Tapa Thursday: Meson Sabika in Naperville, Illinois

 Growing up, I didn’t even know Spanish food existed. My mother is not an adventurous eater, and even our tacos were devoid of spice, onions and garlic powder.

When I began studying Spanish at age 13, I was exposed to an entirely different culinary world – Spanish cuisine. Tapas were discussed extensively in my textbook, but it seemed like a foreign concept that I’d never get to try. That is, until Señor Selleck took us to Mesón Sabika – one of the few Spanish restaurants in the Chicagoland area at the time – senior year for a field trip.

Recently, Kaley of Kaley Y Mucho Más published a post on why she thought American tapas restaurants get it all wrong. She’s definitely got a point – tapas portions at raciones prices and a more crowd-pleasing “take” on Spanish cuisine is not for me – but since I had to be at Meson Sabika for a lunchtime meeting, I figured I could have a beer and a few dishes.

Arriving at a Spanish meal time of nearly 2pm, the frazzled but friendly waitress led us immediately to the bar, where we figured we’d get away from the lull of chatter of the other patrons. Built in 1847 as a family home, the mansion that houses Meson Sabika has various dining rooms named after Spanish cities, landmarks and foods with accented ceramic bowls and bullfighting posters. Not as sleek as Café Ba-ba-reeba or Mercat a la Planxa, but definitely more intimate than Café Ibérico.

The Spanish wine list is extensive, with even lesser-known DOs like Jumilla and Toro represented. Margaret chose a fruity Rueda, but I stuck with a beer and ordered a 1906 (Spanish restaurants may not know Spanish food, but Meson Sabika had my two favorite Spanish beer brands, Estrella Galicia and Alhambra!).

While safe, the menu plays up Spanish favorites by making them a bit more American-palate friendly. Many of the meat dishes had cheese or roasted vegetables with them, bocaditos came with garden salads and not one dish contained a weird animal part. We settled on papas bravas to share, which came covered with shredded manchego cheese and chopped parsley. Not the most Spanish dish, but definitely tasty.

We each decided on an individual entrée – skirt steak with roasted potatoes and cabrales cheese for my sister, eggplant and roasted red peppers sliders for me. After so many brats and beers and processed food, it tasted like home.

While Spanish restaurants stateside might not embrace the eat-as-many-small-plates-as-you-like and we’re-family-let’s-share mentality that I love about Spanish food traditions, the menu does have a lot of different choices for even the most wary about Spanish food (let’s put it this way – my mother thinks it’s an appropriate for a big party venue) and makes it pretty easy to share a few things and still get your own plate. 

But, ouch, the bill! A meal like this back in Spain might have run us 20€ without a tip, but I ponied up $50 after tax and tip for the two of us. And no free olives?!

Have you been to any tapas bars or Spanish restaurants in your home country? What it your opinion on their food, prices and portions?

In case you go: Mesón Sabika is located on Aurora Avenue in downtown Naperville. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Saturdays, dinner only. Their menu is available on their website.

Tapa Thursdays: La Dalia

I have the secret to getting a table at some of Seville’s hottest dining spots.

Go during a big football match. Really.

I have to admit that I was a bit disheartened when I wound up at La Dalia at 10pm midweek. There was no buzzing chatter or the cacophony of cutlery banging against plates. In fact, the only other people in the restaurant were the two members of the wait staff.

But at least I got a table right away.

La Dalia has received pretty good reviews of late, as the small bar is close to the Alameda and is yet another gastro pub offering spins on Spanish favorites. What I liked about the menu is that it (mostly) strayed from typical offerings in fusion and gastro places – no risotto here, but wild boar, an offering of cheeses and baked fish fashioned with chutneys and beans.

By the time H showed up, I was pretty decided on the few dishes I’d like to try, though many didn’t come in tapas form. We settled on duck and apple croquetas, morcilla de arroz with pisto and a fried quail egg, and a mini ox hamburger with foie gras for each of us, plus our requisite beers.

The croquetas and morcilla came first, and I was already making a mental note to come back and try more. But the hamburgerseso, sí, a gastrobar staple, was topped with cheddar cheese, which effectively killed the flavor of a well-cooked meat.

In lieu of one last tapa, we decided on dessert. In hindsight, we should have chosen another dish. The apple pie was doused in strawberry sauce, which cut the entire flavor of the apple and cake, and the brownie was dry. 

La Dalia wasn’t a total washout, but I won’t be running back there any time soon. I didn’t think the staff was especially friendly, either, but they could have just been bummed that they were missing the big game.

Los detalles: Calle Trajano, 44, right off the Alameda. Tuesday to Saturday 1:30 to 4:00 and 9:00 to 11:30. Closed Sunday and Monday dinner.

Tapa Thursdays: Nazca

We stumbled on Nazca one afternoon when our friend Scott was visiting from Madrid. I’d heard talk of the place – a Japanese and Peruvian fusion restaurant – for ages, and we quite literally stumbled there after spending a sweltering afternoon at the river catching up. Named after the Peruvian Nazca lines, the restaurant is just one of Seville’s gastro pub hotspots these days.

We arrived early enough (around 9pm) to snag a high table with bar stools in a bar that mixes industrial with international with a dash of Spanish (in the tiled floor of course). They were a bit unsteady, which made it difficult to share food once we’d ordered, but the food made up for it.  The menu is a mix of the nigiri and maki you’d expect to find at a Japanese restaurant, along with South American inspired meat dishes.

