We’re slowly blogging our way through our recent Chicago eating extravaganza (and we’re almost done). Today’s post summarizes three of our experiences with establishments owned by the One Off Hospitality Group, the management company responsible for several of Chicago’s great dining and drinking establishments: Blackbird, avec, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Big Star, The Violet Hour and Nico Osteria. The partnership is headed by Paul Kahan, who also serves as the Executive Chef of most of the aforementioned restaurants. They definitely have a Midas touch with follow-on restaurants since Blackbird originally opened in 1999. True to their name, each one of One Off’s spots is unique and delivers a different dining experience, from the most casual to upscale white tablecloth service.
We have eaten at several One Off places in the past and still managed to hit three of them with our recent trip. To help celebrate the BarFly’s milestone birthday, we decided to start the evening at The Violet Hour with a small cocktail party. Open for almost seven years, The Violet Hour is perhaps the original craft bar in Chicago that helped spawn the Windy City’s artisinal cocktail revolution. Located directly off the Blue Line on Damen Ave, it is very nondescript on the outside, with a white graffiti-covered exterior (it’s the building past the child care center):
They have posted house rules that include the following items:
- No cell phone use inside lounge.
- Please, no baseball hats.
- No O-Bombs. No Jager-Bombs. No bombs of any kind.
- No Budweiser. No light beer. No Grey Goose. No Cosmopolitans.
- And finally, please do not bring anyone to The Violet Hour that you wouldn’t bring to your mother’s house for Sunday dinner
We didn’t have a problem with any of those rules and were led through a dark, candlelit maze to our table. All drinkers are seated on lounge couches or cushions, as no standing is allowed anywhere inside the speakeasy. Our group had a few rounds of excellent cocktails, each one taking a few minutes to arrive as they are meticulously mixed by the bartenders:
The entire bar is lit only by candlelight, creating a mellow lounge-type atmosphere. They do have a “sustenance” menu that allowed us to sample their snacks, including elevated hot dog bites and excellent French fries. Near the end of our drinking session, they brought out a celebratory milk and cookie plate on the house:
The Violet Hour serves some of the best cocktails in Chicago and service is efficient and friendly. We went there to launch a night of celebration and they most certainly delivered on that front.
We could have easily made an evening of eating and drinking at The Violet Hour, but we had plans to go to their sister restaurant, The Publican, One Off’s third restaurant they opened five years ago. The Publican’s main focus is on all parts of the pig, but there are plenty of excellent seafood items as well. The modern gastropub is meant to be a gathering place for all, with mostly communal seating for about 120 diners:
We started with their deliciously airy and crispy house-made Spicy Pork Rinds along with a platter of Serrano ham:
Having already gone through several rounds of cocktails, we all shared some bottles of a 2012 Gavi white wine from Piemonte and a 2009 Cote-de-Beaune Burgundy to pair with our meal. They also have a great charcuterie program — an order of chicken livers would normally come pre-spread on crostini, but since we were a larger group of seven, the doubled-up order of the tasty offal arrived in a mound:
We actually ate about ten different dishes that evening, including blood sausage, crispy fried whole perch fish and the beef sirloin. In order to keep the post brief, we chose to highlight only a few of the dishes. Maybe we were drunk, but the “Snail Sausage” sounded and tasted really good to us. But seriously, we do not think that there were any actual snails in this white sausage (perhaps made with chicken and pork?); rather the reference was to the shape that the sausage might have taken before being grilled (i.e. coiled):
Lastly, the thick slice of Porchetta accompanied by baked apple and walnut aillade (a sauce made with the walnut oil, walnuts, garlic and parsley) was excellent. The pork roll contained just enough fat to help absorb all of the alcohol that we had already imbibed and warded off any hangovers the next morning:
On a previous visit we had eaten at Blackbird, the original One Off restaurant, and liked our experience very much. We probably would have returned had we spent more time in Chicago; however, we have found that we really enjoy the follow-on sister restaurants of the Publican and avec much more, so we decided to dine at those places instead.
With no reservations taken and room for only 50 diners in the 1500 square foot shoebox-shaped restaurant, a seat at avec could be a hard one to get. All seating is communal — it is not uncommon to rub elbows with your fellow diners, but the Mediterranean-inspired small plates are so good, it’s worth the wait and lack of intimacy. Opened in 2003, avec is located literally next door to its big sister restaurant Blackbird (brick building on left):
avec has the kind of wine list we prefer, comprised primarily of old world Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French wines. We started our evening with a bottle of Luis Pato Sparkling Baga Rosé from Portugal. With a slightly fruity nose, the bubbles helped wake up our palates for the meal to come:
The menu is broken out into small and large plates, plus salumi and cheese courses. On the menu since the first day they opened a decade ago, the sweet and spicy chorizo-stuffed medjool dates are just as good today, especially when accompanied by their excellent heath-baked bread:
The seared shrimp with corona beans were topped with a radish greens pesto and radish slices. The citrusy limoncello vinaigrette added just the right amount of acidity to the perfectly cooked shrimp:
Sweet corn panzanella salad was mixed in with nectarines, arugula, and cherry tomato halves. Bits of Calabrian cherry bomb chiles added just the right amount of spice to the sweet bread salad:
Oyster mushrooms were served with roasted artichokes, goat feta, and endive. This deliciously earthy dish was dressed with a slightly tangy black garlic vinaigrette:
For our sole large dish, we ordered the whole roasted fish served Mediterranean-style with olives, fennel, arugula, charred orange and lavender vinaigrette. The fish itself changes based on availability, and the daurade was flaky, fresh and delicious, especially with the acidity added by a squeeze of the charred orange:
We were too full for dessert, but we made room to share an assorted cheese platter accompanied by more of the excellent bread, grapes, quince paste and wild flower honeycomb:
The One Off concept projects are all winners, each offering their own individual take on excellent food and drinks. We haven’t quite made our way through all of the different One Off places, noting that it would be difficult to get through them all in one trip, especially since Chicago has lots of great restaurants. However, knowing that the Publican gastropub and the Mediterranean tapas-oriented avec are consistently good, it’s almost always on our list when we take a pilgrimage to the Windy City.
Great post – made me drool.
I’ve only tried The Violet Hour and Blackbird. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to come back and try the rest – but then again there’s so many other places I’d also like to try in Chicago.
So little time, such a long distance, so many other places to see…
You are so right GoGlobe. There are just way too many good places in Chicago that it’s hard to narrow down if you do ever make it back there. Hopefully you do make it back one day.