chicken recipes out there (and a bit less volatile than Thomas Keller's due to the slightly lower cooking temp). The key comes in stuffing the lemon slices and bay leaves under the skin. All those flavors ooze into the chicken meat in such great ways. Good leg and thigh. Great breast with this roasting. And crispy skin that could be served out of a food truck.
Symon's salsa verde simultaneously goes deep and freshened up at the same time. It's a kaleidoscope of flavor, combining mint, capers, parsley, anchovies, red pepper flakes, olive oil, lemon juice/zest, jalapeño, garlic and shallot. When you have this salsa verde, the meal becomes about the salsa verde. Takes over in the best sense.
Potato cakes and radishes to round things out. But the key, especially with the wine, came in the addition of finely grated cacio de roma sheep's milk cheese. With chicken meat and potato cakes on the plate, salsa verde dumped over both and the cacio de roma sprinkled over all of it, the food went from a place of "this is good" to a realm of "there isn't one thing on this planet I need right now other than this!"
Arugula, basil salad with pomegranate seeds with white balsamic and olive oil dressing to finish. Cleans up like arugula does so well.
On the olive oil, one product, Trader Joe's California Arbequeña olive oil, might be the best thing they carry. $6 a bottle with a perfect balance of fruit and smoke.
Good Food. The wine didn't take off until the cheese was added, mimicking what manchego does with Spanish wine, which is just the tops.
Wine: 2005 Gramona Gran Reserva Brut Nature Ill Lustros Cava ($50 - Binny's in Lakeview)
Vintage Cava. Huge accolades, led by a 95-point Neal Martin Wine Advocate review. Disgorged 1/12. 70% xarel-lo, 30% macabeu (viura by another name). Five years maturity in bottle.
Smelled like a bread shop at first whiff. Dry, dry, chalky dry stuff, hence the Brut Nature label (similar to and falling in the middle of Champagne's Extra Brut/Zero Dosage range with 3 grams/liter or less of residual sugar) and bringing a bone-dry, laser beam focus in terms of flavor. Our mistake here was popping, pouring and eating. This one needed some time to open up. Once it did over about a two-hour meal, an elegance and darker complexity emerged, bringing an oyster shell, wee lemon spritz and blood orange pith (Mrs. Ney's description and it nailed it) deliciousness. Nervy acidity defined its structure and was cleaned up beautifully with a minerally, seashell finish. Tons of pizzazz here, shed its spastic opening act rather quick-like and with this level of jumpy acid, it's just starting to show what it can do.
$50 good? Maybe. I wish I would have read the reviews before opening it, heeded the aeration recommendation and probably saved this Spanish goodness for a tapas spread involving marinated manchego.
Pairing: Once we added the sheep's milk cheese, echoes of Spain and proper pairing pleasure emerged.
Without the cacio de roma on top of everything, the wine and the food had a staring contest with neither wanting to flinch. Both were quite good but neither wanted to play ball. Once the cheese was added, the Italian sheep's milk cheese served as a near-perfect stand-in for manchego, bringing wisps of Spain and signaling to the wine to get off its butt, grab a glove and get out there.
It did, turning a staring contest into a pairing that jumped and jived together, if feeling a bit like this was their first dance with each other on the same stage.
Had a bottle of 2008 Viñátigo Verdello Canary Islands with this food and more of a springtime twist a few months ago and it defined experiencing a bevy of newness all in a somewhat familiar package. Better pairing play there than here.
Total cost: About $75. Too much with the better pairing success that we've found with this food ($20-ish) and whites (the verdello and arneis) priced in the low-20's.