The Small Plates Club

For some three years now, Chicagoans have been hooked on mini dishes for dinner. Time to look at the newcomers and give the original a fresh once-over. PLUS: On Wine

Photography: Jeff Kauck

At Bin Wine Cafe, wine flights abound (top); agnolotti get stuffed with English pea purée, mascarpone, and mint (center); and oven-roasted asparagus salad with morels (bottom) is amped up by a gribiche stocked with chopped eggs, tarragon, parsley, capers, and red onions.

Here’s the formula for a successful casual café these days: small plates + tons of wines by the glass or carafe + late kitchens = big crowds. It’s not that we’re all becoming Spaniards, but we’re starting to embrace their dining habits (minus the cigarettes). With the craze at full tilt, I decided to weigh in on four new spots that hopped on the bandwagon-and take a fresh look at the place that launched a thousand plates.

A friend visiting Avec for the first time looked up from the communal wood table to the unadorned wood walls and said he felt like he was dining in a Finnish sauna. Avec is that minimalist, and still one of the hottest restaurants in town. Maybe so, but I am sorely disappointed with one major change since it opened in 2003: last year executive chef–partner Paul Kahan (of next door’s Blackbird) and chef Koren Grieveson stopped making Avec’s sausages, a major draw when the place first opened. Now the cured meats come from local and New York purveyors: “We just couldn’t stay on top of everything,” our waitress said. Still, the selection of capicola, calabresi, Genoa salami, and mortadella was fine, as were the cornichons, caper berries, and spicy purple mustard. It simply wasn’t that different from what the other places have on hand.

Otherwise, Avec has aged well. It’s hard to argue against small Mediterranean plates like shaved raw artichoke and mushroom salad with radicchio, smoked onions, and Parmesan; octopus braised in olive oil and crushed tomatoes with an onion salad and pancetta vinaigrette; and chicken fricassee with roasted prunes, shallots, squash, and crispy polenta. I’d recommend the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper–tomato sauce, too, if they aren’t overcooked to the edge of burnt, which was the case on one visit.

Channeling Mario Batali, Avec serves a wood-fired pizza with shaved lardo (buttery pork fat), cured Spanish sardines, arugula, and fennel. My party of four absolutely hated it-and so did the appalled party next to us. Lardo and sardines are trendy in rustic Italian cooking, and each is fabulous in the right situation, but please: not on the same pizza. Share a cheese platter instead and select your favorites from a lineup of ripe Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese specimens. Incidentally, those are the same four countries represented on the big wine list. Let your well-prepped server be your tour guide.  

Bin Wine Cafe is the scaled-down offspring of a five-year-old Marina City standby, Bin 36. This sharp Wicker Park storefront boasts a retractable firehouse-style glass door wall; wooden tables and banquettes; and two bars, one zinc-topped and one slate. The centerpiece is a woodburning oven, which turns out tasty thin-crust pizzas, such as a white beauty with wild mushrooms, pecorino, and garlic confit. But don’t be fooled: John Caputo, Bin’s chef-partner, leans more to contemporary American than Mediterranean, as most small-plates spots do.

Caputo’s grazing menu covers a lot of ground, from crisp tempura green beans with citrus aïoli to savory cotechino (pork sausage from Modena) on white beans and escarole-two terrific dishes at opposite ends of the spectrum. The antipasto platter lets you choose three of 20 artisanal cheeses to accompany the day’s selection of cured meats (loved the speck ham and duck prosciutto) with marinated eggplant and spicy olives.

Shareable starters are available in two sizes. We chose a large serving of heirloom apple and watercress salad with Stilton cheese and almonds in a wonderful vinaigrette. Another dish, the hearts of romaine, also showcases a fine caesar vinaigrette, but not even a fork could break the Parmesan crisp capping it off. Add at least one of the entrées to your order-say, the succulent roasted breast of Amish chicken with braised legs and thighs (prepared like coq au vin) with garlic mashed potatoes. To finish, divvy up a simple plate of assorted house-made cookies and espresso granita, or a rich chocolate-banana terrine with milk chocolate sauce.

