Back in a 2011 interview with Esquire, Catalonian chef, restaurateur and the cooking world’s resident mad scientist Ferran Adrià asked, “Could you imagine people eating a painting — if they could introduce a painting into their bodies? It’s probably the artist’s dream, and we have the opportunity to do so.” Although the idea of tearing into a Picasso or a Dalí canvass as if it were a steak doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, Adrià brought an element of surrealism into Spanish cooking. His restaurant in Northern Spain became famous for deconstructing ingredients and dishes in an attempt to redefine our experience at the table. His restaurant popularized a thirty-course tasting gustación menus that featured dishes like the gorgonzola balloon, air baguettes, cucumber-based foam, rose petals with ham wonton, fresh melon water. Much to the relief of the everyday restaurant goer, the vogue of Avant-guard cuisine has waned. At the same time, one doesn’t need to be a food-snob to enjoy more traditional Spanish cuisine. In fact, any number of roadside dives in rural Spain set a pretty good table.
Over the past year or so, my wife and I have been making the rounds in Central Illinois and Chicago. Thus far, we’ve been pretty lucky and the Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant named Vera was one of the hits last season. It is a small restaurant located on 1023 W. Lake St., just under “L” tracks. On a busy night, Vera’s might seat about 50 people. It is located on the restaurant strip, off Randolph Street, just down from the site of the Haymarket Square. It is a place for the adventurous eater, not for your average steak and potatoes, Midwesterner.
Since the success of restaurants like El Bulli outside of Barcelona, more and more people have come to explore Spanish hospitality and cooking. Spanish cooks and Spanish-inspired cooking can give the French a run for their money. In some ways, Spain has left the French behind by opting for a Mediterranean diet centered on seafood, olive oil, crusty bread, rice and gamy meats. When my wife and I had dinner, we ordered tapa portions of roasted cauliflower flecked with goat cheese and pecans, anchovies with pickled garlic and spicy red pepper, herb-dusted mushrooms, and grilled octopus. For something a little more daring, I ordered morcilla, tripas, y garbanzos (blood sausage, tripe and garbanzos) in a tomato based broth. Your Faithful correspondent is a fan of offal.
Vera also has a marvelous selection of cured-Spanish ham, which for me is best described as the caviar or Mercedes Benz of pork. These are the marble-rich ham legs and shanks that have a nutty, lemony flavor that slightly burns the tongue at first before the slice melts in the mouth. Although I tend to favor the Iglesias Redondo brand, Vera also has a selection of Fermin ibérico and Cinco Jotas Ibérico: These are the legs that could set a person back fifteen hundred bucks.
Along with the ham, one can also order smoky paprika paella complete with rabbit and duck, papas bravas, Spanish red peppers stuffed with fish, chicken liver served with caramelized-onion on toast and a great selection of wine, sherry, and cheese. We also ordered slices of Spanish ham, crusty bread, fresh anchovies, salad and cheese. Perhaps it appealed to my more primitive instincts; I have always believed that fine dining evolved, at its very roots, originated from poor-people food. Some poor slob who was so hungry that he would eat anything: pig intestines, stuffed with blood soaked rice and a bit of spices. It is the same with caviar. Who would want to eat black fish eggs? Now, beluga caviar, pate, and foie gras cost an arm and a leg. The last time I was in Paris, my wife and I stopped by the Grand Epicerie, the gourmet food store located next to Bon Marché, 38, rue de Sevres, right next to the metro stop named and in walking distance from St. Germain des Pres. Like Harrods’s Food Hall in London, the place is enormous. A place the size of a Wal-mart superstore that specializes in high quality items and the price isn’t too bad, either.
The place is spectacular, a foodie’s paradise. It has everything that anyone could want. After I got over the initial shock, I looked down to see a large mason jar packaged with Italian polenta, the quintessential poor-man’s food. And, what was it selling for? With all of the high end packaging, the price came to 18 Euros, the equivalent to $23.84 on today’s market. And, for what? Grits! But for all the ironies, Vera is a marvelous place to have a few glasses of wine, savor Spanish ham, and get your fill of an adventurous meal. The place is top shelf and not to be missed!
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=950