March 29, 2012
Chicagoans have been enjoying a mini-boom of Spanish flavors of late. First there was Vera, which opened late last year in the Market District, and now Tavernita, which has been packing them in since its January opening in River North.
And what a contrast the two provide. Vera (which I reviewed in January) is the low-key neighborhood charmer with a husband-wife ownership team and a thoughtful, compact menu. Tavernita, part of the Mercadito restaurant family, is very much the high-energy operation, with the look and feel (and relentless, beat-driven sound wall) of a nightclub where the cocktails are ever-flowing and the small-plates menu is approachable and fun.
But "fun" food doesn't mean trivial. Tavernita has a real chef in Ryan Poli, late of Perennial (now Perennial Virant), and Poli's work, more than the scene, is why Tavernita deserves your attention.
The user-friendly menu includes the obligatory assortment of crudos, though they're presented in interesting ways. Thin salmon slices are topped with piquillo peppers and marcona almonds; ceviche has so much going on (tomatoes, ginger, cilantro, celery) that it looks like a shallow gazpacho. Fluke crudo arrives in a jumble of chopped tomatoes, artichokes and pine nuts; visually it's a mess, but a pretty tasty one.
There are around 10 vegetarian dishes on the menu, and they represent some of Poli's best efforts. Principal among them are the artichoke salad, in which crisp-fried artichokes share a bowl with beets, arugula and salty Spanish mahon cheese; escalivada, a trio of crostini piled high with eggplant, red peppers, hazelnut romesco and goat cheese; and house-made pappardelle, with manchego cheese and a mushroom ragout so intense you'll swear there's meat in there. Include these three in your dinner order, and I promise you'll go home happy.
Of the menu's two cocas (flatbread pizzas), the easy seller is the mushroom and goat cheese version with caramelized onions. But the other option, the coca with orange-arugula salad and piles of shredded duck, is the one you ought to try.
Other hits include bite-sized pork-belly bocadillos, with apple and onion accents on small brioche buns; sturdy meatballs of pork and wagyu beef with more of that tasty hazelnut romesco; octopus with a yummy olive tapenade; and scallops with grapes, almonds, croutons and an ajo blanco (a Spanish garlic-almond soup).
Crispy cod comes with cipollini onions and habanero chimichurri sauce that delivers a gentle bit of heat to the back of your throat. Suckling pork confit is highlighted by a sweet and tart sherry vinegar and caramel sauce. Rib-eye steak arrives in bite-sized pieces over sweet-and-sour fennel, topped with dabs of habanero butter.
Desserts are simple and sweet. A trio of custards includes milk chocolate topped with raspberries, passion-fruit-almond with crystallized pumpkin seeds and pistachio with cookie crumbles. Pan con chocolate is a variation of a kids' treat: toasted brioche rectangles and piped chocolate cremeaux sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt. Best might be the fried milk pudding, flavored with cinnamon and citrus, served warm alongside marcona almond ice cream.
Adjacent to the dining room is Barcito, a separate lounge with its own light-bites menu and cocktails (the rum-sherry-ginger Storm in the Cellar is the best cocktail I had in either space); Poli calls it "a rock 'n' roll bar with pintxos (Basque tapas)," a description I can't improve. Disappearing glass doors transform Barcito into an open-air bar in good weather; on such days, plan to arrive by 6 p.m. if you harbor any hope of sitting down. Then again, with a web address of standandeat.com, Barcito apparently doesn't expect many people to sit.
The main dining room is considerably more comfortable; there are rows of free-standing tables as well as raised semicircular booths wrapped in tufted leather. Gold, burnished wood and metallic decorative accents abound; the glamorous look seems curiously at odds with the tri-fold paper menus and rustic food, but it seems to be playing well with the public.
Beverages include a short selection of beers, a compact wine list, house-made sodas and a cocktail list that's intriguing for its selection of "kegged" cocktails. These are cocktails made in batches, kept in small kegs and preserved in nitrogen. It sounds like a marketing euphemism for "pre-made," but the premise, I'm told, is twofold; kegging allows the flavors to develop together (as flavors do, say, in day-old soup) and gives the bar a half-dozen or cocktails that can be dispensed instantly. I'm not completely sold on the idea — I liked the hand-mixed cocktails here better — but in a crowded lounge, the prospect of getting one's drink quickly has a certain appeal.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
151 W. Erie St.; 312-274-1111; tavernita.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday
Entree prices: $13-$24
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
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.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC