Spain has been in ascendance in Chicago in the last half decade by virtue of three very good spots that bring together different aspects of the way Spaniards eat. Part full-on restaurants, part casual wine bars, Vera, Mfk, and Salero have done much to disabuse diners of the notion that old-guard Disneyesque sangria slingers like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Cafe Iberico have much to do with the Iberian way of eating at all. Instead these unostentatious restaurants focus on simple, unpretentious preparations—or in the case of Salero, experimental ones—that place the emphasis on serious, elemental evocations of Spanish food made with excellent, often local ingredients.
Now there's Bom Bolla, which perhaps comes closer to evoking the spirit of a Barcelona tapas bar than any of them. Bom Bolla is nominally presented as a cava-focused bar, with some 29 red and white Spanish sparklers available by the glass and bottle. And who better to present the great fizzy wines of Spain than the folks behind Pops for Champagne, River North's venerable bubbly bar? In fact, it's not just about the cavas. Bom Bolla boasts perhaps the most varied selection of Spanish booze in the city, including ciders, beers, vermouths, sherries, reds, whites, and rosés, and even an oak-aged gin distilled on the island of Menorca. There are cocktails that incorporate various Spanish spirits too, though I'd steer away from them as they're poured over pebbles of ice that overdilute everything.
In design Bom Bolla is primarily a bar as well. It's entirely dominated by a spacious horseshoe-shaped bar fronted by a cold case with olives, cheese, almonds, and boquerones, fresh oil-and-vinegar-cured anchovies. There is minimal table seating near the front and in a rear dining room, but you'll naturally be drawn to the high-tops at the wide bar with plenty of room to accommodate lots of little dishes among the glasses.
It's hard to imagine strolling by and resisting a quick glass of dry Valdespino Inocente Fino and a plate of the bracing little fish, or a plated tapestry of Iberico Bellota ham. It's equally difficult to imagine at that point not staying planted on your stool for quite a few more drinks, pacing them with small dishes of pork-fat-fried marcona almonds, wisps of lightly deep-fried whitebait, slabs of sweet and goaty Garrotxa cheese with sherry-soaked pears, or tiny black Empeltre olives, their flesh saturated with fino sherry. Even a gilda, a simple skewered stack of fat green olives, meaty ribbons of anchovy, and pickled green chiles, seems like a plausible reason to stop in.
Your plans will immediately seem less important and you'll be prepared to idle away a few hours listening to the Clash, the Pretenders, or the Eurythmics while an oversize Mick Jones looks on approvingly from the back wall and Debbie Harry beckons others in from the street.
The chef responsible for derailng your day is Matt Lair, a relatively low-profile journeyman who did time at the late Kith & Kin. His open kitchen sports a wood-burning grill on which fat whole red prawns are salted and blazed scarlet, oysters on the half shell are roasted in lardo and squirted with bitter charred orange, thumb-size chorizos are fired until they nearly erupt at the touch, and eggplant is reduced to a smoky, creamy baba ganoush-like consistency, doused with sherry vinegar, then sprinkled with paprika.
Classic categories of snacks include bocadillos, sandwiches tightly wrapped in wax paper and split to reveal, among other fillings, meaty slabs of grilled pork belly, preserved lemon, and manchego, and lightly battered coils of deep-fried squid with creamy aioli. Meanwhile a selection of five montaditos feature slices of grilled bread topped with combinations including custardy eggs and trout roe, grilled green pepper relish and poached salt cod, and mojama (slabs of salt-cured, sun-dried tuna loin) with olive oil and crushed marcona almonds.
You might gather from reading about some of these little snacks that there's a fair amount of salt involved. The tiny scraps of octopus with almond slivers and preserved lemon are seasoned enough to swell your digits like those baby sausages. It's all the better excuse to hydrate with the multitude of low-ABV beverages by the glass: six sherries, nine cavas, ten still wines, and five vermouths, including the honeylike Axta Rojo on tap.
Bom Bolla opens at 2 PM every day, which may only seem too early for pintxos and vermouth until you make a habit of it. v