It's difficult to imagine a dish more universally Latin American than arroz con pollo. Everyone eats it, but it's different everywhere you go. It's cooked with achiote in Puerto Rico. They add ketchup in Nicaragua. In Peru it's dark beer. But even with all the variations from country to country, one thing unites them all: the pollo is always cooked in the arroz. The reason for that is elementary. You give that rice to the chicken, and the chicken gives back to the rice.
That's especially true of the juicier, gnarlier, darker pieces of the bird: thighs, legs, wings, necks—and feet, if you mean business. Their copious fat, collagen, and fuller flavor infuse the broth and then are absorbed into the rice. When all is said and done, the only part that isn't 100 percent happy about this treatment is the precious and delicate breast, that white, flavorless, often unnaturally enhanced muscle that is the primary source of protein for Pilates instructors and people with an unusual disinterest in food.
When it rises from the rice, a thigh literally falls from the bone and into your mouth, and you can hear its glutamates singing as they disappear down your throat. A breast needs to be dissected with effort and a sharp knife after it's disinterred from the pot, and its juicelessness is a rebuke to your palate and entire mandibular structure. Even Martha Stewart, when she's dabbling in the cuisines of her domestic servants, knows you have to cook the rice in the chicken.
Arroz con pollo is the first entree listed on the menu at Ronero, a new pan-Latin rum bar on the West Loop's ever-teeming restaurant row from "Actor/Musician/Style aficionado" (as his Twitter bio identifies him) Nils Westland, who also paid industry dues at Nellcôte and Rockit Bar & Grill. Cory Morris was recruited as chef, and he's a good get; Morris was chef de cuisine at both Mercat a la Planxa and Rural Society, two restaurants that ought to be in the normal rotation of anyone who enjoys living in Chicago. That Morris thrived in Jose Garces's restaurant orbit is a good sign for the food at Ronero, which adopts, as Garces often does himself, a pan-South American approach (if Cuba is included within those borders).
Ronero inhabits a long, dim art-deco-inspired series of dining room/bar/dining room in a space that last housed a business that wasn't a restaurant, an increasingly endangered species in this neighborhood. The upstairs bar and party space, judging from photos on Instagram, seems more populated by leggy ladies and dudebro sausagefests than anything on Morris's menu.
That's too bad, because there are some pretty mackadocious plates coming out of the tiny kitchen at the rear of the restaurant, where Morris paces in front of the pass, making sure they're just so.
He's managed to make a plate of black bean dip look pretty: a silky lavender compound of smashed beans and tahini, showered with cloudy white feta, embedded with ribbons of fried plantain. There's a tangle of shaved purple and orange carrots too, with tissues of ivory-streaked beef, cured until crimson, hiding wedges of boiled egg. It's a saladlike deconstruction of matambre, the Argentine stuffed flank steak, drizzled with tangy chimichurri that's been emulsified to prevent stray parsley from getting stuck in your shiny grill. There are also uncommonly large hearts of palm that somehow defy the customary expectation that they'll taste like canned tree trunks. They're the stars of another inspired salad, though they're almost camouflaged under sheaves of purple radicchio and Belgium endive, the bitter greens asserting themselves among the more soothing presence of sweet pears, cream, and crunchy hazelnuts.
Not everything is that pretty. A cast-iron pan of braised goat shredded into the "old clothes" known in Cuba as ropa vieja is a powerhouse of a starter, especially with the scoop of rapidly melting goat cheese that you'll swirl into the meat. Normally after eating something like that I'm ready for a shot of bitters and a nap, but that would give short shrift to the albondigas, beef-and-pork meatballs wallowing in a thin, hot peanut sauce that will awaken your inner five-year-old. But then these meaty little plates can be countered by something as delicate as a mahi-mahi ceviche. Mahi-mahi is a stupid fish—the chicken breast of the sea—but here it's fresh at least, bathing in a tamed leche de tigre, its bite muzzled by ample amounts of creamy leche de coco. There's definitely a party going on this "para compartir" section of the menu, and you will indeed share these plates even if it means breaking up the flaky, baked empanadas of the day like animals, just so everyone can get a taste of what's inside.
For all the surprises on the starters menu, Morris's selection of entrees, though written in Spanish, tells a familiar story populated by characters you'll be accustomed to if you eat out with any regularity. There's a burger. There's a steak. Some scallops, some lamb chops. There's more of that mahi-mahi. There's a risotto for your vegetarian friends, and there's pork belly for the bloodmouths.
The restaurant's disciplined adherence to the rote protein-side-sauce approach at least is filtered through Morris's South American sensibility. So the hamburguesa sports a chorizo marmalade, and the lamb chops try to keep it real with a Peruvian purple potato hash and a sauce made from the minty Andean herb huacatay. The pork belly is arrayed in glistening, crispy mouthfuls across a hummuslike white bean puree with thinly sliced mangoes duking it out with charred brussels sprouts.
It's difficult to see what coordinates the saffron-butternut squash "winter" risotto is trying to navigate from, given its lack of any discernible flavor profile. An aggressively charred but internally pink hanger steak has a little chimichurri to cut through the bitter black backnote, but it gets lost among mashed potatoes and sauteed oyster mushrooms.
And then there's the arroz con pollo—lovely Spanish bomba rice with long slivers of Gordal olives deployed to cut through what are some truly fat, meaty, flavorful grains. But something's wrong. Mounted atop the rice is the chicken, a thick, grilled white breast, sliced and fanned out to announce it has arrived—and it is simply exhausted. No other parts have made it, sorry. This arroz con pollo wasn't intended for someone who eats for pleasure. It's for the person in your party who would rather think she looks good than feel good.
The kitchen offers a few premium-priced spectacles: a whole deep-fried snapper listed at an intimidating $80, a 16-ounce Brazilian rump steak for $68, and a $58 pork shoulder cooked in banana leaves. But it's hard to gamble on such performances when the entrees are so pro forma and the appetizers are so compelling.
Desserts reside somewhere in the middle of this quandary. There's everything from a light and creamy arroz con leche sporting thin fans of dried pineapple to dense sweet potato doughnuts to dredge through chocolate syrup to a thick, warm espresso mousse covered in icy granita—two textures that don't belong in the mouth at the same time.
A "ronero" is a master rum distiller, in case you've forgotten this is a rum bar. Beverage director Allie Kim (formerly of Boka) has assembled an awe-inspiring collection of more than a hundred sugarcane spirits, some of which are employed in house cocktails, classics, highballs, and postprandial drams to make sure the goat goes down easy.
Best of all there's the friendliness and expertise that should be operative at any good bar. Even if your companion takes political exception to the rum of a particular country (say, Nicaragua's Flor de Caña, whose sugarcane workers suffer from chronic kidney disease at a rate six times that of their countrymen), your bartender will be only too happy to entertain your selected substitute (even if it makes no sense at all).
There's a much-debated notion that in certain kinds of restaurants the appetizers are always better than the entrees. Some argue that hunger has a way of influencing how the beginning of the meal is perceived to the unfair disadvantage of the end. But I think, in the case of a someone as talented as Morris, the tyranny of the large plate has locked the chef into a formula that demands a piece of sauced protein and some stuff on the side. It's a formula that's easily broken, at least in the case of one special dish. All he has to do is cook the pollo in the arroz. v