July 30, 2009
This is less of a review than it is an intervention: Dudley Nieto, step away from the foam machine.
Chef Nieto, your name is virtually synonymous with Mexican food; I've lost count of how many Chicago kitchens you've overseen in your career, though from A (Adobo Grill) to Z (Zapatista), they all benefited from your presence. The last time I was eating your food, if memory serves, it was at the short-lived Xel-Ha, which I liked.
Then you switched to Spanish cuisine, signing on at Eivissa, a tapas concept that opened six weeks ago. As you point out, your father was Spanish and you spent some of your youth in Spain. Besides, if anyone has earned a break from his routine, you have. And there's plenty of room for imaginative Spanish food in this town.
But what you've created in Old Town is so jarring that I can't fully appreciate it.
For me, the problem is the foam. Way too much foam.
You take perfectly nice pintxos (Basque tapas) and trouble them with forced-air distractions such as the tomato-mint foam sitting over pink slices of duck breast and caramelized onions. A pinxto smothered in four-mushroom ragout is subjected to a "cheese air" that I absolutely could not discern, and I was trying. The escabeche of baby artichoke hearts is lovely; what's the point of the "aioli cumin air" along for the ride?
This sort of subtlety might work in a formal setting, where each dish gets its moment in the spotlight and precision-trained staffers explain every aspect of the creation. You can't do nuance effectively in a setting where plates hit the table, often in groups of two or three, in whatever order the kitchen sends them out. Whispers of flavor in a tapas bar are like whispers of financial strategy on the trading-pit floor. Who's going to notice?
These indulgences don't ruin the dishes, but they detract from their purity. I suspect you're just having a little fun out there, but it doesn't come off as fun. It comes off as contrived, as if you stumbled across a copy of "Molecular Gastronomy for Dummies" and are spritzing as many savory foams as you have CO2 cartridges.
Your simpler dishes work exceedingly well. Your gazpacho is the perfect antidote to a hot day, a piquant blend of tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers, accented with aged sherry vinegar. Steamed mussels are excellent, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt -- simplicity on a plate. Ditto for the grilled octopus, matched to a terrific romesco sauce made with ground Marcona almonds. And I liked the duck confit (pato confitado), which matches nicely the fig and red-wine sauce underneath -- though the "sweet-potato veil," apparently a paper-thin sheet of sweet-potato draped over the duck, was missing from my order.
Chupitos customarily are alcohol-based shot drinks but at Eivissa they're "liquid tapas" with intriguing components. The shrimp version is almost a re-run of the gazpacho, but for a dash of Pacharan (a plummy liqueur) that perks it up. The scallop with olives and tamarind-pineapple juice is a nice mix of sweet, tart and salty flavors, though the scallops are so finely chopped they didn't contribute much. The liquefied escabeche with shiitake mushrooms is a nice vegetarian inclusion, but it doesn't taste like anything.
Both the mustard-marinated lamb chops and the fideua (think paella, only with thin Valencia noodles), the latter loaded with seafood, are good entrees. Anyone considering large plates should go for these.
Desserts are fine. I liked the cocadas con helados (chocolate macaroons sandwiched with coconut ice cream) and the caramel flan. But I swear, the kitchen switched sauces on me, putting the pomegranate coulis under the flan and the raspberry coulis under the macaroons. They're both vivid red, so it's an easy mistake.
I like Eivissa. Servers know what they're doing, the hostesses are friendly, the bartender (mixologist?) makes good sangria and some fanciful cocktails and the space, from the sunny front bar to the dimly lit back area, has a nice, laid-back vibe.
The last place you'd be looking for foam, if you get my drift.
Eivissa1531 N. Wells St., 312-654-9500
Open: Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sun.; brunch Sun.
Entree prices: $13-$20
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
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