Vera | 1023 W. Lake St. (at Carpenter) | 312.243.9770 | Hours: Tues – Sat: 5:00pm – 12:00am
Sun: 5:00pm – 11:00pm Mon: Closed
It’s spring — for real this time. Every living creature in the Northern Hemisphere has two things on its mind: food and sex. If they happen in relative proximity to each other, so much the better, right?
Food is at least equal to sex in terms of simple, carnal pleasure. I consider a good restaurant to be the modern equivalent of an ancient temple to a fertility goddess, a form of sacred indulgence. Should you be lucky enough to have a significant other, or just an other whom you’d like to impress, heed my advice and take them to Vera, a new Spanish small-plate restaurant on the Near West Side. If the evening doesn’t end with you getting lucky, the meal alone will have been worth it.
Located in the trendifying (sounds better than “up and coming,” yes?) Fulton Market neighborhood, Vera is the new restaurant of chef Mark Mendez and his wife, sommelier Elizabeth Mendez. The restaurant is small but feels spacious: the walls are exposed brick or painted cream white, left invitingly blank, while the lights are kept low and intimate.
Like the dining room, the food itself is beautifully simple. Plates and portions are mostly small, though you can make an entire meal out of some of the dishes, such as the paella. Vera sources much of its food from local and/or organic growers, such as Gunthorp Farm and Genesis Growers (they’re all listed on the back of the menu).
Vera has a cheese and charcuterie bar (Unless you and your date are, like me, fine with the occasional wafts of cheese that smell like ripe feet, I’d get a seat at a table). For $9, the in-house cheesemonger will make up a plate to whet your appetite, with three large slices of cheese that are served with housemade garnishes, such as jams, honey or jellies, and slices of dark rye bread. $21 gets you a charcuterie plate of cured meats.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that one of the owners is a sommelier, the list of wines is extensive. Fortunately, the wines are surprisingly value-priced with nothing over $12 a glass, and the stemware — from water glasses to wines — are all Stolzle. Can I just say that I really appreciate good quality stemware? Vera also has a nitrogen system enabling a ginormous wines-by-the-glass list as well as the more reasonable prices due to less waste. Oh, nitrogen… How I love thee! They also have a smaller selection of beer and sherry.
I started with hamachi crudo, which was fresh enough to nearly melt on the tongue. It was prepared with pureed valencia orange, chili oil, pea sprouts and tiny pieces of julienned radishes. The combination of flavors was beautifully balanced: not too spicy or salty or sweet. It was a delicate dish, the hamachi soft, the flavors subtle.
Next up was spinach, cooked to a sublime state with garlic, golden raisins and pine nuts. It wasn’t raw, nor was it a soupy mess. I only got this on the advice of my server, bless her heart. I feel as though my eyes have been opened to something amazing. I actually texted fellow food nerd and Gozamos writer Corey Nuffer during my meal: Fucking spinach, who knew? Not me, certainly. This wasn’t the green glop that Popeye knocks back like a shot of bad whiskey. I put away a veritable mountain of the stuff, chasing stray slices of garlic and pine nuts, probably making pornographic noises the entire time.
Last, I ordered a plate of Iberico pork, served with pureed lima beans, pea sprouts and a sauce made of grape must. The pork was cooked to perfection: crisp and crunchy on the outside, pink and rare in the center. I chewed the whole thing slowly, both to savor it and because I was ready to burst. I waddled out of the restaurant in a near-catatonic state. It took me the entire night to recover.
Good for: vegetarians, local-food nuts, wine-lovers and people with allergies. My server immediately asked if I had any allergies that she should know about. With several friends who’ve been diagnosed with Celiac’s disease or other severe allergies, I appreciate this.
Go here when: You’re trying to impress a date, your parents are in town, you want a snack before hitting a bar or club, or any time you want to overindulge in some hedonistic eating.
Downsides: The dessert menu only has two dishes. It’s located in a place that requires either a car, a cab ride or a few blocks walk. (There will be a new green line stop opening a few blocks away soon, though.)
Prices: The prices for each of the plates vary, from about $5 to $23. You could probably eat well here for about $25. You could also spend a lot more and eat even better. Budget about $30-$60 per person, including drinks and tip.