I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We're Just Ordinary People: Part 3, Papa's Tapas

Restaurant names make things pop into my noggin. Names like Alinea, Moto, Tru, Naha, Schwa and the like bring to mind sleek surroundings, experimental preparations and pricey prix fixe menus. Names like Chalkboard, Hearty, and The Publican make me think of comfort food dressed up and served with craft beer/artisanal wines. The name Cafe Ba Ba Reeba makes me think of that one song from The Jungle Book.

Despite its ridiculous name, Cafe Ba Ba Reeba (or Babs as I'll be referring to it from here on out) is Chicago's populist King of Tapas. On the first beautiful Sunday of the year I gathered up four of my favorite food comrades and took 'em to the ghetto university! Ahem, I mean, we ordered tapas.

––goat cheese baked in tomato sauce––
A 4 note song of creamy and tangy melted goat cheese and zesty, sweet and tart tomato sauce. It's nothing to write home about but we devoured it anyways.

––roast dates with bacon and apple vinaigrette––

Why wouldn't you order this? The bacon was crisp and salty, the dates were sweet and succulent and the apples and apple vinaigrette added a snappy texture and clean taste to the mix.

––citrus cured salmon––

This one did a disappearing act. The salmon was cold smoked, peppered with capers and paired with pureed cucumbers and crema (think sour cream but without the sour). The mix worked well together but, as Yogi Bear famously said, I could use more salmon.

––octopus and potato a la plancha––

We took a dive into the murky depths with this one and almost didn't make it back up. The potatoes were well seasoned and fork tender but the octopus was overcooked, or maybe undercooked (I don't actually know how to cook octopus nor do I intend to find out any time soon), either way it was tough and almost flavorless.

––seared scallops, raisins and pine nut couscous––

While everyone liked the pan seared scallops, the chimichurri-like raisin and pine nut couscous was the thing we couldn't keep our forks (and bread and faces) out of. This was my favorite tapa of the afternoon.

––shrimp with garlic, olive oil and red pepper flakes––

A classic tapa. Think shrimp scampi but replace the velvety heft of garlic butter sauce with the spicy lightness of olive oil and dried red pepper flakes. It was simple stuff, but I salute it for that very reason.

––beef tenderloin and blue cheese––

Don't order this. Just don't. Beef tenderloin is the most mildly flavored cut of steak there is and blue cheese is the most pungent thing in, I don't know, existence. The result here was a unevenly cooked piece of meat that basically served as a spoon by which you shoveled mouthfuls of stinky cheese in your face.

––meatballs with with sherry tomato sauce––

These are not your mom's meatballs. Or maybe they are. Sorry, I didn't mean any offense. Moving on, the sauce is paprika smoky, lightly alcoholic and wonderfully acidic. The meatballs were perfectly round and had a nice firm texture (make your own anatomical joke here).

––serrano ham, salchichon, chorizo and manchego––

This is basically a charcuterie board with a bruschetta-like toast concoction thrown in for shits and giggles. Every one loved it. The cured meats were great (especially the prociutto-ish Serrano ham) but the olives were the best part. We ordered it at the beginning and it lasted approximately 19 seconds.

We got all of them.
The standouts:
-tres leches: milky, sweet and light, this classic Mexican dessert stole the show from its Spanish counterparts
-coconut flan: comfortingly tropical, this dessert was the last to be finished but was quite possibly the most delicious one we ate
-butterscotch custard cream: I really like butterscotch, and pudding. That's what this is.

There was sangria in the beginning, wine in the middle and tequila at the end.
The sangria was good, but I've seen how this stuff is made (cheap red wine, a mixture of flavored syrups and some cut up fruit) and I think there are other things I'd rather kill my brain cells with.

Tony Valkov, my most trusted advisor in the wide world of wines, picked three Spanish whites that came out over the course of the meal. My favorite was a simple northern Spanish white called Ipsum. It was the first one we had (that might have something to do with it) and it had lovely limestone minerality as well as a nice citrus character that made it the perfect wine for the afternoon.
As an encore we headed to a local watering hole to get 5 shots of Centenario Reposado. If you haven't tried it or are a scardy-cat when it comes to tequila then do yourself a favor and tipple this smoky, smooth, and lightly fruited liquor at your nearest Mexican establishment.

Brass Tacks
Cafe Ba Ba Reeba is a staple of the Chicago dining scene (not to mention one of Lettuce Entertain You's prized gems) much in the way that Two and a Half Men is a staple of weeknight television entertainment. With that in mind I had serious skepticism going in but, after eating there, I have to say I'm a fan (not quite a convert). The food was not inventive but was, on the whole, tasty (some of it really good, some of it not good, none of it groundbreaking). The drinks were refreshing and the atmosphere was downright pleasant. But that name, we gotta do something about that name.

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba on Urbanspoon
Cafe Ba Ba Reeba

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