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Vera: a celebration of Spanish simplicity 

A winning little wine bar represents two restaurant veterans' escape from Carnivale

click to enlarge Mackerel escabeche with romesco sauce - JOE BACHMANN

I kicked off a seven-day Thanksgiving binge with my second visit to Vera, the highly anticipated Spanish wine bar from former Carnivale husband-and-wife team Mark (chef) and Elizabeth (sommelier) Mendez. It was a prelude in stark contrast with the subsequent digestive tsunami of chili dogs, french fries, pepperoni bread, tater tots, beef jerky, cheese popcorn, deep-fried stuffing balls, sour-cream mashed potatoes, chocolate-pecan pie, bourbon, rye, more bourbon, Bloody Marys, and, of course, turkey. The only greenery I ingested was a chopped salad dressed with a bacon vinaigrette that my twisted sister spiked with a half g's worth of Splenda.

I didn't eat anything like that at Vera. Well, it's a stretch, but there was the green romesco sauce smeared under the chef's mackerel escabeche, the briny, oily fish crisp and lightened and brightened by the acid-washed radiance of the sauce. The memory of it cut through the fog that descended after a week of heavy American comforts.

Vera is likely to have a similar effect on lots of diners. Mark Mendez recently told the Reader, "I don't do subtle food." And even before leaving Jerry Kleiner's Carnivale, he made much of his desire to cook simply, from scratch, with premium, local-if-possible products, something he struggled with but still accomplished with impressive regularity at the 600-seat juggernaut.

Now, in an environment with a radically decreased volume in both production and decibels, that approach bears out consistently across a mutating menu, on which prices are low and a great many of the small plates prove to be truly shareable. Despite that, it's the sort of place that will attract solo diners to the bar for cheese and cured meats. But they'll face significant hurdles if they expect to sample a representative cross-section of the menu in one sitting.

A whole meal could indeed be made simply from a few glasses of leathery Black Slate garnacha Porrera and the chef's tripe, morcilla, and garbanzos, an offal plate so textured and soulful I had to order it on two separate visits. It's a dish whose disparate elements are harmonized perfectly—crispy iron-fortified sausage coins spread across nutty legumes that mingle with the silky, funky flavor sponge of the honeycomb reticulum absorbing the tomatoey sofrito.

It's possible to gorge on substantially meaty plates such as this at astonishing value—a crispy baseball-size beef-stuffed potato croquette in a puddle of gazpacho-like salmorejo sauce is a mere $4. A pair of chubby, garlicky lamb chorizos on a glistening bed of roasted onions and greens will set you back $12.

But a proper paella is a rare species in this town, and I was let down just a bit by Vera's unusual version of this most iconic of Spanish dishes. The absorbent fat-saturated bomba rice, larded with shreds of rabbit meat and slices of duck breast (a winning application for such an overfamiliar protein), is given acidity from pickled cherry bomb peppers, and is certainly tasty. Mine lacked only the crispy socorrat that's scraped up from the bottom of the pan to give the dish its essential texture. Still, at $26 it's a satisfying pan of grains that would easily feed three.

I'm most excited to see what Mendez does with vegetables as the seasons change. Right now he's roasting: turnips softened and buttery, electrified by a sprinkling of espelette pepper, mushrooms scattered over smooth fungal puree, beets tossed in a blue cheese and pistachio "butter"—winter vegetables in their proper context.

But like the escabeche, the fish dishes are some of the most vivid, almost springlike in their buoyancy: a formation of cured anchovies dressed minimally with pickled garlic and vegetal celery leaves; black cod fillet topped with green olive tapenade spiked with lemon zest; a tangle of grilled octopus inflamed with smoky pimentón; a crock of light, fluffy bacalao, the cod unburdened by the usual preponderance of potato.

There's no dessert menu at Vera, which, intentionally or not, places the focus on the cheese selection, with a healthy midwestern representation served at the proper ambient temperature. It's best to save these for last anyway, if only to start with bread and butter: a dense boule accompanied by three luscious compound butters—roasted garlic, duck cracklings, and goat—along with a pool of outstanding peppery Spanish Castillo de Canena olive oil. Charging for bread service still tends to spark an instinctive annoyance in me, particularly when there are so many precious sauces to sop up. But for $6 it's a steal.

I've been dwelling a lot on the chef's food at the expense of the sommelier's selections. This is primarily a wine bar, after all, and Elizabeth Mendez's affordable, unusual list— which includes wines from underrepresented regions (Portugal, Switzerland) and a impressive range of sherries by the glass—is reason enough to venture to this West Loop corner in the shadow of the Green Line. It's going to be thrilling to watch her and her husband fully express themselves in ways they never could as soldiers in the erstwhile Kleiner Empire.

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