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Red Snapper Wonderland

Bali ain't got nothing on Avec.
Monday Mar 27, 2006.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Red snapper that trumps fresh-from-the-water catches in Bali.
photo: Misty Tosh
One hour ago, a sun-blistered fisherman gently suggested which red snapper I should buy for lunch. He'd caught several dozen of the small fish straight from the Indian Ocean this morning, and he was proud as a papa to have me purchase one from his mini roadside hut. My one-pound bounty cost me less than 50 cents.

I promptly swaggered straight back to my oceanside hotel, handed my catch to the smiling chef (everyone smiles all the time in Bali) and had him whip it up Balinese-style for me: a char-grilled whole fish served with five sauces (from mild to my-mouth-is-on-fire spicy), a huge mound of white rice and a small tossed salad. It cost me less than $2 and was quite delicious.

But after a few bites I was utterly stunned to realize that the red snapper I'd enjoyed at Avec last week before I left for Bali was better. Much better. How is that possible? This was a fish caught straight from the ocean and plated within hours.

I'm guessing the kitchen crew at Avec has miles of magic going on behind those doors, because not only was my leek- and kumquat-laced red snapper one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth, the octopus was even better. This coming from a girl who has literally watched a snorkeler spear an octopus off the coast of Mexico and then seen it get tossed straight on the grill within an hour or so. It was sheer bliss at the time, but again, Avec managed to trump it.

I've always had something against Avec. Maybe it was because everyone in the entire world talked about it like it was the second coming. I coyly stuck with my tiny ethnic discoveries and called it a day. But a friend invited me to join her there for an early dinner and she was buying. How can I say no to that on a Sunday afternoon?

We sat down at one of the primo tables, ordered a plethora of wine (I let her do all the talking here) and gobbled up the warm, crusty bread that was served with very green, very fruity olive oil. Starting with a salad of paper-thin raw artichokes and mushrooms with smoked onions, raw onion and radicchio, I took one bite and my tastebuds fell in love. If I'd been alone (as I usually dine), I would have slammed that pile of veggies down in no time. But she ate so slowly (as you're supposed to, I assume), and I was forced to follow suite.

Next up was the crushed tomato and olive-oil-braised octopus nestled with baby spinach and a delightful pancetta vinaigrette. Served sizzling in a mini cast iron skillet, I could have used a spoon it was so tender. My mouth was in a flurry over this dish, but when our whole red snapper arrived (it was de-boned for the most part) I almost lost it when she took a bigger piece than me.

I finished up with a perfect latte and thought about my upcoming two-week trip to Bali. And exciting as it is, I can't wait to get back. I know where I'll be come 3:30 in the afternoon on Sunday.

The Final Rave: To guarantee that you get a much-coveted table and not a barstool in the tiny strip of a restaurant, arrive promptly at 3:30 when the doors open.

Keep It Going:

Read it: Fragrant Rice
Janet de Neefe moved to Bali years ago and now has a mini-empire, including hotel, cooking school and several restaurants. This wonderful book chronicles her start in the Balinese food world. Delicious recipes are included.

Drink it: Coconut Killer
This is THE summer drink and comes to you straight from Ubud, the culinary capitol of Bali. Take equal parts white rum, Bacardi and Midori and toss them in a blender. Add three small scoops of coconut ice (sorbet will do). Toss in a handful of ice and blend. Your mouth will thank you later.

Eat it: Bandung
Sadly, Chicago doesn't have an Indonesian restaurant to call it's own, so you'll have to make the trek to charming Madison to get your fill. I'll head there when I return to compare and contrast.

Get crazy with it: Blackbird
This is the sister restaurant of Avec and I'm told the food is even better. How is that possible?

Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.


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Get divey on Grace; go downstairs at River North's Curio.

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