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Vera’s paella with rabbit thigh, duck confit, duck chorizo, and pickled chilies
Vera loves to push the ham and sherry, especially together, and my crew learned the raw power of that pairing when one of us knocked a glass of Bodegas Tradicion Palomino Palo Cortado onto a plate of Spanish meats. A masterstroke. The nutty, lemony flavor soaked directly into thin layers of Fermin iberico and Cinco Jotas iberico, enriching both food and drink to ridiculous levels. The sledgehammer approach finally knocked some sense into me. “If I have to give sherry away to make people understand it goes with the food, I’ll do that,” says Liz Mendez, a partner with her husband, chef Mark Mendez.
That shouldn’t be necessary. People have discovered Vera—the 58-seat Spanish hub named for Mark’s grandmother—and its Euro-heavy wine list full of adventurous value-fixated selections. The lifelong dream of the Mendezes (veterans of Carnivale), Vera, like Bar Toma, qualifies as the right restaurant at the right time, and—under the el a few blocks from the Randolph Street circus—it’s close to being in the right place.
The storefront feels much warmer than when it housed Rushmore: Earth tones and Edison lights sift a golden glow onto diners. I can think of worse places to be than at the walnut-topped cheese bar/“action station,” watching the pleasant gentleman painstakingly slice a supine pig while I swish an amontillado around and nosh on Hooligan, a cow’s milk cheese ingeniously paired with Madeira-soaked raisins.
Mark Mendez’s menu is not a love letter to Spain. It’s a marriage proposal. Punchy dishes, like anchovies with pickled garlic and red pepper flakes and marjoram-dusted roasted mushrooms with puréed ’shroom sauce, bottle España’s big flavors in a way few in Chicago have. A stunning paella is alternately crisp and toothy, stocked with tender rabbit and duck and bursting with spicy vinegar from pickled jalapeño and Fresno chilies. Mendez even coaxes juice out of tapas standbys like papas bravas (crunchy and creamy) and grilled octopus with grainy pimentón sauce (soft, smoky). “They’re small plates, but my small may not be somebody else’s small,” he says.
The best example of the largess is a $3 chicken liver with baffling proportions. Two little caramelized-onion toast points sag under an obscene amount of impeccable liver, like a weightlifter with a sculpted torso and grandfather legs.
Which brings me to the Vera bread conundrum. People are bound to protest the lack of free bread, like they did at Girl & the Goat, and The Bristol before that—and this time we’re talking about Spain, where soaking up sauces with bread is a national sport. “Bread costs more than people realize,” says Mark Mendez. “For a small place like Vera to survive, I have to be careful with my costs.”
That’s the only acceptable answer. If it means that I can still get a gluttonous portion of chicken liver for $3, then I’ll do without bread. Or I’ll just pay the $6 for the delicious sourdough served with three outstanding butters—garlic, duck crackling, and goat—to help keep restaurants like Vera in business. The bread just so happens to be wonderful too.
Photograph: Anna Knott