A classic pintxos bar in San Sebastian
During a recent trip to Spain, my evenings in San Sebastian all began with a stroll along the promenade of La Concha Bay toward the narrow streets of Parte Viejo, the old quarter. Parte Viejo is ground zero for the fantastic Basque bar cuisine of pintxos (pronounced PEEN-chōs), so I elbowed my way into the orgy and moved with the crowd from bar to bar. When it comes to pintxos, almost anything goes. The only official criteria: Unlike their more familiar close cousin tapas, pintxos have to be eaten standing up and in two bites or fewer. Needless to say, I ate a lot, from traditional nibbles of grilled anchovies and fried gernika peppers to stunning nueva cocina vasca creations incorporating foams, aromas, and gels. Back home, I became infatuated with finding authentic pintxos in Chicago—and three glossy Spanish restaurants beckoned.
This past March, River North’s popular Café Iberico opened a restaurant upstairs devoted almost entirely to pintxos. So far, Pintxos Tortilleria & Pintxos Bar is as empty as Iberico is slammed. It has its own kitchen and bar, and the big, handsome space is decked with colorful pintxos-themed place mats, TVs playing Spanish music videos—basically everything but customers. The problem could stem from the choice to open on only Friday and Saturday nights. On a recent Saturday, even with a serious wait for a table at Iberico and near-pleading from hostesses to try Pintxos, it wasn’t until the throng spilled onto LaSalle that some brave souls agreed to go upstairs.
Seafood combo with white beans and spinach at Pintxos
Thirty pintxos here, which sounds like a lot, but they are all little skewers (called bandilleras in Spain), which the menu implies is the universe of pintxos. Not true. The endless varieties of Basque tapas also include croquettes, montaditos (mayonnaise-bound salads on rounds of bread), stuffed peppers, and even some high-tech creations that would be at home at Alinea. Oh, well. A good way to approach Iberico’s Pintxos 101 is to order a few of the six combo platters of four pintxos, served in compartments on top of red pepper and green vegetable sauces, with a side of Spanish-style beans, potatoes, or other vegetables. Not like any presentation in Spain, but good stuff.
The platter of Spanish pork sausages is my favorite, a skewered array of chorizo, txistorra (a thin Basque sausage), butifarra (“white” Catalan sausage), and little cocktail-sized sausages called cantimpalitos. The combo of grilled and skewered octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, and scallops with a bowl of good white beans and spinach captures the Basque love of seafood. I was not enthused, however, by the vegetable combo—a mundane array of button mushrooms, stringy artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, and eggplant that could have been smuggled in from a so-so trattoria antipasto table. The meat combo of skewered beef, lamb, pork, and veal was equally depressing: It’s never a good sign when the meats are distinguishable more by color than taste. Much better was the poultry platter of grilled quail, duck, chicken, and Cornish hen with a side of creamy roasted leeks every bit as good as the birds. Treat yourself to a bottle of crisp, white Basque txakoli wine that’s a favorite in San Sebastian’s pintxos bars; very little is exported, but here you can get the 2007 Xarmant Txakoli for just $20.
The best non-pintxo option upstairs: tortillas, the classic egg and potato omelet ubiquitous in Basque pintxos bars and tapas bars all over Spain. The buck-fifty desserts served in little red clay cazuelas are also a treat, ranging from the usual flans to delicate crêpes with caramel. A glass of the sloe gin–like Basque liqueur called pacharan is an excellent way to end the meal. But I think I understand why Iberico gets so much attention while its new baby sister goes home alone: No tapas, no paella, the sangría is nothing special, and service varies wildly from informative and prompt to clueless and MIA. People like me who are looking to recapture memories of San Sebastian would do better to go home and look at photos.
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Photography: (Pintxo Bar) Jens Schwartz/Laif, (seafood combo) Anna Knott
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s artisanal Spanish cheeses, meats, and other assorted goodies
As if smelling the trend floating in from Europe, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! has also ventured into pintxos territory. Although the choices are few, they cover more of the styles of a real Basque joint than any other place in Chicago; the Lincoln Park tapas veteran offers half a dozen pintxos at the bar for $1 each, and a similar small selection along with specials in the dining room for 50 cents more.
