Monday, March 18, 2013


The West Loop has become a hot area where restaurants are concerned.  Randolph Ave. is where most of the hot restaurants are although there are several very good places that are off the strip by a block or two that occupy spaces surrounded by food warehouses and art galleries.  Just because these places are off the strip does not make them any less good though.  Next and Moto are both Michelin quality restaurants that are off the strip and the Wine Bar, Vera, one of the best wine bars in the city, is also located off the strip.  It is run by husband and wife team Mark and Liz Mendez.  Mark is the chef and Liz runs the wine program.  As it off the strip, the vibe is a bit more low key and relaxed.  This does not mean however, that the service is anything less than excellent.  The waitress, bartender, and head of the wine program were all very attentive and very willing to educate diners (and drinkers) about their food and drink. It is located in a vintage building and it uses that in it's design.  The painted sign in the window is very stylized and has both plant-like and Art Deco elements to it.  The door opens to one corner of the dining room which is narrow and deep opposite the bar.  The space has high ceilings and is very open with track lighting and a finished ceiling.  Lighting is also provided by large candles on the tables.  The floor and bar are light colored hardwood (as are the tables) and the dining room furniture is upholstered with a light green velvet-like material.  As I was by myself, I decided to sit at the bar where I had a full view of the restaurant.  The menu is divided into nine sections and the dishes are small plates, a nine course meal would have been a little much.  I did spread my order around though.  My first course was a dish of Clams stuffed with Chorizo and Green Onions with a broth which was a combination of the clams, chorizo, and green onions.  The dish was topped with some toasted bread that was great for soaking up the broth.  The dish was spicy and salty and the clams were tender.  It was a great start and I really enjoyed it.

For my next course, I went for a vegetable dish that was a play on a dish that I have had many versions of.  The key component of the dish was beets and in many beet dishes, they are served with goat cheese.  For this dish, the Beets were served with Quark, Pistachios, and Sherry Vinegar.  It was garnished with baby greens.  The beets were well roasted and sweet, the Quark, which is a cow cheese that is essentially cottage cheese without the whey, was creamy, light, and slightly tart and the pistachios added a nice crunch.

While it wasn't bad in the order that it was served, I actually expected it to be served first.  It was a Pig Head Bocadillo with Caper Aioli, and House Pickle.  A Bocadillo is a simple sandwich served on Spanish bread and is commonly found in Tapas bars which fits the bill for this perfectly.  The pork was ground like a burger but it was very flavorful.  The pork was well spiced and the aioli and pickle provided some acid.  As I said though it was very good but because it was so simple, it would have worked well at the beginning of the meal.

The last thing I had before dessert was another meat course and it actually reminded me of an Irish breakfast.  It was Blood Sausage with a Fried Egg and Spicy Greens.  The blood sausage was like a breakfast sausage as it would be in an Irish breakfast.  It was not as firm as a regular breakfast sausage but every blood sausage I have ever had is a bit loose so it was as it should be as far as texture was concerned.  It was however, a little more spicy than an Irish breakfast would be but that was a good thing.  The egg was fried over-hard, and the spicy greens had a nice peppery flavor to them.

As far as the wines I drank, I started out with a lightly sparkling Portuguese, Vinho Verde, continued with a nice peppery red (although I don't remember what it was), and finished with a Madeira (which was on the house)  with my dessert.  For my dessert, I had what they called a Crema Catalana which was served with sliced apples and fresh mint.  A Crema Catalana is very similar to a Creme Brulee.  it is a creamy custard with a caramelized crust.  For custards of this type, I actually like a nice thick crust that actually takes a little work to break through.  This one had a very nice crust.  The Madeira that I had with this enhanced it.  It was on the dry side and had a citrus flavor that actually went well with the apples.  This dessert had a multilayered flavor of sweet and tart with a very creamy custard and a nice crunchy crust.  It was one of the best caramelized custards that I have ever had and it was a great end to a great meal.

Vera is a great wine bar not only in that they are very helpful in helping their customers learn about their wines but also in that they have some of the best food served in any of the wine bars I have been to around town.  The atmosphere is casual and welcoming and I really enjoyed my meal here.      

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