Tavernita (Chicago): Former fine-dining star Ryan Poli reveals his love affair with Spain at a new, casual hot spot

Chef Ryan Poli had to learn how to stop "overcomplicating things" as he moved away from fine dining at the new Spanish-influenced eatery, Tavernita. Photo by Drew Templeton

Many a traveler — myself included — can tell you that Spain’s allure is incredible and undeniable.

So it’s easy to understand how it captured the heart and mind of chef Ryan Poli, who is heading up the new Spanish-kissed “it place,” Tavernita.

Poli found his way to Spain at two points (2003 and 2007) in his career.  In retrospect, it appears that the award-winning chef took home more than just the skills he honed at the noted fine-dining establishments where he worked.

Poli became enamored with the food, beverages, culture and energy of Spain when he lived and worked there. Photo by Drew Templeton

“What I really learned is that I liked to eat the [Spanish] street food, hang out in the tapas bars, have a beer with my friends and bounce around from place to place,” says Poli, who caused a foodie frenzy last year when he announced that he was leaving the Boka Group’s upscale Perennial to join Mercadito Hospitality Group’s Tavernita project.

Understanding Spain’s seductive powers goes a long way toward explaining why a fine-dining star (he also once helmed the now- defunct Butter) was willing to place his tweezers and eye-droppers in semi-retirement to start producing his own elevated takes on tapas.

He describes his new style as “a flavor-driven rustic approach to cuisine.”

“It took me a while to work myself out of a fine-dining mindset,” Poli says.  “It hasn’t been easy or difficult, just different,” says Poli, who has learned to “stop overcomplicating things.”

Although Poli still cares about presentation, he rarely brings out his tweezers or eye droppers at Tavernita. Photo by Drew Templeton

Gone from his repertoire are, say, fussy microgreens and painstakingly plated beets.  Although beets can still be found on his menu — except now they’re incorporated into an artichoke salad with arugula, Spanish blue cheese and artichoke chips.

“I want to cook the food I enjoy eating on my days off instead of stressing about changing the menu every day or keeping up with the latest trends,” says Poli, who favors casual eateries such as Chicago’s Purple Pig or New York’s Boqueria.

Poli worked extensively on Tavernita’s menu as he waited for his famously behind-schedule restaurant to open, he says.  (Initially slated for last summer, Tavernita opened in January.)

After a trip to Spain with the Tavernita team, Poli began testing out dishes in the kitchen of sister restaurant Mercadito.  But when creative inspiration couldn’t be found, the chef literally moved his chef’s gear into business partner Alfredo Sandoval’s River North pad and started cooking there.

The chef worked long hours creating "rock star" dishes for Tavernita's small plates menu. Photo by Drew Templeton

“I grabbed my pots and pans, my circulator and knives,” says Poli, who also brought along his chef de cuisine, Greg Bastien.  “I turned it into the Tavernita test kitchen.”

The group cooked, taste-tested and kept track of the “winners and rock stars” on a large piece of butcher paper in Sandoval’s living room.  “Little by little, week by week, it started adding up,” Poli says.

And the final product is a lively and navigable list of (mostly) Spanish- and (some) Latin American-inspired crudos (raw fish and seafood dishes), bread-based options and shareable small platos.

The Husband and I got a chance to taste-test Poli’s menu with tapas-loving friends Jeff and Val.  Opening picks — via Jeff and Val — came from the crudos section of the menu.

Crudos, or fresh, raw fish and seafood dishes, are a key part of Tavernita's menu. Photo by Drew Templeton

Creamy fluke ($10) with artichokes, tomatoes and pines nuts had a touch of Spanish olive oil and a hint of lemon zest. Buttery hamachi ($13) was appealingly dressed with guacamole components — avocado, fresh lime, fiery jalapenos and cuke.

All options in the “en pan” section sounded promising, but we settled on escalivada ($9) — one of Tavernita’s top sellers.  Poli’s take on classic, simple Spanish tomato bread notches things up with the addition of eggplant, red peppers, hazelnut romesco and salty goat cheese.

Poli’s perfectly portioned platos were filled with winners.  My only disappointment was pimientos de padrón ($7), one of my favorite Spanish tapas of all time.  One basically plays Russian roulette with this dish of salted (some hot, some mild), blistered green chiles.  Poli’s addition of sherry vinegar, in my opinion, distracted from the simple wonderfulness of this dish.

But I can live with that, because everything else we sampled was delightful.  Val and I were scraping the bottom of the skillet with Poli’s “soooo airy” (yes, that’s what my notes say) corn pudding ($12) with rock shrimp, poblano chiles and herb salad.  Humble Brussels sprouts were enhanced with chestnuts, fontina cheese and lemony bread crumbs.

Platos include a variety of meat, seafood, poultry and vegetable dishes. Photo by Drew Templeton

Carnivore-friendly plates also pleased our group.  Greg’s [Wagyu beef and pork] meatballs ($14), named after Bastien, unexpectedly brought Italian and Asian flavors to the table with their hints of garlic, ginger and that hazelnut romesco sauce.  Chicken a la brasa ($18) — cooked in Poli’s Uruguayan wood-burning grill — was sizeable and tender and accompanied by wild mushroom escabeche and green beans.

I particularly enjoyed the robust house-made lamb sausage ($16).  This juicy, smoked bebé was served with a creamy chickpea and olive oil hummus and a pickley giardiniera.

During our visit, desserts were treated as specials, which we were told would change once the brand-new restaurant got its bearings.

Desserts are limited, but include the Catalan classic pan con chocolate. Photo by Martia Punts

From the limited list, we sampled — compliments of Poli — the trio de postre, a flight of custards which that evening featured pistachio with blueberry salsa, passion fruit with dark chocolate crunch topping, and dark chocolate with toasted pumpkin seeds.

And we also had the classic Catalan children’s snack pan con chocolate, where toasted bread is coated in melted chocolate, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with sea salt.

Just one more reason — as does the chef — to adore España.

Tavernita
151 West Erie Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654
312.274.1111
www.tavernita.com

Tavernita on Urbanspoon

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