We don’t normally do restaurant reviews per se, but we recently ate at one that we think is worth mention. We were in Chicago on a short holiday and, as is our want, we sought out someplace interesting to eat. The concierge at our hotel had several recommendations. One choice, Girl and the Goat, had no openings (Girl and the Goat is a destination restaurant and we obviously hadn’t planned ahead) and some of the others sounded pedestrian even though they have generally good reputations (Italian Village?). But one, sounded right up our alley – Tavernita, a Mediterranean/Latin restaurant the features small plates (and we later found out, named one of the top 20 new restaurants for 2012).
Now, restaurants that feature small plates are like tapas bars; there are fewer but more complex choices (some tapas menus can be overwhelming), the plates are a bit larger and the menus are a bit more organized. The key ideas, though, are you share and the orders come out of the kitchen as they are ready (i.e. they don’t come out in any structured sequence). The dishes are put in the center of the table and everyone digs in. This works well for couples or small groups but can be a problem for larger groups. The obvious advantage for the diner is that you don’t have one plate of a single entree and you don’t have to beg your table partners for a taste off their plate – everyone shares. The unspoken advantage is you don’t get stuck with a plate full of food that sounded good on the menu but leaves something to be desired when it’s on the plate in front of you. However, if you choose really well, it’s quickly gone and you have to move on to the next plate having only had a bite or two.
Our menu choices started out with something we didn’t order. An amuse bouche compliments of our concierge (I guess it pays to tip the concierge). Shooters of a cold cream of corn soup and a truffled corn fritter. The soup was rich, dense and luscious – almost in the realm of a dessert between its creaminess and the sweetness of the corn.
I ordered some Kumamoto oysters which were served with a Guajillo chile sauce. I’ve had Kumamoto’s in Washington state and they are wonderful. These, although very fresh and tasty, were pretty small – maybe in keeping with the small plates theme.
Next up was Escalivada, fire roasted eggplant and red pepper, hazelnut romesco and goat cheese (not specified beyond that) and crostini. The eggplant and romesco, smokey, sweet and nutty, were terrific together but I thought the cheese was a bit strong and overwhelmed the other flavors. Jeanne on the other hand liked the cheese. On the whole, a great combination.
The Prawns a la plancha arrived next. I thought they smelled a bit “ripe” but the flavor of the seafood was rich with a bath of Spanish extra virgin olive oil. Because the prawns were served with head and shell on, they were a bit messy to eat but our waiter arrived with perfect timing to deliver steamed towels (no Wet-Wipes here) for us to use to clean up a bit.
One of our standard orders at Spanish restaurants is patatas bravas (fierce potatoes) an anchor of any respectable tapas bar. It’s our benchmark for the authenticity and skill of the kitchen. Patatas bravas should be oven roasted so they’re slightly crispy on the outside but creamy on the inside. They’re dressed with a spicy tomato based sauce. Tavernita’s Patatas (they’re just listed as patatas, no bravas, although bravas sauce is listed as a part of the ingredients) came with chucks of Spanish chorizo and a fried egg on top. The potatoes lacked the crispiness we expected but the chorizo and egg were nice additions. The bravas sauce, however, was fairly tame. One, surprising, complaint we had about this dish was that there was just too much of it, although it would have been a good portion for a larger party.
Bocadillos are small sandwich-like snacks, usually served on a split loaf of bread like a baugette or small chibatta. Tavernita serves Pork Belly Bocadillos on small brioche buns with a fruit jam and pickled red onions. While looking more like the ubiquitous sliders found in many bars and restaurants, these we infinitely better. The pork belly was fatty with a crisp edge and the fruit jam and onions were nice foils to it’s richness. We were told that the Bocadillos are the best selling item on Tavernita’s menu and I can see why.
Our last dish was a House-made Lamb Sausage served with chickpeas and giardiniera. The sausage was savory and didn’t have a very pronounced lamby flavor (not that I would have minded that) but it went well with the spicy giardiniera. At first we though the kitchen had forgotten the chickpeas until we realized that it was a puree under the sausage. Although tasty (not unlike a mild hummus) I would have liked more of it or the addition of some whole chickpeas.
One point to note – Tavernita is loud. Unlike some restaurants, like Graham Elliot, that pipe in high octane music, Tavernita’s background sound was modest and unobtrusive. The sound level comes from the generally hard surfaces and the lively crowd. It’s a happening place, people are having a good time with great food and they’re not holding back.