At a table, you get a platter of all six pintxos from the tapas menu for $8.95, saving a whopping nickel from the individual price. Mine came very fast and disappeared as quickly. A crisp croqueta, oozing with goat cheese, and shrimp-and-egg salad on toast tasted like classics, as did a red piquillo pepper stuffed with rich braised short-rib meat, while the serrano ham boquillo skewered with caramelized pineapple captured the spirit of modern pintxos. Also, I loved our terrific waitress’s description of the sangría: “the cheapest red wine, a cup of brandy, chopped fruit, and a splash of soda.” Bravo Ba-Ba-Reeba!
Pay attention to the pintxos on the special menu. We lucked into toasts variously topped with roasted apples and cured duck, julienned red and yellow piperade peppers under a chunk of poached tuna, and puréed zucchini with aged manchego cheese. I wish Ba-Ba-Reeba! had used the great Basque sheep milk Idiazabal cheese on this, but maybe that’s a tall order for a $1.50 dish in Chicago.
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Eivissa made a splash when it opened this summer, but business is fading fast. After a few visits, I can see why. Dudley Nieto, who has been at ten restaurants in the past 16 years—most of them Mexican, the last two Zocalo and Xel-Ha—now is trying pintxos and tapas at his new Old Town spot. He should have stuck with Mexican. No matter how much he fiddles with the menu, Nieto insists on using bland toasted bread for all eight of his pintxos offerings, stuff that would be tossed out of any respectable pintxos bar in San Sebastian. Why? On one visit we put it to a manager strolling by, who answered by saying they are lazy in the Basque country so they put everything on bread. Wrong. Insulting. And indicative of the clueless approach by Nieto and the Eivissa team.
Most of the pintxos came piled so high with chopped ingredients that they looked like ratatouille explosions. I needed a knife and fork because if I picked them up with my fingers, they fell apart—despite the fact that each one came on toast and was stuck through with a little bamboo-stick skewer. (The skewers held half a manzanilla olive, a couple of raisins, and pimiento squares. Did these take a wrong turn at a dusty cocktail party?)
OK, the house-smoked citrus salmon, serrano ham, and ricotta cheese combo was pleasant enough, and the grilled asparagus, marcona almonds, and aïoli tasted vaguely like something Basque. I would call the unfamiliar slice of grilled rib eye with cabrales (blue cheese) and aïoli a winner. But, from elsewhere on the menu, the pork and chorizo paella was so bad—gummy rice, jerky-hard sausage, pork tougher than a tire—that I threw up my hands in defeat. This is not a paella; it’s an abomination. (Guess I should consider myself lucky: On another visit, I spotted nearby diners sending back a seafood paella that I had the misfortune to whiff as it passed by.)
I wonder whether anybody at Eivissa has ever been in a Basque pintxos bar or tasted real Spanish paella. If for some reason you find yourself at Dudley Nieto’s misguided restaurant, soak up the smart décor and the sangría—you’ll have time, since service is slow, and the view and drinks are better than the food. At least Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Pintxos have their hearts in the right place, but nobody in Chicago yet has a good handle on pintxos.
2024 N. Halsted St.; 773-935-5000
MODEL MEAL Platter of six pintxos, plus pintxo specials
TIP $1 pintxos and $3 tapas in the bar daily from 4 to 6 p.m., weekends 10 p.m. to midnight
HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Saturday and Sunday
TAB Six-pintxos platter $8.95
1531 N. Wells St.; 312-654-9500
MODEL MEAL Two combos of three pintxos with a glass of sangría
TIP There’s a new management team on board; hope things improve.
HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Saturday and Sunday
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Three-pintxo combos $6.75
PINTXOS TORTILLERIA & PINTXOS BAR
737 N. LaSalle St., 2nd floor; 312-664-4800 (inside Café Iberico)
MODEL MEAL Sausage combo, seafood combo, and poultry combo
TIP Entrance is confusing; check in with the Café Iberico host station.
HOURS Friday, Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Pintxo combos $6 to $7.40, tortillas $5.95 and up, desserts $1.50
Photograph: Anna Knott