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Mini-review: Tavernita

First bites impress at new River North restaurant from chef Ryan Poli and the Mercadito team

  • The dining room at Tavernita
The dining room at Tavernita (Drew Templeton/Courtesy…)
January 18, 2012|By Lisa Arnett | RedEye

Tavernita in River North
151 W. Erie St. 312-274-1111
Rating: !!!! (out of four) Already hot

When it comes to restaurant openings, delay-induced anticipation (summer 2011 was the goal) plus a hot-stuff chef (Ryan Poli of Perennial, and before that, Butter) tends to add up to deafening buzz. That’s what’s happened with Tavernita, the new Spanish sibling of taco palace Mercadito, just a few blocks away in River North. Though the restaurant has three separate sections—the dining room, lounge and pinxto bar-inspired Barcito—only the dining room is open right now, with the other two spaces to join on or around Jan. 23.

Prior to opening, Poli told dining blog Eater that he promised Tavernita wouldn’t be “clubby.” Maybe it was just opening week excitement, but the bumpin’ beats, seriously dolled-up girl groups planning their next stop and a very enthusiastic “Woooo!” echoing from one booth painted a different picture.

Navigating shared-plates menus can be tricky, but the server explained right away how much a table of two might order from each of the three menu categories, which include crudo (raw seafood, $4-$13), en pan (stuff that’s on or served with bread, $8-$11) and platos (dishes ranging from small to large, $7-$21). Lime juice-drizzled hamachi ($13) with tiny cubes of avocado and cucumber, whisps of jalapeno and grains of sea salt turned my taste buds into a pinball machine, with flavors bouncing from salty to crunchy to creamy to spicy. My server recommended the escalivada ($9), and this tangle of eggplant and pepper slices with goat cheese and hazelnut romesco sauce atop crostini is a killer vegetarian choice. The lamb sausage ($21) impressed by balancing a rich chickpea puree with bright and tangy house-made giardiniera. And I fiercely competed with my date to finish the chocolate crema, the clear winner in a trio of sweets served for dessert.

A bevy of taps behind the bar pour beer, cider, house-made sodas and wine as well as sangria, vermouth and six seriously inventive Latin-inspired cocktails, the latter of which are batched daily and kegged up by the bar staff—a first in Chicago or anywhere else, as far as I know. I loved the option to order two half glasses instead of one full-sized cocktail, considering it’s tough to choose between concoctions such as the kicky Turista (tequila blanco with black pepper syrup, barbecue bitters, preserved cherries and grapefruit, $10.50) and the nutty Comandante Big Nose (hibiscus-infused rum with macadamia liqueur and nutmeg, $11).

Yum. Based on the first bites and sips I had, I can’t wait to see how Tavernita shapes out when it’s open in full.

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