Though the menu bulges with Iberico hams, Manchego cheese and Spanish chorizo, the sense of place emanating from the unpretentious restaurant is sweet home, Chicago.
But it's mostly because, at its heart, Vera, named for the chef's grandmother (with an oblique nod to pimenton de la Vera, a Spanish smoked paprika that figures into several menu items), is a neighborhood hangout in an area studded with star chefs.
"Lot of cool chefs here," Mendez says. "Grant (Achatz, of Next) is a block away, Stephanie (Izard, of Girl & the Goat) is a block away, Jared Van Camp (of yet-to-open Nellcote) is a block away. Curtis Duffy's coming to this neighborhood too. Our location is a little deserted, but there's street parking. We had a valet, but he never came back after a few days because nobody used him."
That could change, as word of this 3-month-old restaurant spreads.
Quite a few people have found this modest spot; Mendez developed a following with his fine work at Carnivale the last few years. Leaping from Latin America to Spain wasn't difficult, the chef says. "I wanted to get to more simply presented and prepared stuff, get away from the 30-ingredient mole. I joke that it's an older-man thing; I just want to do a few dishes really well."
Vera is the kind of place where you can drop in after work for a quick ham, cheese and sherry snack, or order a half-dozen small plates and a bottle of wine and settle in for the night. Either way, you're not going to drop a lot of coin here: Nearly everything on the menu is $12 or less and, apart from the premium Iberico ham (there are more modest charcuterie available), the only item that costs more than $15 is the paella ($26), and that will serve at least two.
That paella is terrific, by the way, a game-rich version that comes across as a sort of rice-based cassoulet. The paella, redolent of garlic, onions and tomatoes, is loaded with chunks of duck chorizo (made in-house), shredded rabbit confit and pickled chilies, and topped with overlapping slices of roasted duck.
Work your way up to that with an assortment of smaller plates. Start with the $3 nibble of chicken liver and caramelized onions, laid in fat slabs over two toast squares, and go ahead and pop for the $6 plate of warm bread with olive oil and three compound butters: garlic, duck cracklin (butter combined with duck fat — mad genius) and chive. I miss the white-anchovy butter Mendez was offering a month ago but the chive is a very nice alternative.
Crudo — perhaps fluke, perhaps Kona Kampachi — comes brightened with Valencia-orange puree and some chili oil. Black cod, with olivada and cippolini onions, is nicely done, as is the cocoa-dusted foie gras, drizzled with reduced Pedro Ximenez syrup. But most of the knockout dishes are vegetables, including roasted mushrooms in thyme and marjoram, roasted beets with valdeon (a creamy Spanish blue cheese) and pistachios, and a wonderful puree of butternut and kuri squash with honey and marcona almonds.
There is but one dessert on the menu, a white-chocolate candy bar with almonds and orange zest. It's a nice sweet, but Vera needs more options.
Mendez's wife, Elizabeth, runs the dining room and assembled the restaurant's Euro-focused wine list and a well-curated assortment of sherries. "She does a lot more than I do," jokes the chef. She also has done a good job training the staff, most of whom can match sherries to plates (a great experience, if you've never tried it) with practiced ease.
Vera doesn't accept reservations, but, largely because of the relatively simple preparations, food arrives quickly and table waits aren't interminable. And if they happen to be, the small-plate dishes make great bar food.
1023 W. Lake St., 312-243-9770, verachicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $3-$15
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Not accepted
Other: Wheelchair accessible
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.