It feels like I just licked a toad.” That was the observation of a friend a few minutes after he sat down at Bar Biscay. He didn’t mean the food. He was referring to the oscillating lysergic energy of the room, in which different colored LED strips and floating tubes imperceptibly pulse from the ceiling and walls, and then somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly. A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
That’s how it is at Bar Biscay, from an all-star cast of Chicago restaurant veterans including, among others, Sari Zernich Worsham and Scott Worsham, owners of the tiny, magnificent, somewhat Spanish MFK, and chef Johnny Anderes, late of Honey’s, Reno, Telegraph Wine Bar, and most importantly, Avec.
They’re not just serving flashbacks at Bar Biscay, named for the Bay of Biscay, which washes the shores of northern Spain and southwestern France. That’s a place of pilgrimage for food lovers, and not simply where the two countries meet in French and Spanish Basque country. There’s Asturias. Galicia. Bordeaux. Gascony. Places where the spicing is restrained in service to the purity and simplicity of some of the best meat, fish, and vegetables in the world.
If food means a lot to you, it’s the kind of territory you’ll make sacrifices to visit if you have to. If you’re a chef, it’s the kind of food you might decide to tackle if you spent four years on the line at Avec, a restaurant that at the very least successfully evokes the joyfulness of what it’s like to eat in a place like that.
Still, adopting that concept is an audacious mission to take on when your restaurant is in the landlocked midwest. Anderes came to the project after two different chefs, one of them MFK vet Jeremy Leven, were announced to lead the kitchen, then suddenly, and for unspecified reasons, weren’t leading the kitchen anymore.
Maybe the sense of fluctuation contributes to the hallucinogenic qualities of Bar Biscay, which in some ways attempts to replicate a chic San Sebastián bar where everybody’s drinking red wine and Coke, snacking on pinxtos, and rolling on molly. For the record, the Worshams do not advocate a BYOM policy, but from 3 to 5 PM Tuesday through Saturday you can pretend you’ve made a stop on the txikiteo, the paradigmatic pinxto bar crawl, when the chef serves off-menu toothpick-speared bites—say, crab croquettes, or squid tentacle and guindilla peppers, or duck rillettes with cornichon. These are eaten mano a boca, “hand to mouth,” leaving your free digits to pinch your wine stem or grip your kalimotxo, the cola-and-wine cocktail that all the cool Spaniards drink.
There’s a cocktail on the menu that riffs on that dubious duo: a syrupy, too-flat, but more complex concoction called the Wrath of Kalimotxo, featuring amari, Atxa vermouth, and Angostura bitters all standing in for the soft drink. It’s herbal and nuanced in all the ways Coke isn’t, a drink that grows on you. There are other signifiers of the Spanish/Basque way of drinking, like house-barreled vermouth and crisp, citrusy gin and tonics on tap, though the inclusion of just one Basque cider is a bummer.
On the other hand, there’s an Ameztoi Rubentis rosé txakolina that’s as fresh and nostril tickling as any sparkler, along with a delightfully funky unfiltered Cauhapé Quest Gros Manseng from Jurançon in southwest France. And don’t be fooled by the Fief au Dames 2014 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine: it’s an inexpensive, infinitely drinkable, dry—not sweet—white available along with nearly 40 other interesting Spanish and French bottles. They’ve got the drinking game down at Bar Biscay.
But only teenagers drink without eating. The menu is far more codified than that at a lot of Basque bars, where it’s often not even written down. Among eight pinxtos, nibble hot and fluffy fried manchego gougeres and white anchovies threaded among grilled asparagus and green beans. Small slices of bread are schmeared with a dense white-bean puree crowned with piquillo pepper and olive or salt cod brandade with a topknot of orange salmon roe.
Along with appropriate cheeses and cured meats and a few canned conservas, say, high-quality Spanish sardines dressed with pickled fennel and red onion, or briny cockles washed in tart sherry butter, these are among the simplest and most resolutely regional bites on the menu. Anderes also offers fresh oysters, a scallop crudo, and fresh prawns, headless (perhaps these are being served at MFK?) and served curling over avocado halves sprinkled with a paprika-espelette pepper blend and drizzled with apple balsamic vinegar.
Vegetables get more complicated and meatier when ground squid mingles with green spring peas in a vivid plate topped with roasted red pepper toast, in homage to the Basque piperade. Meaty royal trumpet, oyster, and shimeji mushrooms sprout under a poached egg ready to erupt and mellow the intensely acidic sherry jus that bathes the plate. Sturdy greens hide soft gigante beans, fat clams, and an equal parts bracing and briny sherry vinaigrette integrated with minced serrano ham. Classic grilled green onions with thick and nutty tomato salbitxada sauce are strictly by the book, while Anderes can’t resist hiding melted leeks under a cheesy potato puree with crushed hazelnuts and sage.
With larger plates the chef really starts to go off script, but not without good results. Sausage-stuffed piquillo peppers are drenched in a rich and sharp manchego-suffused Mornay sauce (it’s usually made with Gruyere), and steak frites (unevenly cooked on one occasion) are smothered in a heavy sauce gribiche that performs as an extrachunky egg salad.
There are some extraordinarily hearty and heavily sauced dishes here. A mountain of jiggling, gloriously fatty and cartilaginous oxtail meat, its richness pierced with crisp watercress and herbaceous gremolata suffused with orange zest. A pot of braised boar shoulder with ham-bone-cooked black beans, wilted kale, and clams will have you bench-pressing your date, while a relatively delicate white, flaky hake fillet lurks under a bright, thick tomato sauce with green olives and fried ground and crisped serrano. One evening’s special featured slices of braised and tempura-battered tongue with pickled chicory.
Respite from the roller-coastering peaks and valleys of fat and flavor across Anderes’s menu may come with a delicate strawberry crepe with lemon Neufchatel cheese or various flavored cream puffs, though at the unhappy moment I tried the latter they were stiff as stone.
As good as we have it here in the midwest, our standards of perfection in product are generally nowhere nearly as good as it gets in the lands that meet the Bay of Biscay. As Americans, we compensate with in-your-face flavors, extra please, with extra sauce. Anderes delivers that, and delivers it well. In those terms it’s almost more of an American menu than a European one.
One of my favorite things about Bar Biscay is just how weird it is. Worsham told me the design was largely influenced by 50s and 60s minimalism as practiced by artists like Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Due to the aforementioned lighting scheme, all the white people in the restaurant take on the mauve complexion of an ancient but doomed alien race from a lost episode of Star Trek. Meanwhile the servers themselves are all adorned in Hawaiian shirts like an overcaffeinated Magnum P.I. fan club. Everybody else looks fine.
I’ve looked forward to Bar Biscay more than most recent openings, not only because of the track records of its protagonists, but for the very chimerical concept that seems so hard to pull off in Chicago (RIP Bom Bolla). It’s a fun riff on a magical part of the world, but it wasn’t what I was expecting in a lot of ways. v