As at Bin 36, each dish comes with a suggested wine pairing from wine director Brian Duncan. I found it more fun and enlightening to order flights of four (about $13 to $16), which come with tasting notes. As for the service, it’s efficient. Maybe too efficient: I would barely put down one finished glass of a flight before it was whisked away. And while I’m complaining, why are the tables so small? I’m all for sharing food, but not elbow and air space. 

With a flourish of his restaurateur’s cape, Terry Alexander has transformed Mod into Del Toro, a tapas bar so cool it didn’t bother with a name or address outside for several months after it opened-just an abstract bull logo. Inside, it’s as noisy as a corrida de toros. Designer Suhail (Mod, Tizi Melloul, Sonotheque) casts wry allusions with heavily fringed tapestries red as bull’s blood, a wall installation of glowing red slashes on a hairy hide, and a distressed-concrete floor that evokes a sand-surfaced bull ring amid jagged mosaic tile trim. Despite all the bull, chef Andrew Zimmerman, who cooked at Mod, is doing Spanish small plates well enough to keep this lounge packed.

Roasted beet and goat cheese salad may sound old hat, but the anise vinaigrette gives this one a delightful and unusual spark. Paper-thin cured pork slices are another hit, flavored with olive oil and sprinkles of manchego cheese, pistachios, and chilies. My favorite snack is the fried chickpeas flavored with citrus and chilies-so tender that they seem like little balls of chickpea flour. “Fritura mezcla” is a light, pleasant mixture of fried shrimp, calamari, and smelts with lemon and sea salt, but the esqueixada salad of house-made salt cod, olives, and piquillo peppers with arbequina olive oil suffered from the translucent fish’s rubbery texture.

Spanish cheeses include some unfamiliar options like garrotxa (a mild herbal goat’s-milk cheese)-but try a few, and make room for a couple of desserts. I picked the Scharffen Berger hot chocolate with fresh churros and the hazelnut flan with pumpkin jam and spiced walnuts and would do it again. The sangría is excellent, of course, and so is the list of Spanish wines by the tumbler or bottle, including a favorite of mine, the complex red 2003 Capçanes Mas Donís Montsant ($8). Like Alexander’s earlier spots Mod, Soul Kitchen, and Okno, Del Toro seems intended not for the long haul, but more for a fleeting-and profitable-excursion into cutting-edge trendiness.

Haro is a tiny Basque café located in the original Little Italy neighborhood on South Oakley. It’s named after the owner, Javier Haro, whose name is also that of a Spanish town in the Rioja region. As if that weren’t offbeat enough, when you compare the place with its old-school Italian neighbors, Haro looks 22nd-century, a dollhouse version of Avec-just five glossy wooden tables, five high tables, and benches along the wall with room for more semi-communal dining. The main design element is a big arch over the bar evoking a half wine barrel. Our attentive waiter says chefs and waiters from the neighborhood drop by after their places close; some evenings there is live flamenco music and dancing.

Meals begin with a bowl of olives and pickled garlic so good I ask for a refill. Good for Haro-many of these tasting places are charging for a small sampling of olives these days. To really enjoy the meal, you have to get past the most distinctive feature of the menu: the pintxos, which are the Basque version of bruschetta, bite-size open sandwiches. Haro’s offerings are all served on rounds of bread a friend labeled “a snooze.” At two bucks a piece, go ahead and order a few just for kicks, such as the morcilla (blood sausage) on a roasted pepper, an excellent sardine, and shredded lamb. But skip the egg with crab salad and the asparagus-they look and taste like open-face canapés from long-ago cocktail parties or ladies’ luncheon stuff.

My interest in pintxos quickly waned-nothing really new but the name-and I moved on to more traditional tapas with much better results. I loved the Basque tuna-stuffed pepper alongside a crab-filled saffron egg with mojos and smoked paprika; the serrano-wrapped sea scallops with saffron aïoli and lemon oil; and the piquant jumbo and rock shrimp sautéed with olive oil, red chili, garlic, and lemon. Albondigas a la brava-meatballs in a spicy brava sauce (piquillo peppers and garlic) topped with a melting manchego cheese-was best of all.

