Basque-style tapas no longer
hard to find
Just opened in January, Haro, an intriguing, intimate tapas bar, has a few challenges to overcome on its path to success.
Pronounced AR-oh, and named for both owner Javier Haro and the capital of Rioja, Spain, Haro serves primarily small plates in the style of the Basque region of Spain, not a cuisine most Chicagoans are familiar with. Those who know it will likely be comparing the food to vacation memories — always a tough contrast for a chef to overcome — while many of those who don't know it may need coaxing to overcome their fear of the unknown.
Its location, in a section of the Lower West Side's Heart of Chicago neighborhood sometimes called Heart of Italy for its venerable Italian restaurants, makes it unlikely too many folks will stray into the area looking for something different. And lastly, the chef, Greg Cannon, won't be bringing much following from his previous restaurants, because his last gig was at Ruth's Chris, a fine, but formulaic chain steakhouse. Before that he worked for Levy Restaurants, cooking for skyboxes and such at Cellular Field, a place no one goes for the food.
Yet, despite some unevenness in the kitchen and service, I can say that it will be a shame if this place doesn't make it, because it serves food and drink hard to find elsewhere in Chicago.
Let's start at the bar. The wine list, entirely Spanish, and lengthy for such a small place (about 40 seats, counting the barstools), is filled with uncommon bottles. It starts with several kinds of txakolina (chock-o-LEE-nah), a somewhat steely white wine from the Basque country, a favorite drink with pintxoak in Spain. (A pintxo - PEEN-cho - is a Basque-style canape, but we'll get to that.) Made with the indigenous grape Hondarribi zurri, this wine has a crisp, not quite fizzy character that would be called frizzante if it were Italian.
Haro also offers several cavas, full-fledged Spanish sparklers, including a delightfully pink sparkling pinot noir from Penedes, available by the glass.
The wine list is a work in progress, according to our waiter, and it does need more work. Between the small print and the restaurant's lighting, the list can be hard to make out. The waitstaff are learning as they go too, so they're not always able to provide informed guidance, either with wine or food. Bring your reading glasses and an adventurous palate.
Sherries are interspersed with the white wines - not where I'd think to look - possibly because the list of whites is otherwise short. Given that some of the best things out of the kitchen are seafood, a few more white wine choices would be welcome. Disappointingly, some sherries, including my favorite La Gitana, are listed only by the bottle. (Who drinks sherry by the bottle?)
The red section, however, offers an ample selection, including quite a range of Riojas. The bar will also mix you a kalimotxo (CA-lee-mo-cho), a popular Basque cocktail of red wine and Coca-Cola over ice, which seemed bizarre at first but gradually grew on me. At meal's end, you might want to try one of a variety of Spanish digestifs, such as patxaran (PATCH-ah-rrran), Navarrese sloe-and-anisette liqueur, which tastes something like cranberry liqueur though less sweet and with a strong herbal character.
Haro and Cannon, neither of whom is Spanish, visited Spain to research the menu, which begins with a daily changing set of pintxoak, bite-sized cocktail nibbles served on bread or transfixed with a toothpick, at $2 a piece. These might be Basque-style tuna or crab salad, for example, or a snail tucked into a mushroom cap.
They aren't detailed on the menu, which just says "Pintxos (Ask server for daily specials)" in a line that looks like a heading over the tapas listed below. Our server volunteered no information about these, so apparently you must ask - an awkward way to handle things. A photocopied list, or at least a blackboard bill of fare, would be more convenient, especially since the cramped, hard-surfaced room can be loud when it's crowded or the musicians are playing.
Currently offering 10 cold tapas and 10 hot ones, plus a few larger entrees, the menu, like the wine list, is still in flux. Stand-outs from the cold tapas included lovely mixed Spanish olives (not on the menu but proffered by our waiter) and fresh-tasting Basque white anchovies served with a dab of green-olive relish spiked with red pepper and lemon zest. Thinly sliced cured pork loin, however, was flavorless and chewy.
When it came to the hot tapas, our waiter made a point of ensuring that we didn't get too much food at once, pacing hot items so that nothing had to languish, getting cold, while we ate other food - a nice touch.
Don't miss the angulas, sauteed baby eels. Piled atop bread rounds, they look like thick, striped spaghetti, and have a similar texture, with a mild fish flavor enhanced by garlic and lemon. Nicely grilled morcilla, four plump and earthy blood sausages, also unusual and delicious, come out over a bed of syrupy braised fennel and oranges, which for me would be improved by less cooking.
Less out-of-the-ordinary, but no less worthwhile dishes include the gambas al ajillo, a ramekin of medium-sized rock shrimp sizzling in olive oil, heady with garlic and a touch of red chili, pumped up by the addition of four perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp on top. Patatas bravas, a huge mound of crisply fried potato cubes spiced with smoked paprika, resting on a base of thick and zesty tomato sauce, make a satisfying go-with.
The albondigas a la brava, four large, tender meatballs in tomato-based sauce, at first made me wonder if they hadn't come from one of the Italian places down the block, but after a bit, subtle pepper notes came through.
Options beyond tapas are steak, roast chicken and baked seafood pasta. The desserts are also small bites - chocolate-covered strawberries spiked with a dash of chili, for example, or thin slices of dense fig bread accompanied by a glass of silky, liquid raisins, i.e. Pedro Ximenez sherry.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.
2436 S. Oakley Blvd., Chicago, (773) 847-2400, www.harotapas.com
Cuisine: Basque-style drinks, nibbles and small plates
Setting: Intimate, if loud, wood-lined storefront in the city's Heart of Chicago neighborhood
Price range: Pintxoak and tapas $2 to $10; entrees $18 to $28; desserts $5; wine $5 to $8 per glass, $18 to $125 per bottle
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; lunch service planned for April
Accepts: Major credit cards; reservations
Also: Full bar; valet parking; live music Tuesdays and Thursdays, flamenco on weekends; no smoking