The smoke is still there (and no amount of arbitrary sectioning-off will get rid of that without a new, high-powered ventilation system), but the photos are out. Instead, Avalon's been recast in a warm, earthy palette of brick red and goldenrod, with bright impressionistic paintings and Tuscany touches.
The bar, fortunately, remains untouched and still looks like the inside of a mahogany tobacco box, while maintaining the low-key, indie-cool vibe that's always attracted restaurant professionals around town. On the late-night dining menu, intelligent riffs on classic bar food such as Pepe's chicken tenders (Southwestern style) and black beans con queso still take the concept of snacks-with-a-drink to a new level.
In the main dining room, large tables of the older, well-heeled crowd offset booths of their younger and more casually dressed counterparts. Likewise, a few old favorites remain on the menu interspersed with newer offerings. The escargot from the old days is still fragrant with garlic and comes with a tower of bread soaking in the buttery sauce.
The seasonal plate of strawberries and goat cheese drizzled in balsamic (a fresh addition) is an apt pairing, but sadly, there aren't quite enough strawberries to go around. Better are the tender Thai beef skewers, blasted with lemon grass and accompanied by a Technicolor sweet-hot dipping sauce. Along with a small but diverse wine list and an extensive array of microbrews, the little dishes get the job done of teasing the palate without overwhelming it.
Avalon always offered generous helpings once the main course came along, and nothing has changed in that respect. A fat, boneless duck breast gets a buzzy bite from an espresso rub with a raspberry sauce counterpoint over a heap of grilled new potatoes. The crab cakes are, thankfully, still as spectacular as ever, with nothing getting between the crabmeat and your mouth except for a little bit of sparky red chili sauce and raspberry mayonnaise.
The Avalon broil (a London broil topped with goat cheese) is unremarkable, but the Jamaican jerk pork, once tasted, will never be forgotten. Mounds and mounds of succulent, pulled pork perfumed with allspice and garlic hide a slow, insidious burn that the accompanying yogurt and cucumber slices can only partially mitigate. The black beans and rice nearly get lost under all the meat, but that's not a complaint two people can test their mettle with this dish and still have enough to take home for a sandwich the next day.
The real puzzle lies in what appears to be a series of discordant shortcuts. A large heap of bland peas flecked with carrots accompanies at least half the entrees, and although labeled "spring vegetables," it seems like spring for these little veggies has long passed. The artichoke gazpacho doesn't pass the fresh test either, and I can only wonder about the origin of my pound cake under its peach-schnapps-macerated strawberries. Throughout the menu, there's a lot of raspberry as well, and although it's never used injudiciously, the flavor seems a little dated in this day of ponzu and pomegranate.
For most diners, despite the new paint job and updated lighting, the most important thing is that Chef Q Derks (sister of Mike Derks of GWAR fame) is still in charge of the kitchen. Since her early days at Puzzles, Chef Q has honed a reputation for talented innovation and, along with Millie's, brought the concept of world cuisine and seasonal menus to the forefront in this town. Time's been tip-tapping along, however, and the rest of the local kitchens have been catching up. Avalon's menu is all over the place, from Asia to Italy, and although most dishes are done well, the leap from one to another seems a bit discordant. Derks still turns out a lovely plate, but perhaps it's not quite as singular as it used to be. S
Avalon Restaurant & Bar
2619 W. Main St.
Monday-Sunday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.