Friday, October 21, 2011

A first look at Vera Chicago

Posted By on 10.21.11 at 05:00 PM

Lamb albondigas with romesco
  • Lamb albondigas with romesco

On Wednesday night, in the midst of a gale, Vera Chicago, the new Spanish wine bar from Mark Mendez and his wife, Liz, opened in the former Rushmore space in the West Loop. Mendez, executive chef at Carnivale for a decade, has an unfussy hand skilled at bringing out the "essences" of ingredients—as evidence, check out the Key Ingredient he did with us—and this was one restaurant opening that, amid the ongoing blitz, I was genuinely excited about. So last night we stopped in for a bite.

I'm glad the Mendezes ditched their original name for the spot, Uva (Uva, meet OON—what's up with that?). The graceful "Vera" is a name far more suited to this cream-colored, high-ceilinged room with a handsome dark wood bar and cheese counter, an exposed brick wall, and black four-tops plus a row of two-tops with banquette seating.

The menu's divided into six sections—Cheese, Ham, Fish, Bread & Butter, Vegetable, and Meat—and ranges from classics like bacalao, ham-and-cheese croquettes, and lamb albondigas to a few big-ticket items such as a 48-ounce rib eye ($45). In addition to her front-of-the-house duties, Liz Mendez put together the wine list, which has 25 by the glass (each of them also available by the bottle), a feature flight of five for $15, and a range of bottles, including white and red wines from both old- and new-school Spain. She’s also offering a host of sherries by the glass, as well as European beers and Spanish ciders.

I started with a glass of Grant La Garrocha palomino fino, a recommendation by the server (it turned out to be only $5, bless her—how nice is it when places don't try to upsell?). Pale and on the dry side, it was perfect—as she'd also suggested—with ham. To go with that we tried the marinated olives, the best I've had in recent memory, and the bread and butter, a warm round of crusty bread served with extra-virgin olive oil and a trio of flavored butters: garlic, duck crackling, and sea urchin. Both were portioned generously enough to be too much for two—I'd suggest dining here with a group of three or four.

That would also allow you to sample more of chef Mendez's menu,* which under Fish alone offers anchovies, mackerel escabeche, marinated sardines, grilled octopus, and black cod with clams and butifarra sausage in saffron broth. Vegetables include toasts with garbanzo beans and goat cheese, papas bravas, roasted turnips with espelette pepper, chard with raisins and pine nuts, and brussels sprouts with crispy ham and black truffle. Under Meat: toasts with chicken liver and caramelized onions, beef tripe with morcilla sausage and garbanzos, and fideos (thin vermicelli-like noodles) with chicken and a poached egg.

Faced with this wealth of options, we decided to go the traditional route on this visit, and ordered the paella, which takes about 20 minutes or so to prepare. Chef Mendez's version has duck chorizo and rabbit; pickled red onions and peppers add crunch and acidity. Served in a smaller version of the traditional shallow paella pan, it had a socarrat, crispy rice bottom, more respectable than you usually find. Among the wines our server suggested as an accompaniment, she pointed to a Zestos garnacha from Madrid, again considerate of cost. It's just $6 a glass, $24 for a bottle—a steal.

At around 7 PM the place began to fill up with the stiletto-and-ostentatious-handbag set, so I'd suggest going early if you want a relaxed, congenial meal as compared to a scene. The downside of that: then you can hear the music, the likes of Elton John and Perry Farrell.

* The menu appears to have been tweaked since I received a copy, so some of these items may have changed.

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