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Review: Bar Biscay Is a Trippy Charmer

Chicago has only one restaurant focusing on rustic Basque cuisine, and it’s a delight.

Photos: Jeff Marini

If I had to describe the mood at Bar Biscay, the new “Spanish brasserie” in Noble Square, it’d be—oh, I don’t know—a cross between a minimalist’s art studio and a Miami Vice set.

The elongated space, tinted with pastels and packed with blithe, well-dressed people who seem to be perpetually on their third glass of tempranillo, is a fun house of shifting colors and audacious visual trickery. That includes mesmerizing slats of orange light hovering over the upholstered banquettes like some kind of psychedelic mind screw. Behind the long pine bar, a neon pink glow leaves inexplicable red-and-green afterimages, creating a mildly disconcerting optical illusion. I learned later that this effect comes from a strip of color-changing LED lights. “We can go from warm and inviting to ’60s discotheque at the touch of a button,” says co-owner Scott Worsham.

Indeed. The whole experience has an undeniably woozy vibe. I saw some folks at the bar that could barely stay upright, even as they hoisted French Kiss oysters on the half shell. I felt a little unsteady myself, and I was anchored safely to a banquette.

To ground things, a place like this needs rock-solid food, and Bar Biscay has it in a big way. Industry veterans Worsham and his wife, Sari Zernich Worsham—who planted a flag for Iberian fare in Lake View with MFK—along with Trotter’s alum Joe Campagna, celebrate what Scott Worsham calls “an undersung gem that seemed ripe for plunder”: the simple cuisine of seaside towns in Spain’s Basque Country and along France’s sandy western shores. Chef Johnny Anderes (Reno, Avec) is obviously a good fit for the breezy Euro vibe to which Bar Biscay aspires.

Prawns with avocado
Prawns with avocado

True to the Spanish bar food ethic, this menu is built for snacking, especially the menu’s eight “mano a boca” offerings, which evoke the salty-tangy-fatty pintxos that are the Basques’ take on tapas. Tiny bamboo skewers of white anchovy with grilled asparagus and haricots verts conjure the brininess of the seafood of Galicia. The deeply rich grilled chicken livers with a red wine glaze suggest the simple tavern snacks of San Sebastián. And the intense whipped Cabrales, a sharp blue cheese made in Asturias on Spain’s northern coast, hits the back of your throat like a delicious punishment that’s only barely reprieved by the accompanying caramelized red onions and toast disks. I loved it all.

Charcuterie plates have become the defining image of communal dining for me, so I wasn’t surprised to spy more than one jovial group at Bar Biscay huddled over a bountiful board of cured meats and cheeses. My own party did the same, dangling silky sheets of jamón de pata negra, dry-cured ham from pigs fed acorns in Spanish woodlands, over long-aged, granular 1605 Manchego from the La Mancha region. We folded more jamón onto crusty bread (which, honestly, there could have been a little more of) with pickled rutabaga and painted the sandwiches with quince jam or mustard. Life was good.

When the menu dives deep into the bay, it comes up with pearls left and right. After falling in love with tinned cockles in Spain, the Worshams challenged their chef to take the sweet mollusks to the next level. Anderes has done so, saturating them with an irresistibly rich sherry butter and serving them with grilled bread for sopping. He pulls off a similar trick with razor clams, whose usually mellow flavor deepens and ultimately explodes in a white wine and garlic-butter sauce. But the seafood standout is the whole prawns—enormous, meaty specimens dusted with Espelette and paprika, drizzled with apple balsamic, and flanked by perfectly ripe avocado halves.

Whole oxtail with orange zest gremolata
Whole oxtail with orange zest gremolata

The restaurant’s larger plates may appear less exciting at first glance (including the de rigueur steak frites and half chicken), but they’re surprisingly delightful. Stick your fork into the melt-on-your-tongue duck confit blanketed in arugula, white beans, citrus, and red onions—basically, the richest duck salad ever—and do it first to secure yourself a sizable chunk. The signature dish, a whole oxtail, is destined to be a Chicago classic: a massive and spectacular mound of tender shredded meat that presents like a dressed-up pot roast, its luscious fattiness cut with watercress and an herby orange zest gremolata. Bar Biscay’s popping flavors make even modest vegetables exciting, as in the salad of crisp endives wallowing in a creamy yet bright coriander dressing with Marcona almonds and raisins.

The hot streak, unfortunately, ends with desserts. At the moment, Claire Smyth’s pared-down list consists of nothing more than crêpes and cream puffs, and neither option hits with much force, unless you count the bitter, off-putting aftertaste of the espresso cream puff with cocoa nib glaze. I’m told the dessert list is a work in progress, which is encouraging.

More effort has been put into the beverage program. It includes an ever-flowing tap of bracing, licoricey Atxa red vermouth, served in three-ounce pours, and eight signature cocktails that Basque-ify familiar libations, including a luscious old-fashioned that adds Pedro Ximénez sherry and cognac to the mix with the traditional bourbon. On any given night, the tipsy patrons at the long bar can be seen making their way determinedly through the tight list of Spanish and French wines, 25 of which cost less than $50 a bottle.

Shaved Brussels sprouts
Shaved Brussels sprouts

Though pacing can be bumpy amid the room’s chaos, the cheery staff keeps its cool at all times, even after an overeager busser spilled a glass of water with such exuberance that it soaked my tablemate from chin to crotch. Somehow, in this atmosphere, it was almost endearing.

I adore this restaurant—for its food and its freaky vibe but also simply for the fact that it exists. It’s not like I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Sure, Chicago is a world-class dining town, but it’s a little weak in the whole northern Spanish coast category.”

But it’s nice to know that anyone who now tries to make that claim would be full of it. By zeroing in on this glorious region, and doing it with the kind of easy confidence most restaurants need years to attain, Bar Biscay scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.

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