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Q&A: Chef Ryan Poli, Tavernita, Chicago

Ryan Poli is bringing a new style of Spanish dining to Chicago.

Poli, who won critical acclaim while running the kitchen at Perennial, a restaurant owned by the BOKA Restaurant Group in Chicago, has since joined Mercadito Hospitality. There, he is chef–partner at Tavernita and its sister concept, Barcito, which are scheduled to open in December.

Tavernita will encompass a 120-seat restaurant and 70-seat lounge serving Spanish and Latin-inspired tapas. Menu items will range from traditional dishes such as croquetas and pan con tomato, to fluke crudo and Wagyu beef and pork meatballs. The check average will range from $40 to $45.

Barcito, located adjacent to Tavernita, will be a San Sebastián-style pintxo bar — a new culinary addition to the Chicago dining scene. Pintxo is the Basque version of tapas.

Both concepts will feature a beverage program including keg wines and cocktails developed by beverage consultants The Tippling Bros., who devised the cocktail programs at many of the Mercadito restaurants.

Nation’s Restaurant News senior food editor Bret Thorn spoke with Poli about the concept.

Tell us about Barcito.

Tavernita means “little tavern,” and Barcito means “little bar.”

There’s a square bar in the center and then tables for four or six people. Chefs will be making the pintxos behind the bar. You have the option of walking up to them and saying, “I’ll take two of those,” and staying at the stand-and-eat bar, or you can sit down at one of the tables or stools and a server will come by.

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We’re going to have Iberico ham on the counter, a red hand-cranked meat slicer for charcuterie boards, cheese plates, marinated olives, white anchovies. Very simple, very rustic. Everything will be $2, $3 and $5, except for the Iberico, which will be about $30 an ounce.

There will be housemade vermouth, a cider program, keg cocktails and keg wines at both restaurants.

And Tavernita?

There will be a crudo bar at the back of the restaurant where we’re going to do a couple of composed oysters with our own garnish paired with the flavor of the oyster, a couple of half-shell oysters, a lot of crudo, salpicon, ceviches.

And then there will be a “platos” menu, which ranges from a lot of vegetables, a house sausage, confit suckling pig, half roasted chicken, meatballs, grilled octopus salad.

In the back we’ll have a private lounge that’s going to handle overflow for the diners during the restaurant hours, and it’s going to turn into a little party at night — a little late-night lounge with late-night bites, a cocktail program. I can’t wait until it opens.

Why did you decide on a Spanish-Latin tapas concept?

A year and a half ago, French bistros were opening all over the city. Then it was oyster bars and American lobster roll restaurants, and now it’s Italian trattorias with Neapolitan pizza. No one’s done Spanish in a long time. I think four years ago Mercat a la Planxa, a José Garces restaurant, opened [in March 2008]. But that’s a more formal restaurant, very different from what we’re doing.

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When we first started talking about the concept, I told my partner, Alfredo Sandoval, that I thought the corner bar should be closed off and its own entity with its own name, rather than just a place where people would wait for a table. I said, “Let’s do a pintxo bar, a stand-and-eat concept.” He didn’t say no, but he was kind of like when a kid says, “I want this,” and the parent says, “We’ll see.”

Then we went to Spain and started going to these pintxo bars, and he was sold. He said “Yes, we should absolutely do this. No one’s doing this.”

We think we’ve carved out a niche for ourselves in a market that hasn’t been tapped for a while.

What are the keg cocktails going to be like?

“Batchology” is what they’re calling it. There will be some sort of muddling or other showmanship in making the cocktail. Then a squirt from the keg, shake, pour in a glass and serve.

I think, at least for the Tippling Brothers, long gone are the days of lighting things on fire and carving ice. In a busy restaurant when you’re eating, you don’t want to wait 10 minutes for a second cocktail.

Are you going to change the menu frequently?

Of the 30-dish menu, there are probably going to be eight to 10 staples that we want people to come back for. The rest will change with the seasons, especially the vegetable dishes. The artichoke and beet salad will take on a different form in the summer — stone fruits or something. It’s not going to be an overhaul of the menu every two weeks like it was at Perennial. It’s too big a restaurant for that. We really want to be focus on consistency and being known for certain dishes.

But Barcita’s going to change daily based on whatever we have around.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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