The two desserts are both simple and good: chocolate chili–spiked strawberries with balsamic reduction and whipped cream, and pan de higo, a delicious imported fig bread (a friend called it “Fig Newtons for the Spanish gods"), served with a glass of Pedro Ximenez, a wonderful sherry made from raisins. Leading off a good selection of Spanish wines by the bottle or glass are the rustic Basque whites called Txakolina ($6 to $7 a glass), which our waiter expertly described and helped us pronounce. With names like Txakolina di Arabako and Txakolina di Bizkaiko, I was grateful for the guidance.  

The motto at Quartino Ristorante, Pizzeria and Wine Bar is “Where wine is cheaper than water,” so I decided to avoid the Pellegrino. Certainly the wine is affordable, from quarter-liter carafes (quartinos) starting at $4 for an Antica Osteria Marche that verges on plonk to enjoyable quaffs like Garafoli Marche Verdicchio for $11. The Italian tasting plates from the executive chef–partner John Coletta (late of Carlucci) are also cheap-and the quality is variable.

Be careful not to order too much too fast: the bare wood tables are way too small and you might get stuck balancing dishes in your lap when things get out of hand. Cicchetti-wine bar snacks-are a reliable beginning, including the savory white bean garlic, sun-dried tomato, and roasted eggplant spreads to be eaten on the mediocre Italian bread seemingly piled everywhere. The Neapolitan pizza bianca with onion, rosemary, and chilies is tasty, and so are the braised baby artichokes with carrots, onions, and garlic-especially if you believe there’s no such thing as too much olive oil drenching your vegetables. But nothing detracts from the veal meatballs Napoli with golden raisins and sun-dried tomatoes, nor the grappa-cured salmon with sweet-and-sour cucumber relish.

The best of the handmade pastas is the ravioli filled with braised pork, speck ham, and fava beans-much better than the mushy risotto with Tuscan sausage. House recipe salumi-soppressata, capicola, and beef bresaola with Italian cheeses such as an excellent Gorgonzola-are another reliable hit. Steer clear of the mussels, though. Uneven-sized pan-roasted bivalves with pinot grigio and red chili broth turned up one night with some overcooked, others never opened-and on another visit, they were noticeably past optimal freshness. Finish with the Nutella panino, a sweet grilled sandwich with hazelnut chocolate Nutella spread, but avoid the house-made biscotti: mine were so hard even a leisurely swim in espresso wouldn’t soften them.

Quartino is usually jammed, with the unseated masses clogging the area around the host station. That scene reminds me that it’s owned by Hugo Ralli and Steve Lombardo, whose Gibsons, Hugo’s Frog Bar, and Luxbar are always packed too. There is a buzz of excitement here, with a noise level elevated by pressed-tin ceilings and an open kitchen, but the food just isn’t that great, despite the bargain prices.


AVEC-615 West Randolph Street. Appetizers $5 to $14; entrées $14 to $20; desserts $5. Dinner nightly. No reservations. 312-377-2002.

BIN WINE CAFE-1559 North Milwaukee Avenue. Appetizers $5 to $18; entrées $14 to $18.50; desserts $6 to $9. Brunch Saturday, Sunday; dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations: 773-486-2233.

DEL TORO-1520 North Damen Avenue. Hot and cold dishes $3.50 to $16; desserts $5.50 to $7. Brunch Sunday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 773-252-1500.

HARO-2436 South Oakley Avenue. Appetizers $4 to $8; entrées $18 to $28; desserts $5 to $6. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Reservations: 773-847-2400.

QUARTINO-626 North State Street. Dishes $2 to $12; desserts $4 to $9. Lunch, dinner daily. Reservations: 312-698-5000. 

>> ON WINE

Share

Advertisement