Let’s face it; tapas and small plates are here to stay. A mainstay in restaurants across the globe, they offer a great way to sample many dishes, share with fellow diners, and experiment with a new spot’s menu without feeling, well, too gluttonous.
Since opening at the beginning of the year, Tavernita has been on the hot list of most Chicagoans. It is the latest spot from the Mercadito Hospitality group, best known for their flagship Mercadito restaurants in New York, Miami, and Chicago, popular for reinterpreting traditional Mexican cuisine. In fact, the three Sandoval brothers just made Chicago their home and company headquarters from New York City.
Similar to Mercadito, Tavernita is a buzzing room with an urban, yet rustic feel, which they pull off, while still making the space comfortable and warm. Next door is the Sandoval-owned Barcito, a bustling and crowed corner bar that is trying to capture the energy of the pintxo bars of the Basque country in northern Spain. Before (and yes, after) dinner, you should grab a seat at Barcito, starting and finishing your meal in a truly Spanish style.
As you might expect, the Tavernita menu is full of small plates, but unlike a straightforward tapas bar, Tavernita’s offerings are more European-inspired, with selections divided into three sections. “Crudos” includes raw seafood items like the oyster cocktail – a Samish Bay pickled oyster with mango, papaya, poached shrimp, and jalapeño relish. “En Pan” offers a loose interpretation of bruschetta like the coca de setas – a traditional Spanish flatbread -- topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions, fresh chèvre, and an herb salad. The “Platos” section covers some bigger plates such as a house-made lamb sausage served with chickpeas, and spicy giardiniera.
Chef Ryan Poli, formerly of Chicago’s Perennial, headlines at this eatery of the moment. Both chef and partner, Poli has been at the forefront of the Chicago culinary scene since opening Butter in 2005, which Esquire magazine named one of the country’s “Best New Restaurants.” In 2008, his Perennial restaurant garnered awards and attention from the Michelin Guide, Travel + Leisure, and Food & Wine. Trained in classic French and American cuisine, this Chicago native honed his craft by working at standout restaurants like Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Jean Banchet’s Le Francais. He also trained with Sergi Arola and Martin Berasategui in Spain, where he first became enamored with the country and its mix of traditional and modern cuisine.
“I fell in love with Spain while living there; the people, the culture and, of course, the food were all things that played a part. It was the little tapas bars in Madrid that planted the seed of wanting to cook Spanish food. But it would be years later, while living in Barcelona, that the idea started to become a calling for me,” Poli explains.
“When we opened Tavernita and Barcito, we wanted to do something different with Spanish food. We wanted to use the flavors and ideas of classic Spanish cuisine, but see [them] through a lens of an American-born chef. So, we are not a classic tapas restaurant; we are trying to introduce a different style of Spanish food to Chicago.”
During my tasting, I got to sample a few things from each section of the menu. The raw bar’s ceviche created an explosion of cilantro, oranges, and tomatoes that almost overpowered the fish. The divine Hamachi, on the other hand, was well balanced, with bright flavors from the lime and jalapeños.
The artichoke salad was a standout with salty chunks of blue cheese, arugula, cubes of yellow beets topped with artichoke chips. Similar to the look and feel of taro chips, this was something I’ve never had before and really liked. There is a healthy amount of vegetarian and fish on the menu, but if meat is what you crave, a house favorite is Greg’s Meatballs—a rich mix of Wagyu beef, port, in a hazelnut Romesco sauce.
Not to be outdone by the food, a vibrant beverage program includes the latest trend - specially kegged cocktails like the Booty Collins, a green tea-infused Absolut vodka, with passion fruit, lemon, cayenne, and yohimbe. There are also exciting, small-production wines offered on tap like a Garnacha from Catalonia.
Since its January 2012 opening, the restaurant and its adjoining “stand and eat” pintxo bar, has been named one of Chicago Magazine’s top three “Best New Restaurants.” Esquire magazine also predicted Tavernita to be a top contender for its 2012 best new restaurants list. If you're not able to get to Chicago anytime soon, you can try to recreate a little bit of Tavernita's Spain in your own home with the recipes below.
Optional for garnish: