Monday, April 9, 2012
As of this past Thursday, another Cubs season has begun, starting off much like it ended last year; that is, with a loss. Of course, team management has made no secret of the fact that they expect many more losses to follow before October mercifully comes around as the latest rebuilding project progresses. Unfortunately, that reality doesn't render it easier to watch, made painfully evident while Mrs. Hackknife and I shivered in the upper deck on Opening Day during the Cubbies' late-inning collapse. Still, our numb fingers and toes were a small price to pay for the opportunity to stop by a new place for dinner on the way home. Vera (1023 W. Lake St.) is a wine bar that also happens to feature unbelievably-good Spanish cuisine in the form of tapas (small plates). For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking that tapas is a trend that passed by around 5 years ago, you probably haven't tried what's on the menu here. Chef Mark Mendez and his wife Elizabeth have assembled a fairly simple but formidable offering of Spanish dishes that stand up against any other tapas bar in town.
The chef has stated that his philosophy is to basically let the top-quality ingredients he uses shine through with minimal intervention on his part. We saw this firsthand with our initial set of plates - plump anchovies topped with pickled garlic and celery leaves, warm crusty bread with three kinds of butter (garlic, chicken skin, and lemon/salt/pepper) plus Spanish olive oil, and a wonderful cheese plate (see photo above) with manchego, Bayley Hazen Blue, and pata cabra. Accompanying each cheese was a special garnish carefully orchestrated to enhance its respective flavor, namely almonds and honey for the manchego, pickled olives for the blue, and candied blood orange for the pata cabra. It was these small details that really seemed to make the food sing.
While waiting for our meat course to arrive (more on that a little later), the missus and I decided we'd need a bit more nosh to ensure that we didn't go home hungry, so we order another seafood plate and a vegetable. We chose a fish (not sure exactly what kind) prepared "escabeche"-style, which is apparently a common preparation of proteins in Spain where the outside is seared crispy, then the fish is marinated with vinegar, herbs, and spices and served either cold or at room temperature. Our delicious fish came topped with pickled celery pieces (if you're detecting a pattern here, you're right - Chef Mendez really likes to use pickled items in his dishes), with the bright acidity of the vinegar in the celery and the marinade cutting the richness of the fatty fish. For our vegetable selection, we opted for the fried artichoke pieces dressed in a mixture of Idiazabal cheese and beer garlic vinaigrette. This plate was also amazing and was quickly devoured.
Last, but not least, came our selected meat course. Given the emphasis on Spanish cuisine, I assumed that the "Iberico secreto" was just another type of imported ham; however, when our server brought it to the table, she explained that this so-called secret cut of the famous Iberico pig (you know, the one that only eats acorns) is almost more like a skirt steak in flavor and texture (both of these are also sometimes referred to as the "butcher's cut" since in the past it was the piece of meat that the butchers took home for themselves, their customers unaware that it was so tasty). Reading up on this a bit more after the fact, I'm not even sure if anyone else in Chicago is offering this dish - apparently, it's rare due to the difficulty in correctly removing it from the pig (it's nestled between the shoulders, ribs, and fatback) to get the right balance of protein and fat. Our piece arrived sizzling and sliced against the grain like a platter of fajita meat, garnished with a nice spring blend of fava bean puree and pea shoots. Had I not known that it was pork, I might have been fooled into thinking it was beef. No matter what you call it, I can attest that it's actually quite good (keep the secret on the qt, though, will you please?).
Given that Vera's primarily a wine bar, they obviously have a great selection of Spanish wines to accompany the great food. We got to try a txakolina (a very dry and bracingly tart white wine from the Basque region of Spain) and a manzanilla sherry (pale and dry), both of which paired very well with our dishes. Our experience would have been 5-star across the board if not for some lapses in service - although our waitress was very knowledgeable about the food and drinks, she inexplicably disappeared from our table for long stretches, seeming to prefer extended conversation with other customers to helping us out when we needed it. Regardless, the food at Vera is outstanding enough that we'll be back again (hopefully soon), Cubs loss or no Cubs loss...