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Small plates find a big stage

Small plates find a big stage

Chef Ryan Poli and the brothers Sandoval have opened a huge and dramatic Spanish-themed restaurant in Chicago.

Operators supreme the Sandoval brothers—Alfredo, Felipe and Patricio—were really on a roll in early 2011. They had successfully replicated Mercadito, their contemporary Mexican concept, four times in three different cities—New York, Miami and Chicago. Now they were looking to explore a different cuisine and a different style of restaurant in Chicago—maybe something Spanish.

That’s what Ryan Poli was thinking about, too. The 35-year-old chef had knocked it out of the park at several top Chicago restaurants, but was still looking for a slot as a chef/partner in his hometown. Poli’s background was in New American cuisine produced with classical technique, but he was itching to give Spanish cuisine a try.

The timing was ideal. This past January, Poli joined forces with the Mercadito crew to open Tavernita, a Spanish-inspired small plates restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Also on board were New York City mixologists/beverage consultants The Tippling Brothers, who came up with a beverage program unlike any other in the industry.

They went big. Tavernita accommodates roughly 300 people when hitting on all cylinders, which it has been doing with regularity since the day it opened.

The restaurant incorporates three separate venues: a 122-seat  dining room; a glitzy downstairs lounge that holds 70; and Barcito, a concept-within-a concept whose pintxo bar offers true Spanish-style stand-up snacking to however many can cram in. Barcito seats 92; standing-room-only capacity is 140.

It’s unusual to see a chef of Poli’s accomplishments cooking in an operation geared to this much volume. But he jumped on the Tavernita opportunity when he got the offer.

Poli had already hit plenty of highs in his career, working under noted chefs (Jean Banchet at Le Francais in Wheeling, IL; Thomas Keller at the French Laundry) and leading top Chicago kitchens on his own (Butter, where RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY named him a Rising Star in 2005; and, most recently Perennial). A few lows had been mixed in, too (getting stuck working the wing station at the ESPN Zone in Orlando in 1997; moving back in with his parents in Chicago as a 30-year-old when a promised Arizona gig didn’t work out).

Fortunately, it happened that Poli had twice spent nearly year-long stints staging at some of the greatest restaurants in Spain. That experience provided plenty of source material to draw on while he created Tavernita’s three-part dining room menu.

The seven–item crudo lineup offers the likes of hamachi (with avocado, lime, jalapeño chile, cucumber, $13); Faroe island salmon (with piquillo peppers, olives, charred onions, sherry vinaigrette, marcona almonds, $10); and oysters served either as an oyster cocktail (Samish bay pickled oyster, mango, papaya, poached shrimp, jalapeño relish, $4 each) or served simply on the half shell (guajillo chile cocktail sauce, market price).

The en pan section offers customers six choices, including foie gras conserva (foie gras mousse, cherry compote, $15); coca de pato (flatbread, duck confit, orange-arugula salad, tomato sofrito, $11); and pork belly bocadillos (apple jam, pickled red onions, brioche, $10).

There are 17 items listed under platos. It’s an eclectic lineup, ranging from suckling pig confit (apples, squash, caramel-sherry vinegar sauce, $21) and crispy Atlantic cod (mushrooms, spinach, cipollini onions, habañero chimichurri, $18) to a green bean salad (celery, white anchovies, crispy shallots, $9); croquetas (fermin iberico ham, saffron aioli, $10); and patatas (potatoes, chorizo, fried egg, brava sauce, $10).

Barcito (“little bar”) boasts a separate street entrance and has its own menu.  Offered are pintxos (Spanish-style snacks), pica pica (little bites) and tabla (Spanish cheese and meats).

These menus are built for volume and speed, because that’s what they’re going for at Tavernita. So is the beverage program, designed by New York City-based drink consultants The Tippling Brothers (Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay). The Brothers have a national reputation as mixologists, but they’re equal parts chemists and engineers here. Both what is served and how it’s served are unique.

Tavernita’s signature cocktails are created with house-made tonics, syrups and elixirs. Then they go into kegs. Also kegged are Tavernita’s wine, sangria, vermouth and eight of its beers. In all, there are 48 taps that access cocktails (seven), small batch wines (19), sangrias (2), vermouth (2) and house-made sodas (4). There may not be another restaurant in the industry with a set-up quite like this one.

But one may be on the way soon, perhaps in Miami. Poli, the Mercadito Hospitality gang and the Tippling Brothers have hit on a lucrative concept here: Star chef, reasonably priced food, drink orders filled as fast as customers can make them, all of it offered in a high-energy design—it’s quite a package. After seeing how smoothly the Sandovals expanded their Mercadito concept from New York City into Miami and Chicago, could multiple Tavernitas be next? Why not?

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