I give my brother-in-law, an ER doctor, restaurant recommendations, and he repays me with medical advice. We’re comfortable with this arrangement, though it seems terribly unfair, considering he prolongs my life, while I’m likely shortening his.
He recently asked me about Spanish restaurants. Easiest question ever: Mark Mendez’s sherry-soaked wine bar, Vera, under the Morgan Street el, Mercat a la Planxa’s Catalan riot in the South Loop, MFK in Lake View, and your Ba-Ba-Reebas and Ibericos and other interchangeable tapas carnivals. That’s about it.
But now: Salero. When Franco Gianni (Tank Sushi, Wood) opened his Basque homage in August in the former Meiji/Alimentari space next to Blackbird, his chef, Michigan native Ashlee Aubin (Alinea, Zealous), began personalizing and modernizing Spanish cuisine. Somehow, he also elevated it.
Spaniards are hardwired to share food, but in Gianni’s austere dining room—here a wall of candles, there a pair of giant bull horns—he doesn’t focus much on communal eating. If that’s your thing, hang out in the pintxos bar up front, where couples canoodle over sumptuous tempranillos and grilled baguettes topped with crab salad and avocado. But then you’ll miss out on more exciting fare, such as an intense sherry-cured Spanish mackerel balanced by grapefruit a la plancha and smoothed out by avocado and a citrus vinaigrette. In the dynamic chorizo-stuffed quail, you can’t tell where the chorizo ends and the quail begins—but it’s so good you won’t care, especially when you drag it through a smear of piquillo pepper purée.
This kitchen turns jamón serrano, a potential throwaway, into edible art. It’s thinly shaved and topped with Manchego, Marcona almonds, compressed pears, and something called “bread rocks.” (The kitchen dehydrates French baguettes, then pulverizes them into a powder; the result tastes more like bread than bread does.) With chefs trying to out-octopus one another these days, Aubin’s wonderful grilled version, with puffed quinoa, pickled mustard seeds, and clouds of smoked salt cod espuma, represents something entirely new.
Too often restaurants peak with smaller dishes, then downshift into a safer gear. But Salero keeps the pedal to the metal. A roasted piquillo pepper stuffed with soft and juicy oxtail upstages the glorious strips of grilled flat iron steak with which it shares a plate, accompanied by salt-wrinkled potatoes and a tremendous pair of thick mojos, red and green. I alternated between the two sauces: burn, soothe, repeat. At the other end of the spectrum, the honest Spanish sea bass comes out of the wood-burning plancha perfectly charred, with blackened bits and a moist, flaky interior. Let it soak in the red wine sauce with Thumbelina carrots and wild mushrooms, squeeze on some lemon, and you’ve got a flawless fish.
Not everything sings. The zarzuela de mariscos, a Catalan seafood stew, boasts plenty of mussels, shrimp, scallops, and salt cod, but the scant saffron-infused sherry broth must have been applied with an eyedropper. And the churros, served with whipped salted chocolate, espresso pudding, and milk jam and derided as “the greasy $10 churros” at my table, tasted as if they were fried in old oil. Stick with the frisky flan de queso fresco topped with blood orange gel, which a runner lets ooze from the mold onto your plate.
Though they have their flaws, the sharp servers pace meals like pros. At Vera, they’re so jazzed about sherry that they can’t stop talking about it; at Salero, my waitress looked like she’d rather talk about anything else: the lobster, the weather, gun control.
Nonetheless, Gianni and Aubin have crafted something special, giving Chicago’s Spanish scene a big push forward. I plan to recommend Salero the next time my brother-in-law comes calling. That should buy me at least another five years of good health.