Newer Spanish restaurants in Chicago—and I’m talking about Vera (which is almost three years old) and the upstart MFK—have pursued a rigorously minimal approach, focusing on just a few excellent ingredients in each dish and cooking them simply, without a lot of manipulation. There haven’t been many complaints, as far as I’ve heard. And though we haven’t been deluged with Spanish food like we have with Italian, I’m not unhappy that the latest chef to put a foot on the Iberian Peninsula is doing something a bit different.
Salero owner Franco Gianni and his partners operated two new restaurants in town (in addition to one other) until last week, when Chrissy Camba’s unusual Filipino restaurant Laughing Bird closed after just five months in Lincoln Square. For the much newer Salero, they tapped Ashlee Aubin, the chef from their Boystown small-plates joint Wood and a veteran of restaurants as disparate as HB Home Bistro and Alinea. Unlike Wood (and previous generations of Spanish restaurants), Salero is not about small plates. It’s about appetizers and big entrees—unless you’re sitting at the bar in the front room, where you can access a small menu of Basque-style pinxtos, served up for a few bucks a piece. A fat red pepper stuffed with oxtail meat perched on a piece of wood-grilled toast is a nice little bite, though I likely will never understand the appeal of mincing good Spanish ham and deep-frying it mixed up in creamy croquetas.
In the wood-bedecked dining room it’s a different experience. The fairly large, relatively complicated, nonclassical Spanish-influenced plates are dressed with cheffy touches here and there, and a lot of them pass over the kitchen’s wood-burning plancha.
A thick, smooth gazpacho, rich olive oil emulsified into the tomato, is served with shavings of cucumber and grilled bread and topped with a creamy dollop of burrata that forms a strong marriage to the soup. Grilled slabs of iron-rich blood sausage lie among fat, sweet clams, favas, and chorizo that extrudes its malevolent red oil, which mingles nicely with sweet cauliflower puree.
Aubin occasionally fills his plates with complementing and contrasting accents to the point of excess, as on a plate of sweetbreads in a mildly truffly sauce Périgueux, all showered with roasted carrots, bacon chunks, huckleberries, and hazelnuts. A Moroccan-accented entree-size duck breast, its fatty skin crosshatched and magnificently seared, is undercut by accompanying dry, confit-stuffed grape leaves and a grayish “burnt” eggplant puree. Slightly less busy dishes come off better, like pink, fresh chorizo-stuffed joints of boned-out quail surrounding a mound of wilted spinach with raisins and pine nuts, dollops of orange piquillo-pepper puree guarding the borders.
Despite these meaty offerings, Salero is mostly at its best when it comes to seafood. A couple slabs of sherry-cured mackerel fillet, one topped with hot smoked paprika, the other sprinkled with grated salted egg yolk, are each sidled with a single delicately singed grapefruit section—despite the strong fish it’s a subtle and refined dish. Meanwhile a grilled octopus with wan, lukewarm diced potatoes nods toward some of the more tired Spanish-modernist cliches, including an acrid “smoked” foam, pickled mustard seeds, puffed quinoa, and the promise of something called “black onion powder,” which might have independently chosen to avoid this unattractive dish.
Otherwise a basic Catalan seafood stew is as simple as it gets: a light, saffron-scented sherry broth bathing gently cooked shrimp, mussels, scallops, and salt cod. It’s aided considerably with the perfumed addition of some stewed fennel, just as some raw slices touch up a flaky, mild-flavored hake fillet mounted on a pile of artichokes, green beans, and a saute of peppers, onions, and tomato. But the most magnificent dish I encountered on Salero’s menu is a whole Maine lobster, split and grilled, sitting atop a pile of Manila clams and firm fideos—those toasted matchstick-shaped pasta noodles—enriched by a tart, creamy lemon aioli.
There are plenty of interesting things to drink with all of this—dozens of Spanish reds, a quartet of uncommon ciders—including a viscous yet dry number from the French side of Basque territory—and a number of sherries by the glass, ideal for finishing off the meal with some cheese, churros, and chocolate or a silky flan crowned in bitter blood-orange puree.
As simple, pure, and lovely as Vera and MFK are, they physically exist in little quiet corners of the city as far as food goes. Somehow busy Randolph Row seems the right place for Salero, which with its highly stylized interpretation of Spanish food may need to call attention to itself even more.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that HB Home Bistro is open.