I almost passed on Sociale. Why? It has no website. It has a Facebook page on which a barely readable photo of its menu was posted a full month after the restaurant opened. It has that ubiquitous vaguely urban upscale-sexy-nighttime-barstaurant vibe that really does it for the ladies of the South Loop. And for their dudes? Flat-screens, of course. There’s that ridiculous lisping name in a wispy font typically reserved strictly for nail salons. It’s got that something-for-everyone approach—coffee shop, bakery, cafe, tapas bar, brunch spot, with smoothies, craft cocktails, and a wood-fired oven—that indicates it’s probably not good at any one of them. Cosmetically, it’s as if it doesn’t want to be noticed.
But it also has at its helm John McLean, the Levy Restaurants vet who opened two competent but unremarkable restaurants near the unnavigable North/Halsted/Clybourn clusterfuck: Burger Bar and Sono Wood Fired. And well, Spanish is the new pizza these last few years, so why not? For that McLean tapped a relatively unknown veteran of Mercat a la Planxa as his chef de cuisine: Mark Sabbe, a former sous chef who should be noticed.
Turns out, the food at Sociale is far more than the sum of its cosmetic parts. Sabbe’s menu, dominated by hot and cold truly shareable small plates, is augmented by five small pizzas, and five large entrees. While not purely a tapas bar in the way of Wicker Park’s Bom Bolla, for example, Sociale has accommodations for big eaters that don’t get in the way of the main mission. In fact, there are some outstanding big plates for those who don’t want to just drink and snack.
You’ll definitely want to explore the tapas, which occasionally veer into experimental territory, such as with a deceptively named but irresistible-sounding house-made feta burrata, which is simply mild feta cheese whipped and piped into a mozzarella shell. Sounds improbable, but with a meaty charred eggplant puree and some crunchy semolina toast it really works. The traditional onion-and-potato Spanish tortilla, artfully arranged and studded with spinach, is draped with broad stripes of saffron aioli; grilled octopus is so tender it’s basically shellfish butter arranged among tart pickled fennel and smoky charred grapefruit.
More elaborate small plates like a chicken thigh in chorizo-and-white- bean stew and a soupy duck-confit cassoulet with sweet balsamic fennel (that bears little relation to a traditional cassoulet) almost make meals unto themselves.
Others are truly snacky; deep-fried olives burst brinily from their battered shells; skewers of pork belly are wrapped in serrano ham and drizzled with concentrated sherry jus; tiny chorizos are wrapped in potato sheets and deep-fried until crispy; brittle sizzling orbs of brandade crack open to reveal their soft hot-potato-and-salt-cod cores; large irregular lamb meatballs have enough gamy goodness to punch though a bright, thick tomato sauce.
You could happily work your way through this tapas menu, sipping away at the small but varied list of wines by the glass, or even a winey cocktail such as the Lisbon (bourbon, sweet vermouth, port). But to ignore the wood-fired flatbreads (what those outside of the restaurant industry call “pizza”) and the larger entrees would be to ignore the potent unsung talent hidden in this kitchen. Thin ovoid pies are rolled out to order and painted with house-smoked salmon and creme fraiche or, say, chorizo, Manchego, pickled red onion, and serrano bechamel and emerge blistered and bubbling. The Brie with bacon and onions, sprinkled with grated egg yolk, would make an ideal breakfast pizza if they fired up the oven during their morning cafe hours.
That oven turns out some remarkable entrees too: among them whole roasted branzino, roast chicken, and giant grilled red prawns that form a pyramid, their juices seeping into a pile of creamy saffron rice. But down at the very bottom of the menu is listed a pair of pork chops from the same black-hooved, acorn-finished pigs used to make jamon iberico. These are stunning pieces of meat, almost steaklike in texture and flavor. Served rare and full of fatty juices, they almost render the accompanying parsnip puree and chorizo-olive escabeche irrelevant. You’ll want to tear into these like a lion.
I encountered a few duds during my visits to Sociale: a dry, unlovely butter cake scattered haphazardly with raisins; underfried patatas bravas going soggy under too much red sauce; a sludgy eggplant-lentil soup that could’ve been brightened by more of the piquillo-pepper-infused yogurt garnish.
But the very last thing I ate at Sociale was the bougatsa: soft, sweet semolina custard wrapped in a crispy phyllo pocket dressed with orange-blossom honey alongside a frothy sabayon infused with the herbal liqueur genepi. It’s the kind of dessert that will make you never forget a very good restaurant that, at least outwardly, seems to want to be forgotten. v