Get A Life – April 21, 2006

By Jane Lopes

Avec. French for “with.”

I don’t really understand the name. I suppose it’s just one of those one-word restaurant names that’s in a different language because it sounds prettier. I grew up on Avenida Miraflores in the town of Tiburon, California. It’s much better than Avenue of the Watch-Flowers in Shark, California. Agreed?

I don’t begrudge them the name because calling the restaurant “With” would have sounded worse. Yet, they would never have named it “With”—they would have just found another equally meaningless but aurally pleasing foreign word.

Anyway, the food is good enough at Avec that you won’t care what the name is once you start eating. Avec’s menu is composed of a dozen small plates, half a dozen large plates, as well as a few specials, cheeses, and desserts. I would recommend splitting a couple of 250-mL “carafinos” of wine with a friend as well as a few of the small plates. They’re more interesting choices than the large plates.

As for the small plates, Avec is rightfully famous for their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates wrapped in smoked bacon in a piquillo pepper-tomato sauce. They come piping hot in a rustic dish accompanied by ciabatta bread, all on a wooden tray. The dates’ sweetness mixes perfectly with the differing spicy and smoky pork tastes of the chorizo and bacon. Although the tomato sauce tastes like a watered-down salsa, it certainly did not subtract from the dish. The history of the medjoool date is interesting; apparently the plant originated in Morocco and was saved from extinction by the Chariff of the country when he sent 11 palms to be replanted in the United States. But beyond being a realty group in Miami and the name of a German house artist, “Chariff,” for all I can tell, is a made-up word. I can only find it in the context of this mysterious “Chariff of Morocco” who saved the medjool date plants when disease threatened the crop. Anyone who has ever written an article on the medjool has probably repeated the title because they wanted to sound like they knew what everyone else was talking about.

Back to the food—the brandade is another good small plate. Brandade (pronounced brahn-dod) is a traditional French dish of pureed salt cod, milk, and olive oil. It is much more appetizing than it sounds. And I’m pretty sure that there are some potatoes and cheese in it as well—ingredients that improve just about anything. This dish comes with slightly burnt and buttery crostini—crispy on the outside but doughy and warm in the middle. The brandade itself is marvelous as well, dripping with olive oil, thick and gooey. The salt cod adds a crunchy texture without an overwhelming fishy flavor. The English pea crostini, another small plate, is also incredible—a puree of peas and fava beans on that same delectable crostini, topped with pine nuts, red onions, garlic, mint, and lots of olive oil.

My qualm with Avec—besides the name—is that the tables are too wide for the noise level, especially on a weekend night. I had to lean over, dragging my elbows over every dish I ordered, just to hear my dining companion. Which leads me to my second problem: salt comes in a dish. Though I couldn’t put my elbow in a saltshaker, if you have the salt in a dish, I will probably manage to stick my elbow in it. I admire Avec for putting salt and pepper on the tables in the first place—I hate when nice restaurants don’t and then make you feel incredibly gauche when you ask for it. But wooden dishes? And to make matters worse, you’re supposed to serve the salt with a tiny wooden paddle that cannot be called a spoon. It is completely flat, making it impossible to put the right amount of salt on your food (and the right amount, which is to say none, on the table).

Ultimately, these are very nitpicky grievances. Avec, no matter what it means, spells good food in a lively setting. And the populace agrees—be prepared to wait for a seat, as Avec does not take reservations. Also, be ready to get cozy with your neighbors. There are only a few long wooden tables that everyone shares.

Avec. With. Let me try to explain: a restaurant where friends meet with one another to see and be seen. A restaurant where the exceedingly modern meets with the self-consciously provincial. A restaurant where excellent food is paired with impeccably chosen wines for an overall fantastic dining experience. I guess that makes sense.