Just inside the front door is a tiled bench in blue, green, and yellow hues that looks like it belongs in a plaza in southern Spain. Spanish-tiled floors, ornately wrought iron chandeliers, and an entire leg of jamon iberico (cured Iberian ham) that sits behind the bar, ready to be carved, all contribute to the illusion that you may have just wandered into a Seville bar for a bite to eat. And depending on your level of affection (or tolerance) for live flamenco music, Thursday is either the night to be at the Spanish Square or the night to avoid it.
The restaurant and market has more than a hint of a nostalgic feel. Owners Mara Baer and Manuel Moreno opened it when they discovered, after moving to Chicago from Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Moreno's hometown on the southern coast of Spain, where the couple first met), that they missed Spanish food. Along one wall, separated slightly from the dining room by columns and arches, is a small market that sells cheeses and cured meats along with goods including olive oil, anchovies, and dates preserved in sherry, plus housewares like paella pans and ceramic dishes. A small wine cellar—with an iron gate across part of the entry area that makes it resemble a very inviting jail cell—is carved out of another wall.
The menu is divided into cold and hot tapas, along with cheese and charcuterie, small sandwiches, and toasts with various toppings. Ensaladilla (a sort of potato salad with tuna, peas, carrots, and hard-boiled egg) and pimiento de piquillo relleno (a small red pepper stuffed with tuna salad and topped with tiny shrimp, crumbled egg, and aioli), both elevated by the outstanding Spanish tuna, hinted at great things to come. And the crispy, creamy croquettes and tender, delightfully vinegary adobo (swordfish marinated in vinegar, battered, and fried) were satisfying bites. But even chorizo couldn't save the bland habichuelas, a mushy combination of white beans, chorizo, and undercooked potato. Two specials were especially disappointing: dates wrapped in undercooked bacon and an underseasoned rib eye with a texture that made eating it like chewing a dish towel.
Most of the other tapas fell somewhere between the two extremes. An undersalted tortilla española was a middling example of the classic; likewise for tender, slightly flabby gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlicky, spicy oil). The jamon iberico from that prominently placed leg was sliced a little thicker than I'm used to, but the taste was still as nutty and rich as it should be (the pigs are fed acorns to achieve the flavor). And funky chorizo and manchego made for a good marriage on a montadito, while on another of the small sandwiches fairly boring chicken was buoyed by fried green peppers, tomato, and jamon. A hot small plate of stewed pepper, onion, and zucchini in tomato sauce with a fried egg was marred by undercooked onion; another, flavorful stewed beef, was served over fries made soggy by the red wine sauce.
There is one section of the menu, though, where the Spanish Square shines. Three of the four tostadas ("toasts" not to be confused with Mexican tostadas) came to the table, and I enjoyed every one. Even the simplest, pan con tomate—tomato puree on a huge slice of crusty bread cut into slices—was habit forming, especially if you opt to add jamon. The cured ham also showed up in the best thing I ate: seta, topped with tart goat cheese that served as a perfect foil to the umami of earthy, meaty mushrooms and jamon. The anchoa tostada came in a close second, sweet piquillo peppers balancing the nutty manchego and the pleasant fishiness of the anchovies.
Like most of the tapas, desserts are fairly straightforward. There's flan and chocolate tart, both equally smooth and rich in nearly opposite ways—the flan was a delicate, caramelly custard, while the dark cocoa flavor of the cake was so intense it drowned out any orange liqueur flavor in the accompanying cream sauce. Candied orange zest added a welcome bitter note to sweet, creamy rice pudding. The only unfamiliar dessert was torrijas, a lackluster slice of fried bread in syrup that closely resembled French toast. I wasn't a fan—but then, I've never understood the appeal of the breakfast staple either. Your mileage may vary.
Half a dozen Spanish ciders join a modest selection of Spanish beers on the drinks menu; there are also a couple dozen wines, sherries, and vermouths by the glass and a few more by the bottle. Some thought has clearly gone into the cocktail list, which favors Spanish twists on classics like the Tom Collins and French 75. A generously sized manhattan made with sweet sherry instead of sweet vermouth had a round, boozy flavor but was unfortunately served up, and the cocktail warmed before I was half done, making its sweetness seem overly syrupy. But I had no complaints about the Cava Cocktail, made slightly nutty by the addition of Cardenal Mendoza brandy, or the Sparkling Pomelo, another cava drink—this one with Caballero (a brandy-based orange liqueur) and grapefruit juice.
While the Spanish Square has more hits than misses, most of its dishes aren't particularly noteworthy. It's not the type of food you remember days later; measured against Chicago's best Spanish restaurants (Mfk, Vera, Salero, Mercat a la Planxa), it falls short. But that's the wrong yardstick to use—the average corner joint in Spain probably wouldn't measure up either. Still, that's no argument against stopping in for a simple, satisfying meal. Where the Spanish Square succeeds, improbably enough, is in creating a Spanish neighborhood restaurant in the middle of Lakeview. v