Restaurant Tours: terrific tapas, low-priced and downtown | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Restaurant Tours: terrific tapas, low-priced and downtown

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My friend Poppy told her date she was taking him to a tapas bar for his birthday. He thought she said topless, so he was disappointed when they got there and all he saw were lots of little dishes. She said she thought a tapas bar was the perfect place to take a man because he didn't even have to make a commitment to a main course.

Tapas are the traditional Spanish appetizers bartenders serve to customers waiting for the temperature to drop enough to face a full meal. Either because there's not much air-conditioning or because it's part of the culture, the Spanish still don't eat dinner until 11 at night. If a modern-day Columbus were to land in Fort Lauderdale, think what wondrous tales of early-bird specials he might bring back to his native shores.

Early or late, Cafe Iberico, which opened on North LaSalle this spring, offers terrific tapas. On most evenings a crowd of young people can be found taking advantage of its consistently low prices. Although we had expected highly spiced food, our tapas were on the mild side. Each seemed about the right size for two people to share. The best of the lot were gambas al ajillo ($3.50), sizzling shrimp with wine and garlic sauce garnished with lemon wedges; alcachofas a la vinagreta ($2.25), tender artichoke hearts in a balsamic vinaigrette with tiny green Spanish olives; and patatas ali oli ($1.95), potato salad in a wonderfully garlicky mayonnaise--a far better choice than the ensalada Rusa ($1.75), cold potato salad with tuna that was short on the tuna and tasted like yesterday's cold potatoes. Avoid the pisto manchego ($1.95), a Spanish rendition of French ratatouille, and the champinones a la plancha ($2.50), grilled mushrooms with garlic and olive oil: both were disappointingly bland.

A couple of the day's specials actually were special. Queso de cabra ($3.50), baked goat cheese in a lively tomato sauce with toasted bread rounds topped with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, and parsley, and pincho de pollo y chorizo ($3.75), a fine chicken and Spanish sausage brochette with a sauce of chicken broth, thyme, rosemary, tomatoes, onions, and garlic accompanied by caramelized onions and Spanish-style potatoes, which are fried in olive oil.

Although we thought it was more fun to try a variety of tapas, the main courses we sampled were excellent: chuletas de cordero ($9.50), juicy lamb chops in a lamb broth with a garlic, onion, thyme, rosemary, and red wine sauce, and rape a la plancha ($8.50), firm and juicy monkfish grilled with olive oil in a tomato basil sauce and served with saffron potatoes. Monkfish is the nightmare blind date of the deep, worse than a double bagger, a fish so ugly fishmongers cut off its head before displaying it.

We expected the dessert choices to be limited to flan and--flan. Poppy blamed the seeming lack of variety in Spanish desserts on the country's climate, which she thought must sap creativity. No way. The Spanish are creative to a fault. Who, after all, gave us both an inquisition and an aphrodisiac? As for the Spanish dessert desert, many of their pastries have never made it to the new world because the recipes were created long ago in convents. To this day the recipes are so secret that the measuring cups and weights are encoded so even the nuns themselves don't know the exact amounts. Maybe they're expecting another Spanish Inquisition.

Cafe Iberico's flan a la naranja ($2.50), though light and lemony, was a little undercooked. Although I was assured the other desserts were also authentically Spanish, the influence of other Mediterranean cultures crept into the arroz con leche ($2), flavorless baked rice with milk, and cinnamon bizcocho borracho ($3.50). These "drunken cookies" are made with mascarpone cheese and equal parts Tia Maria, Kahlua, and brandy and served with a strawberry coulis. It's very like Italian tiramisu, and I'm not complaining. Platanos al caramelo ($2.50), luscious warm bananas sauteed in butter with a creamy sauce and vanilla ice cream, may have originated in Galicia, but it's almost identical to the Bananas Foster that Brennan's in New Orleans has always claimed credit for. The cafe's espresso machine produces espresso, cafe con leche (half espresso, half milk), and cafe con leche y cortado (espresso cut with milk and a little foam). The Colombian beans have been imported from northern Spain, where they are toasted in sugar to cut the bitterness. (Coffees are $1 each, double espresso $1.50)

Cafe Iberico's bar area has a charmingly authentic ambience, with colorful tiles on the floor and on the tops of the high round tables; Spanish jugs, vases, plates, and wineskins line the wall behind the long wooden bar. However the pretty little dining room where we ate on our first visit was replaced in August by what looks like an homage to the hospital cafeteria. The owners might want to consider continuing the theme with colorful sides of Jell-O to reinforce the antiseptic effect of all those white walls, white tablecloths, grim brown and tan tile floors, and dark brown chairs with tacky metallic gold rims.

Since I weigh myself daily, I occasionally rate a restaurant I've visited by how much water I retain the next morning. (Poppy, who is even crazier than I am, convinced me to factor in humidity.) A three-pound net weight gain means the chef used too much salt. After our first visit to Cafe Iberico, at which time Poppy and I drank beer, shared four appetizers, and ate innumerable bread rounds and a dessert each, Poppy's eyes didn't puff up and my weight remained the same. (We celebrated by going out and buying a dozen chocolate chip cookies.) The second time, after an equal intake, Poppy could zip up her jeans without lying down and I actually lost a pound. Maybe Cafe Iberico could hook up with Jenny Craig and open a chain.

Cafe Iberico, 739 N. LaSalle, is open from 11 to 11 Monday through Thursday, 11 to midnight Friday, 5 to midnight Saturday, and 5 to 10:30 Sunday. For more information call 573-1510.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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