We settled on niguri topped with presa ibérica, a fresh chopped salad with chicken fingers (my life in Spain is complete!) and potato towers topped with a cherry tomato and some sort of cream sauce. Along with olives and picos, Nazca sets the table with chopsticks and Kikoman’s soy sauce.

Still hungry, we saw a waiter rush by with a hunk of meet. Hayley simply pointed and we soon had the dish at our table, which came with a deep-fried sort of croqueta, a slew of grilled and seasoned vegetables and a creamy, peppery sauce with rock salt.

Hayley says she went back the following week with her visiting parents and literally ordered everything on the menu. Don’t blame her – the food was really good and the presentation was incredible. I probably wouldn’t order the presa nigiri again, but stick to a ceviche or maki. From all accounts, the fish dishes stand out at Nazca.

Los detalles: Nazca is located on Calle Baños at number 32, just west of Plaza de la Gavidia. Open about 1:40 to 5 and 8:30 to midnight or so. They’re closed all day Tuesday and for lunch on Wednesdays. Expect to pay 12€ or more a head, particularly if you order wine.

Tapa Thursdays: Banderillas

Just as soon as it came, spring has left.

In other words, it’s already too hot to sleep.

My diet changes with the weather – just as soon as I’ve put away my heavy sweater, I stop eating lentejas. With my summer wardrobe comes gazpacho, salad, caracoles, fried fish and banderillas with my beer.

Where it comes from:

What it is: A banderillas is a snack that takes its name from the barbed sticks used in bullfighting (and, according to Google images, also the name of corn dogs). Pickled vegetables are stuck onto toothpicks and eaten in one bite. These vegetables can include gherkin pickles, red peppers, cebolletas, guindilla peppers and olives, and sometimes include anchovies or even chunks of cheese, depending on preferences.

Goes great with: Beer and a warm, sunny day! Just don’t drink them with wine – the banderillas are briny with a kick from the pepper and therefore kill the taste of a robust tinto.

Where to get them in Seville: The banderilla is great for parties, and you can buy pre-made jars at the supermarket or make them yourself at home. As something to matar el hambre after work, I’ll grab a tapa from La Melva (Cardenal Ilundain and Manuel Siurot) or any other old man bar.

What are your favorite bar snacks? Do you like banderillas?

Tapa Thursdays: The Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience

One of my favorite things about eating out in Spain is sharing dishes with friends. One of my least favorite is having to decide on what to eat when everyone has different gustos.

The Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience in the flagship store in Plaza del Duque recently opened its Gourmet Experience on the top floor, selling overpriced peanut butter next to an oyster bar. The appeal was being able to sample different cuisines at the same time while not having to walk all over town. For a Saturday night, I expected loads of diners, but the long weekend meant room to walk and eat and breathe without Semana-Santaesque crowds.

The Gourmet Experience has several different chains, all respected in Seville – 100Montaditos Gallery, with upscale sandwiches between 1,50 and 3,50; Barajas20, a gastro tapas bars; La Calata by Amor a la Mexicana, featuring Mexican favorites in ración form; Hamburguesa Nostra, where gourmet mini hamburgers take center stage; heralded bakery (H)arina; Egaña pintxos and Amorino gelato.

We settled on Mexican and shared a plate of nachos with several spicy dipping sauces. I like Amor a la Mexicana, but was disappointed with the excess of cheese. The price was steep, but desperate times call for desperation when it comes to shelling out euros.

Had we not wanted to share, the space has plenty of communal seating, similar to Mercado San Miguel, so you don’t all have to commit to the beauty of sharing dishes and tastes amongst friends. Like Food Life, the choice is up to you.

The terrace is worth sitting at, though, with views across the square to both the Setas and the Giralda. You can also get drinks. I’m interested in trying to hamburgers and gussied up montaditos and perhaps even leaving room for dessert.

If you go: The Gourmet Experience is located on the top floor of the mega department store in Plaza del Duque, accessed by its own set of elevators after normal store closing hours. 

Would you ever go to a place like The Gourmet Experience? Madrid’s Callao, Gran Vía, Goya and Castellana Cortes have them, too, as well as Alicante!

Tapa Thursdays: Sol y Sombra

Some places have now become tradition with me and the Novio when we have guests – everyone from a sorority sister and her husband to my own mother have had lunch in Sol y Sombra, a restaurant in the northern end of Triana.

The dimly-lit bar is remniscent of establishments from ages past – yellowing, cracked century-old bullfighting posters, a menu written by hand on the wall, dusty wine and brandy bottles resting under them. Those thin napkins that don’t lap up anything aren’t found – instead, you wipe your hands with rolls of toilet paper.

And there’s ham.

Like, dozens of hams hanging right over your head with little plastic cups for catching the sticky fat that rolls off the meat as it matures.

When the Nov and I took Danny and Javi last week, the mournful saetas were echoeing throughout the long, thin bar. At 2pm, the place was empty, so we set up along the bar, feet covered in albero.

The menu is replete with sevillano favorites – revueltos, fried fish, hearty meat stews. Food is only served in half or full rations, and not tapas, and vegetarian options are slim.

The one dish we always order is stewed bull tail, cola de toro. The tender meat comes with the bones and fat in all its glory, served with potatoes. On the last trip, we went all out – a round of croquetas, choco frito, pan-seared pimientos del padrón and the cola de toro.

If you go: Sol y Sombra is located on Calle Castilla 151, just around the corner from Ronda de Triana. Open Tuesday – Sunday from 1pm to 4pm and 8pm until midnight. Expect to pay 10-15€ a head with drinks.

 

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