River West’s Avec reels in oceans of praise for its red snapper, out-tasting that enjoyed in Bali

While I was in Bali on a recent shoot, a sun-blistered fisherman suggested which red snapper I should buy for lunch from among the several he’d caught a few hours earlier from the Indian Ocean.

I returned to my oceanside hotel and handed my one pound, 50 cent bounty to the chef and asked him to whip it up Balinese-style for me.

The tab for the entire char-grilled fish, a mound of white rice and tossed salad cost less than $2 two-dollars and was quite delicious. But after a few bites I was stunned to realize that the red snapper I’d enjoyed at Avec, 615 W. Randolph, before I left for Bali, was better. Much better.

I know Avec doesn’t have an ocean back in that kitchen, so how do they beat out in spades my Bali seafood that went directly from ocean-to-plate in almost less time than it takes to be seated at always-packed Avec?

Not only was my leek and kumquat-laced red snapper one of the best foods I’ve ever put in my mouth, the octopus was even better.

To be honest, I’ve always had something against Avec. Maybe it was because everyone in the city was dying to eat there, if they hadn’t already. I just coyly stuck with my tiny ethnic discoveries and called it a day.

But when a friend invited me to join her for an early Sunday dinner and said she was buying, how could I refuse.

We sat down at one of the primo tables. My friend took charge of ordering some excellent wines, and I gobbled up the warm, crusty bread that was served with very green, very fruity olive oil.

I started with a salad of paper-thin raw artichokes and mushrooms with smoked onions, raw onion and radicchio. My tastebuds fell in love at first bite.

If I’d been alone I’d have slammed that pile of veggies down in no time. My friend ate so slowly and purposefully, savoring every bite, that I was forced to follow suit.

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 that tender.

My mouth was in a flurry over this dish, when our whole red mostly deboned snapper arrived. I just couldn’t get over the flavors of everything. What had I been missing out on all this time? I finished up with a perfect latte.

THE FINAL RAVE: To guarantee that you get a much-coveted table and not a bar stool in the tiny strip of a restaurant, arrive promptly at 3:30 p.m. when Avec opens.

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 capital 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 ( www.bandungrestaurant.com)
Chicago lacks Indonesian restaurants, so you’ll have to make the trek to charming Madison, Wisconsin to get your fill.

GET CRAZY WITH IT: Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph
This is Avec’s sister restaurant and I’m told the food is even better. How is that possible?

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