Since Tavernita opened a few months ago the platitudes have been pouring in from the food writers in Chicago. Many have fallen in love with the Spanish styled restaurant and pintxo barcito. The dining room has a sophisticated quality yet has a similar urban feel as its sister restaurant Mercadito. The pinxto bar is as casual as it comes but has robust flavors with each bite. Yet, this seems to some like more of an end to the journey of Chef Ryan Poli. He’s opened a big splashy restaurant and has planted his flag of sorts.
Yet, I don’t see it as an end but more of a beginning. Not a new beginning but perhaps a rebirth. When Poli opened Butter, a number of years ago it opened with similar acclaim and was full of diners and bustling but it seemed he was doing other people’s food with his own take on it. Producing tasting menu’s and going with the trend of the day. He then left Chicago for a brief moment and came back as the chef at Perennial. His star continued to shine and the restaurant got rave reviews and he again filled seats in the dining room. It was at Perennial that you could see the change in him as a chef. He began taking things off the plate instead of adding more and making the food fussy.
After the last meal I had there when he was chef, as I left, I gave him my thanks for another good dinner and told him – I felt his food had changed and gotten better because he was taking things away. His food seemed more mature and thought out. Something had changed and soon after that conversation he left Perennial to open Tavernita. I wasn’t expecting him to be driven by a culinary themed restaurant but it soon became apparent he’d found a style of cooking and food that he would make his own.
I first visited Tavernita mere weeks in to its opening and you could see the genius to come on the plates. The crudo seasoned correctly and plated cleanly, no fuss no added steps or bullshit on the plate. Just simple ingredients put together correctly so it tasted amazing. Some of the other more traditional Spanish elements were there lurking under the surface not hidden but adjusted with Poli’s creativity.
My next visit, I indulged in a good amount of the menu. The escalivada was intense and rich. The romesco sauce adding a layer of depth to the dish. Made me think – why is no one using this sauce more? Complex and rich it isn’t a difficult sauce to make. The homemade Spanish sausage was well made and whimsically paired with a giardiniera type sauce, it is Chicago after all. Other dishes like the pork belly bocadillo won’t leave the menu anytime soon.
The growth of Poli as a chef is apparent. His star has never really dulled but the ascent to possibly a new orbit of notoriety is sure to come. With the packed houses, his next moves will be one many will be eyeing eagerly. What’s next for Poli – a beard nomination? Another restaurant in town? Or does he take his act on the road since Mercadito is adept at managing various properties across the country?
Whatever comes next, it will be another step forward for a chef with much talent left to share.
Tavernita – 151 W Erie, Chicago, IL – 312-274-1111
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago and mydailyfindchicago.com