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Chicago's Passport to Spain
I have never traveled to Europe, but if I did, my first choice would be Spain (specifically San Sebastion). After watching many food shows featuring Spain, I am drawn in by the friendliness of the residents, the beautiful architecture, but most importantly - the food culture. Whether it be the wine bars or progressive restaurants, the people of Spain really know how to enjoy their food.
Unfortunately, a trip to Spain is not in my distant future, but luckily I have the next best thing - Vera. Vera is an intimate, chef-driven wine bar featuring sharable Spanish small plates, that are paired beautifully with a selection of seasonal wines from Spain, Europe, and the Americas. Vera focuses on using quality artisanal products, made and presented with pride and care.
Vera is co-owned by husband and wife team Executive Chef Mark Mendez and Sommelier Elizabeth Mendez. The couple are hospitality veterans, both previously at Carnivale as Executive Chef and Sommelier/Wine Director. While at Carnivale, their goal was to feature seasonally and locally influenced Latin cuisine.
Chef Mendez is a Chicago native of Puerto Rican descent. His love for dining started at an early age, where the family dinner was a daily ritual. His mom was a huge influence on him, as she was genuinely passionate about making people happy with her food, while also working with limited resources.
Elizabeth Mendez’s hospitality career started at a young age, as the consummate assistant to her family’s dinner parties. To help pay for college, she waited tables at some of Chicago’s well-known restaurants. It was during this time that she developed her passion for food and wine.
Welcoming You Into Their Home
Once you step inside Vera, you feel as if you are having dinner at a friend’s house. First, you are greeted either by their friendly host, or Elizabeth herself. Once you are seated at your table, you are greeted by one of their service staff, as he fills your water glass. This is followed by your server to talk about the menu. At first, the menu may seem overwhelming, as there are so many delicious selections to choose from. However, you are in good hands, as the servers are great guides in both the food and wine.
The menu is broken into sections - Cheese, Snacks, Bread & Butter, Placas del Dia (featured dish of that night), Seafood, Vegetables, and Meat. There are also specials available from the Otro Bar.
For your first experience, a little bit of everything is the best way to go. In order to do that, I recommend you go with a group of friends so that there is room to share. Start with a selection of cheeses, snacks, and a couple specials from the Otro Bar. Follow it with two to three selections from each of the seafood, vegetable, and meat. Vera makes one of my favorite paellas, so if you decide to order the paella, make sure you adjust the number of menu selections to make room.
You may wonder about paying for bread and butter. Restaurants are starting to charge for bread and butter, in an effort to keep costs down. I would agree with this, as many bread baskets at restaurants tend to go to waste. Restaurants that do charge for bread and butter put out a high quality product. Vera is no exception, where you will expect butters that change seasonally. Trust me, it is well worth it.
For the sweet tooth like me, there is a small dessert menu. My favorites are the chocolate bar and Crema Catalana (a Spanish version of crème brûlée).
Last, but not least, Vera’s wine menu offers affordable wines by the bottle, glass, as well as on tap. One of the features of their wine menu is sherry - over fifteen varieties of sherry are offered. Whatever your fancy, you can expect to find a selection you will enjoy that enhances your food without breaking the bank.
Passion That Carries Throughout
Chef Mark and Elizabeth are hard workers, but want to create a working atmosphere for their staff that is of respect and dignity. Their pre-shift meetings are about tasting food or wine. Their staff meals have received much attention, as well as made onlookers like me quite jealous! This all translates into a team that embraces food, wine, and hospitality. For me, that is what makes a great restaurant - one you will want to frequent over and over again. So, whether you dine alone at the Otro Bar or at a table with friends, your experience will be a wonderful one to remember.