Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

entrees are for suckers

Eating out in this country, and especially in this city, is something of a dangerous venture sometimes. Portions are huge. People undertake massive eating challenges, at risk of their health (thanks, Adam Richman). And we eat so much greasy food around here (myself included), it’s no wonder there’s a serious health epidemic right now.

People in the Mediterranean have it right: artisan meats, cheeses, vegetables, and oils. They’re healthy (except for the economy, but I’m not here to discuss that), happy, and live long. And more than that, the portions are small. Few things make me happier than small portions. When we eat out, we tend to eat off the appetizer menu because while the portions are smaller, the chef has more flexibility to do more with good ingredients and we can try more unique dishes (cases in point: Frontier and Brasa).

One of my favorite things on earth is Spanish food. Paella is one of the greatest things on earth, and I love tapas. Until tonight, it’s been years–since I lived in Annapolis, Maryland–since I experienced real, authentic Spanish tapas. That happened at a combination tapas/sushi place called Joss. (If you’re ever in old-town Annapolis near City Dock, go. Trust me.) Being a diverse, legendary food city, Chicago has several good tapas bars.

One of the names I’ve heard most when it comes to tapas (Spanish for “small bites”) around here is a place in Lincoln Park called Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! Like some of the best restaurants in this city, it’s owned by a restaurant group known to locals only as Lettuce. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises owns no fewer than 70 restaurants in this country, with about 60 of them right here in Chicagoland. Lettuce has 3 Michelin Stars among their best restaurants (one each for Everest, L2O, and Tru), and every one of their other places runs like a Kenyan marathoner: effortless and flawless. We’ve never had a bad bite at any Lettuce restaurant. Naturally, we had high expectations, and since M had been once before, she could speak to the quality.

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba is as good as it can get in this town for charcuterie. All of their cured meats, cheeses, rice, spices, and olive oils come directly from Spain, and the chef, Tim Cottini, gets all of his produce locally, from the legendary Green City Market. Spanish charcuterie is among the best on the planet, and Spain is the global epicenter for the artisanal food revolution. (It’s also home to the best chef in the world, Ferran Adria, but I digress).

We made a reservation on OpenTable, and upon arrival, we were seated at a small table in the middle of what appeared to be their summer patio, surrounded by glass for the winter. Our server, a very vivacious young man named Josh, greeted us and gave us a suggestion for our beverage of the evening: Sangria. Specifically, pomegranate sangria, which was one of the best I’ve had. It was so good, I couldn’t tell it had alcohol (until I’d had half a pitcher). As M put it, “It’s like fruit punch, but better.”

A check-in on Foursquare awarded us one of the highlights of the night: a free pintxos platter (worth $9) for it being my first check-in at this place. Pintxos are individual-bite morsels of awesomeness. The menu offers six, and the platter came with one of each. I tried all but the padron pepper with olive cream cheese and pimento (M couldn’t have the tuna, for obvious reasons), and each was wonderful. I think my favorite was the goat cheese croquette or the chorizo-wrapped date. Both were amazing.

We ordered five small plates after that: the octopus a la plancha, the rioja-braised short ribs, the artisanal cheese plate, bacon-wrapped dates, and what they called the house plate: serrano ham, salchichon sausage, chorizo sausage, and manchego cheese (basically the charcuterie plate).

The house charcuterie plate was incredible. I love manchego cheese and homemade chorizo, and the salchichon was awesome. Spain’s known for their ham and this was the best I remember having. It came with three slices of crispy bread slathered in a tomato-garlic spread, which added sweetness to the saltiness of the meats. M and I agreed that if we could eat anything for the rest of our lives, it would be charcuterie.

Cheese plates are a gift from God. This one had an incredible goat cheese, manchego (basically Spanish Parmesan), and a harder goat cheese (the name escapes both of us at the moment) that were all wonderful. They came with some Spanish almonds, an orange marmalade, and three cubes of quince (a sweet, firm fruit, almost gelatinous in texture), which I’d never had before but will certainly have again.

Dates wrapped in bacon are iconic tapas, and these were amazing. The dates were sweet and creamy, and the bacon was salty and crispy. Perfect. I could eat these all day, every day.

Octopus is one of our favorite things, and this was awesome. It was tender and well-seasoned, as were the tomatoes and potatoes that accompanied. It wasn’t the least-bit chewy, which happens with octopus and calamari.

But the highlight of the meal was the rioja-braised short rib with mashed potatoes. For one thing, these potatoes were creamy, smooth, and covered in shredded manchego. I don’t remember ever eating mashed potatoes like these. And the short rib–oh my God, the short rib–was like eating the best damn pot roast on earth, only better. It fell apart as my fork passed through it, and adding the potatoes to the bite only made it better.

After dinner, a food coma arrived. Our original plan was to take in the lights on the Magnificent Mile, but neither of us had the energy.

We are members of Lettuce’s Frequent Diners Club. We get points at any Lettuce restaurants, and sometimes bonus dollars added to our account (which we’ve used at their fast food burger joint, M Burger). We also both got a $15 gift certificate for our birthdays (mine’s approaching and hers was last month, as you’ll recall from our poor service experience at Gilt Bar), which knocked the bill down significantly.

Artisanal food is one of the best things in the world. There’s plenty of it, especially in this city. Get out there and find it, and look for places that let you have it in small portions, because tapas is the small package good things come in.

Rating: Food Porn

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! is at 2024 N. Halsted in Lincoln Park.

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