Saturday, February 11, 2006

Small Plates, Big Flavors: Chicago Tapas

Tapas have been part of Spain’s history since arguably the 13th century. King Alfonzo X, while apparently under the weather, was only able to drink wine with small portions of food in between. After recovering, the king mandated that wine could not be consumed with being accompanied by food. Therefore, throughout the country, wine was served covered with a piece of smoked ham or cheese. The Spanish word tapa translates to top, lid, or cover. Food covered the wine glass for two reasons: one, the keep insects and bugs out of the wine glass and two, assure that people were not drinking on an empty stomach.

Not drinking on an empty stomach is always a good idea, and thankfully concern for bugs flying into our wines glasses is not a concern at restaurants these days (let’s hope). But the Spanish tradition of tapas has thrived and has become a huge success in America, and of course, Chicago.

Back in August, while my husband and I were in town to search for an apartment, we met some friends out at Emilio’s Tapas. Vibrant in décor and atmosphere, the scent of sangria welcomed us in. Two dishes still remain in my mind as my favorites: Datiles Con Tocin (Dates wrapped in bacon, served with roasted red pepper butter sauce) and Caracoles Emilio (Sautéed escargot served on croutons with tomato sauce and alioli). Of course, anything can taste wonderful with continuous glasses of Sangria, but the high spirited restaurant marked a wonderful introduction to the tapas offered in Chicago.

Another traditional Spanish tapas restaurant is Café Ba Ba Reeba. My favorites are goat cheese baked in tomato sauce, braised lamb with cous cous, and mushrooms stuffed with manchego cheese and spinach. Good stuffed mushrooms are hard to find. They’re usually too soggy, completely tasteless, or not cooked properly with the mushrooms being undercooked and the stuffing being overcooked. But these were absolutely delightful; full of flavor and perfectly cooked. The menu is large, but not overwhelming and everything I’ve tried, I would order again.

Of course, while the trend of Spanish tapas has spread throughout the country, other restaurateurs have followed suit and “small plates” are now more popular than ever in a variety of cuisines. Avec, whose menu reflects cuisine from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France, carries over the assertive flavors and elegant presentation from her sister, Blackbird. While offering traditional tapas (chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce), Avec also succeeds in offering small plates reflective of the rest of the Mediterranean, such as whipped brandade (traditional French dish of pureed salt cod, olive oil, and milk) and housemade merguez-style sausage with littleneck clams, shrimp and fennel. (Merguez is a small spicy sausage traditionally from Algeria and Tunisia).

If you’re looking for some small plates with an Asian influence, Opera offers a variety of tempting dishes. Chef Paul Wildermuth (formerly at Ben Pao) combines traditional Chinese flavors with modern twists in the presentations. Sugar snap pea with forest mushroom stir-fry finished with truffle oil and chili spiked tofu with ground pork and black bean sauce are two options on the restaurant’s small plates menu.

If you’re a little hesitant to try ethnic small plates, you can always try your luck at the Lennox Lounge. They offer a variety of American-friendly dishes (mini burgers and the old stand-by, pigs in a blanket). With a thorough selection of draft and bottled beers, this Lincoln Park eatery also offers around fifteen different martinis that sound very tempting.

One notable aspect of tapas that I mentioned in the beginning but have failed to mention since is its connection to wine. Traditionally, they go hand-in-hand and today, that combination is still a large reason for its success. Coupling simple and flavorful small dishes along with reasonably priced wines by the glass, both diners and restaurateurs are benefiting. Success continues, also, because diners are more open to try new and different flavors. The popularity of ethnic cuisine has opened to door to exotic ingredients and more adventurous culinary spirit. Multiple small dishes are attractive because diners do not have to commit to one entrée. It also encourages sharing, conversations, and a more casual atmosphere.

Emilio’s Tapas
444 West Fullerton Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614
(773)-327-5100
http://www.emiliostapas.com

Café Ba Ba Reeba
2024 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614
(773)-935-5000
http://www.cafebabareeba.com

Avec
615 West Randolph
Chicago, IL 60606
(312)-337-2002
http://www.avecrestaurant.com

Lennox Lounge
3032 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773)-281-9900
http://www.lennoxlounge.com

Opera
1301 S. Wabash
Chicago, IL 60605
(312)-461-0161
http://www.opera-chicago.com

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