I don’t intentionally listen to Serge Gainsbourg when I’m writing about a new French restaurant. And I don’t put Qawwali music on when I’m writing about Pakistani cabbie joints. (In fact, I only listen to Viking death metal when I’m working—drowns out the cat.) So why did I tune into Pandora’s flamenco station to psych myself up for writing about Tavernita, the Spanish alliance between ex-Perennial chef Ryan Poli and Patricio and Alfredo Sandoval, the fraternal restaurateurs who brought New York’s Mexican Mercadito to River North in 2009?
Maybe I thought the staccato hand claps and florid guitar runs would vicariously put me in the clogs of chef Ryan Poli on his past field trips around the Iberian Peninsula to research this and a previous (unrealized) concept. I was ready to jump on board.
The genial local chef has had a following since his days at Butter, and when it was announced that the brothers had lured him away from Boka Restaurant Group, heaps of goodwill (plus a marketing-dependent blogosphere) kept this project on the hive mind. The same can’t be said of the buildup to Mercadito, when the Sandovals were new in town and had no local hero to carry their banner.
I’m not a fan of Mercadito. Poli, I like. He’s an important chef in his own right. But it’s impossible to not view Tavernita through the prism of Mark Mendez’s wholly indigenous Vera (which opened late last year), just as it was impossible to avoiding viewing Mercadito through the prism of Frontera Grill and the host of good-to-great midscale Mexican restaurants it spawned before the Sandovals arrived in Chicago thinking they had something new to offer.
So Poli’s been to Spain. Mendez hasn’t. So what? Vera is tranquilo, a relaxed environment in which to enjoy food that’s confident in its simplicity, relying on just a few excellent ingredients that speak for themselves. Tavernita—like Mercadito—is loud, frenetic, and sceney, and many of the plates Poli puts forth are flourished and embellished as if fighting to be noticed amid the din.
This is most apparent among the crudos prepared at an open raw bar, among them a large, gently pickled Pacific oyster in a deep shell, quartered to enable sharing. Shared food is the overriding MO at Tavernita, but if there’s one morsel of food that should never be apportioned it’s an oyster. It’s even harder to accept that the dissected bivalve is lost in a scoop of sweet diced mango and papaya salsa. A carpaccio of North Atlantic salmon is given similar treatment, drizzled in sherry vinaigrette and strewn with prototypically Spanish staples (olives, piquillo peppers, marcona almonds) just as a thin layer of hamachi is overdressed in New World accents: sliced avocado, jalapeño, and a shroud of cucumber. How fresh and delicious are these fruits of the sea? Hard to tell beneath all the set dressing.
Bread-based bites are loaded too, to somewhat better effect. A salty olive oil-drizzled pillow of creamy burrata sits atop a thick smear of salty-sweet tomato marmalade; glistening piles of roasted eggplant and red pepper are topped with wedges of goat cheese. But a thin flatbread struggles to support an application of duck confit, oranges, arugula, and tomato sofrito.
A few larger plates—like a salad of artichoke hearts, fried artichoke chips, blue cheese, beets, and arugula or a quartet of seared scallops with grapes in a creamy bread-and-almond-based ajo blanco soup that reminded my southern pal of “Missouri picnic food”—pushed the limits of restraint too. One of the more startling dishes—dubiously named “Greg’s meatballs” and comprised of five pork-and-beef orbs blanketed in a vivid orange romesco sauce—tasted improbably of supermarket breakfast sausage. I mean that as a compliment.
But enough of the larger plates are more straightforward, and they’re at their best when they’re this minimal: octopus and tapenade with fennel and orange salad. A tender grilled half chicken with tangy mushroom-vinegar sauce and green beans. Blistered shisito peppers with salt and vinegar. An egg, sunny-side up, on crispy fried potatoes with thick paprika sauce.
This crew is doing is a lot for lots of people. There’s a dining lounge that will soon be offering bottle service, and there’s Barcito, a pinxtos bar with a separate snack menu and beverage program. (My colleague Julia Thiel takes a look at it over on the Bleader.)
That brings me to another component to this sprawling project: the beverage program by Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay, aka the Tippling Brothers. It’s multifaceted, yet puts a great many eggs in one basket. That would be the elaborate keg system that dispenses not just beer and wines, but sangria, house-made vermouths, and cocktails that are batched and pumped through a column of some 35 taps behind the bar in the main dining room.
Neato. But while I’ve had a few wonderful force-carbonated cocktails at Yusho, as far as barrels holding the mass-produced future of craft cocktail making, I’m not sold. In Tavernita’s mobbed dining room you’ll be served these drinks relatively fast, but you’re trading individual attention for expediency—and it shows. The flavors are flat, muted, with little black pepper syrup or “BBQ” bitters coming through in the tequila-based Turista; hibiscus-infused rum, macadamia liqueur, and falernum in the Comandante Big Nose express themselves as sweet and somewhat nutty but ultimately homogenized. The nicest way to describe these would be “overbalanced.” I’m certain that even if the technology allowed, Poli would not squirt ham croquetas out of a tap.
I’m also certain these kegs will make the restaurant lots of money. But the Tippling Brothers haven’t abandoned carbon-based delivery systems to create the restaurant’s better cocktails, such as a house cola and tempranillo mix. And the kegs can’t deliver one of Spanish or French ciders poured—or “thrown”—from a three-foot distance out of bonglike glass decanters to stimulate the carbonation and bouquet.
That’s one of the dramatic flourishes at Tavernita that feels natural and fun, simple and not overwrought. But for the most part I struggled to hear the music Poli was playing in his head. Was it because it’s too loud, figuratively and literally, at Tavernita? Or is it distorted by the noise made by his partners?