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February 17, 2012

Hunger Strike | Don't be a paella hater

In theory, Vera represents everything I’ve come to despise in Chicago’s new restaurants. For one, it’s located in the West Loop, at the corner of Loftominium Street and “Wait-how-are-there-still-meatpacking-plants” Avenue. The menu is yet another chaotic smattering of small composed plates, exotically local cheeses, and dainty charcuterie boards, all necessitating your server’s tacit stamp of approval upon ordering. And the décor is more of the same chalkboard specials, globe lights, open kitchens, and the inevitable leg o’ Spanish ham bound to a wooden jamonero stand, uneasily waiting to be sliced “The Pit and the Pendulum”-style. Tropes upon tropes upon tropes. I know, I know: “WAH, WAH, WAH… Stop yer bitchin’ and moanin’. You’re no better than the Yelpers giving a restaurant one star before it even opens.” Okay, fair enough. As much as the generic appeal of these restaurants gets on my nerves, that shouldn’t be cause to deny them a chance at redemption. Fortunately in the case of Vera, unlike a U of C Sosc class, it compensates in practice, for what it may lack in theory.

The menu certainly reflects the timeless art of Spanish country cooking. It’s hearty without being too hardy, comforting without being deep-fried and on a stick. Keeping with tradition, the majority of the small but admittedly well thought-out menu is some combination of seafood, vegetable, or meat with olive oil, nuts, and cheese. And, surprise, surprise; the “small” plates are actually large enough to be fit for human consumption rather than for Oompa Loompas after gastric bypass surgery. But don’t bother trying to structure your meal according to “starters” and “mains.” Everything just kind of crawls out of the kitchen with a post-siesta languidness that can easily span two hours. And it’s as if that post-nap haze extends not only to the service but to the kitchen staff as well; on the whole, the food is fairly hit-or-miss.

The first dish presented, for instance, a nightly escabeche special (trout during my visit), had a pleasant saltwater freshness and acidity, like a pan-seared version of a ceviche. It’s a shockingly simple dish, showing off the chef’s unapologetic stance toward salt above all else. Yet, brussels sprouts with Iberico ham were roasted beyond salvation, leading to the most dangerous thought one can possibly have in a restaurant: I could make this better at home. Yeah, I eat a lot of brussels sprouts, but damn it, can’t a man enjoy a miniature cabbage every now and then? There’s a reason almost every restaurant offers its own little “spin” on sprouts ’n pork. Because it’s damn good is what it is. But, in this case, I cannot bring myself to understand Vera’s use of premium Iberico ham. Or should I say abuse? Picking away at those ashen, charred bits of ham, I couldn’t help but weep for the little piggy that gave its legs for this supposedly noble cause.

Interestingly, it’s the less “practiced”, and less traditionally Spanish dishes that really stand out at Vera. The sweet, honeyed squash puree with marcona almonds (though, oddly, they were pecans upon arrival) is very toasty and nourishing, like some kind of deconstructed Thanksgiving Day pumpkin soup. Yet, the dish is far more Plymouth Rock than Rock of Gibraltar, and I failed to see the connection to the Spanish wine bar theme—though ,possibly, this was because I was entirely engrossed by the dish. Same goes for the lamb chorizo with onions and what I am certain was braised cabbage, though the menu reads “winter greens”. It could have had a bit more of that “chorizo-y” bite to it, as it had a long way to overcome the funkiness of the lamb, but the sweetness of two vegetables on the plate helped neutralize it and restore some balance to the dish. Again, though, the flavors took me to Oktoberfest rather than to the Running of the Bulls. In general, the dishes are not that drastically different from those at many of the  other restaurants in this meat-centric side of town, and the “Spanish” influence largely falls by the wayside in favor of inoffensive and relatively straightforward interpretations that can support a community of regular patrons. Business decisions run the kitchen rather than the kitchen running business.

But if there is any reason to come to Vera, it’s for the paella. Last on the menu, last to be served, but first in my heart. The rice dish comes served in a skillet hot off the grill, and easily feeds two or even three (though, preferably, one). You get the duck chorizo AND duck breast AND rabbit confit. The duck breast was actually some of the best I’ve ever had in terms of preparation, juicy and perfectly rare, while the rabbit tasted just like the dark meat off a lean, fit, Ironman triathlon chicken. Overall, the paella was a holy union of taste and texture, bringing together the best of creamy Italian risotto and crispy, caramelized Korean nurrungji rice. Yet, I have to painfully concede that the only flaw may have been the fact that it was not technically a real paella. The dish could have used a bit more of that elusive “soccarat,”—the slightly burnt rice that defines a paella, absorbing all those animal juices and flavors to the point of supersaturation. But that’s just my inner monocle-polishing-salad-fork-rearranging food snob talking. The long-awaited paella is definitely worth the long wait.

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