Thursday, April 19, 2012

Road Trip- Tavernita- Chicago

Our final dinner on our recent trip to Chicago was at Tavernita.  I was excited because I love a new place—and it was also small plates (Spanish in style).  The place is really big, and the first thing I noticed was how loud it was, even when it wasn’t still that full.  It didn’t help that there was a group of St. Patrick’s Day partiers that had obviously been drinking for a long time sitting right next to us.  Also, I asked if we could be moved to a table on the end of our row (which was set for 3) and they said no, that they were fully booked.  I was totally fine with this, but then about halfway through our meal they sat a party of two there which I found rather annoying.

Anyway, the first course we got that evening turned out to be one of the best of the evening.  It was the pan con burrata with tomato marmalade on crostini ($9)  It was simple, but the bread was perfectly grilled—nice grill marks but still a little chewy in the center. The tomato spread also flavored the bread and the cheese (homemade mozzarella stuffed with cream) was really good—really light, creamy and even fluffy and drizzled with olive oil. The oil added the right amount of depth to the cheese—and the whole thing was properly seasoned with salt and pepper. A simple dish that was put together just right. 
The next dish that we got was the corn pudding ($12)—it came highly recommended by our server.  It was a fairly dense pudding of corn meal, with some sweet pieces of corn, roasted poblano peppers and some pieces of shrimp mixed in.  It was topped with what was called an herb salad, but which was just arugula as far as I can tell (I was sort of expecting a mix of things). The corn pudding was a little dryer than I thought it would be, as was the shrimp, but the flavors overall weren’t bad. The greens were lightly dressed with a vinaigrette which was a nice contrast to the sweet and rich corn and poblano flavors.  We didn’t even finish it though, which is not a good sign for hubby who will eat all of anything he really likes.

Next we got the patatas ($10) which were fried chunks of potatoes, with pieces of chorizo, a brava sauce underneath and a fried egg on top.  Even with the fried egg on top this dish wasn’t great.  The egg wasn’t really runny enough to make up for the dryness of the dish—and the brava sauce (which is like a slightly spicy tomato sauce) was lacking—hubby didn’t realize there was even any sauce there until I told him and pointed it out to him.  The chorizo was kind of dry, the potatoes were really dry and the egg was too hard cooked.  This one was a miss—there was just nothing there that made it interesting. 
One of the more slightly more successful dishes of the evening was a special—it was prawns a la plancha (cooked over a grill) with garlic and olive oil.  They were whole, shell-on prawns and had a nice smoky flavor—I sort of couldn’t help myself from comparing them to the ones we had not long ago at The Bristol.  While the flavor of these was good—nice and garlicky, the fact that they were whole and unpeeled detracted a bit because the shells were really hard to get off because they had been grilled.  At The Bristol, they used the same concept but sliced them in half length-wise before cooking them, making it much easier to just pull the meat out with a fork.  I know it sounds picky, but when something is difficult to eat, it just becomes annoying to me, even when the taste is pretty good.
So the next dish we got was described as housemade pappardelle with mushroom ragout and Manchego ($13).  So this one was not at all what we were expecting, and was disappointing for this reason. When I hear “mushroom ragout,” I am thinking it will be a sauce of mushrooms—not a tomato sauce that had a bit of mushroom in it.  Maybe I am wrong, but I wanted a mushroom sauce, not a tomato sauce.  The pasta itself wasn’t bad—I do love homemade pasta.  But again this dish wasn’t doing it for us and you really could barely taste there were mushrooms in there. They really should call it a chunky vegetable marinara or something.

We had been kind of disappointed with our last few dishes and hadn’t eaten a lot of them (and also because we wanted something with mushrooms), so we decided at the last minute to add one more—the coca de setas ($10).  It was flatbread (there are several on the menu) with caramelized onions, mushrooms, goat cheese and more of the herb (i.e. arugula) salad.  We were glad we got it as it at least gave us the mushroom fix we were craving, and the goat cheese and dressed leaves gave the dish some brightness we had been missing in the others.  But as usual, a flatbread is a flatbread—nearly impossible to make it amazing as far as I can tell.  The toppings weren’t bad, but the crust, well it fell a little “flat.”
Here’s the thing—I appreciate the fairly casual tavern type feel of the place, and it is obvious they are going for the fairly loud buzzy atmosphere of a busy hip restaurant (when the first word a restaurant uses on its website to describe itself is “sexy,” that’s a clue I guess). There was no way the two elderly ladies next to us (good for them for staying current right?) could be carrying on any kind of conversation with each other though (and they were quite annoyed when their martinis were not served “up” in a martini glass).  I am pretty sure Tavernita has achieved the atmosphere they want, but the food feels too mass produced and uniform to me—almost like it is coming from a decent chain restaurant.  And several of the items really bordered on mediocre.

And I know I rarely mention the drinks/alcohol portion of my meals, but I am pretty sure Tavernita is banking on this for a lot of their business.  They have this huge, “everything on tap” thing going including beers and their wines (and apparently lots of other things).  And well, the wine didn’t taste very good to me. We tried several different things and they all just seemed a little flat or something. 

So while I always like trying new places in Chicago, this one was a bit of a miss for me, which I guess is good, because it allows me to not feel like I need to go back on a future visit and leaves more space for something else.  I can barely keep up with everything going on in Chicago though, and as always, appreciate your suggestions for places to try when we are there.

151 West Erie
Chicago, IL 60654

Tavernita on Urbanspoon


  1. Appreciate the fair, thorough review. We're always scheming another trip... and it is so nice to get such a good glimpse into the dining experience. Loud restaurants drive me batty - and knock on wood, I have pretty good hearing!

    btw re: the shrimp, I've seen some folks who enjoy crunching their way right on through ((shudder))

  2. Am sorry to hear it was that good. I'm a big Ryan Poli fan from when he had Butter. He was, as you probably know, the first high profile chef to leave French Laundry and go out on his own. I love his last resturant -- Perennial. Don't know why so many American chefs struggle with the Spanish/Italian dishes.