Telegraph (Chicago): Chef Johnny Anderes gives a French kiss to his American contemporary small plates

Telegraph's anchovy tartine

Food influences wine and wine influences food at Telegraph; chef Johnny Anderes and sommelier Jeremy Quinn work collaboratively and inspire each other’s offerings. Photo courtesy of Telegraph

Is it a wine bar with food? Or a restaurant with a wine bar?

If you ask that question about Logan Square’s hip and happening Telegraph, you might go through a bottle or two while pondering it.

Yes, sommelier Jeremy Quinn has received numerous shout outs for his carefully curated list of naturally made Old World wines. He recently landed, for example, on Food & Wine’s Top Sommeliers of 2012 list.

Chef Anderes thinks seasonally, and changes his small-plates menu about every six weeks, with some tinkering in the interim.  Photo courtesy of Telegraph

But chef Johnny Anderes’ name also keeps coming up as a “chef to watch,” as critics and diners alike applaud his rustic, European-tinged small plates.

The duo is quite simpatico, working closely on their separate menus.

“The way our minds work is very seasonal,” Anderes says.  “And the wines [Quinn] brings in, they lean toward European regions that I may be looking at on my own.”

And Quinn characterizes his working relationship with Anderes (Avec) as the best he’s ever had with a chef, he says.

Outgoing and affable, Anderes is a dedicated follower of classic French cooking technique, and many of his dishes — regardless of flavor profiles — are prepared accordingly.  (Anderes’ bio says he inherited his love for French fare from his grandfather, a commercial pilot who developed a passion for seasonal French cooking during his overseas travels.)

The chef, however, is willing to tinker with some modern stuff, and has been known to pull out the sous vide on an “as needed” basis.

“We know how to do it and when not to use it,” he says.  “It’s just another weapon we have.”

The chef attempts to keep his fare simple, but some of his flavor-forward dishes are more complex than they initially appear.  Photo courtesy of Telegraph

Anderes’ seasonally focused menu goes through an overhaul roughly every six weeks, with some tweaking here and there.

“For the past six weeks, it’s been manic with the growing season taking off,” says Anderes, who tries to anticipate what’s ahead — so he’s not left scrambling.

He tries to keep his flavor-forward dishes relatively simple, without overdoing it on the various components.  “That can be anywhere from five to 12 ingredients [per plate], but we try to keep it pretty minimal.”

Still his well-prepared cuisine “may appear to be simple,” he adds.  “But once you dig down into it, you see that it’s not always that simple.”

With free rein to be creative, “I feel like a little kid every day,” says Anderes, who doesn’t anticipate resurrecting anything he’s done so far.  “Coming back to dishes doesn’t seem necessary at this point.”

Telegraph’s owners regularly send their team on inspirational research trips.  “Traveling is a huge, huge necessity for anyone who is creative,” Anderes says.  He recently spent time in Provence, France, cooking, dining out and garnering ideas.  So diners should expect to see his experiences play out in his upcoming menu.

Anderes is not ready to repeat any of his past creations, so diners should enjoy his plates while they are available.  Photo courtesy of Telegraph

“I’ve got Provence on my mind.  So you’ll be seeing a lot more southern French cooking at Telegraph.”

With so many changes ahead at Telegraph, our spring visit — with ultra-cool friends Dan and Justine — might seem superfluous at this point.  But our selections may still provide insight into the way Anderes’ nimble mind works.

The Husband, Dan and Justine had already started ordering when I walked in the door, a half hour late, starving and totally stressed out from a bad fight with Chicago’s rush-hour traffic.

Thankfully, house mixed greens ($10) with a palate-pleasing mix of accoutrements — pickled golden beets, cukes, roasted almonds and an herbaceous dash of creamy coriander vinaigrette — was sitting pretty on my plate. Discs of whipped foie gras ($12) soon followed. Sitting atop toast rounds, the rich liver was complemented by sweet drips of cassis de Bourgogne, fresh herbs and sprinkling of feisty pink peppercorns.

But what finally got me to relax — besides endless refills of my wine glass — was ooey-gooey Swiss chard tartine with roasted cauliflower gratin ($10).  The equivalent of a French open-faced sandwich, Anderes’ spin was topped with (be still my heart) creamed veggies and melted cheese.  All got a nice going-over under the broiler.

Moving on to proteins, Dan selected house-made bratwurst ($10), which proved a good pick.  The homespun brat was plated with a savory-sweet mix of orecchiette pasta, smoked spring onions and plump golden raisins.

Grilled hanger steak ($22) with roasted artichokes, green apples and a tangy-creamy epoisses sauce might have scored higher with our group had it not been followed by Anderes’ pièce de résistance — whole roasted snapper (MP).

I was glad to have the opportunity to sample this now-gone dish.  (I hope the chef will reconsider his “no repeats necessary” approach for this one.)  Anderes’ preparation was simple.  A little fennel oil.  Some fleur de sal.  A few squeezes of lemon.  And that was precisely the right approach, as it enabled the mildly sweet flavor of this fresh fish to radiate through.

Icebox cake may not have a huge following in Europe, but it is currently trending here; Telegraph’s mint version references Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies.  Photo courtesy of Telegraph

Dessert was a total no-brainer.  We went with icebox cake ($9), which apparently is currently “trending.” Pastry chef Katie Wyer’s version reminded our group of nouveau Girl Scout Thin Mints.  Here, layers of chocolate wafers and mint mousse were married in the icebox and then served with house-made chocolate sauce and green cardamom-mint syrup.

Not completely sure if the French serve icebox cake.  But our group was sure glad Telegraph does.

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