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February 17, 2004

Come for the tapas, but be sure to desert the dessert

Sometimes it seems like the vast majority of my activities outside of academia center around food. Whether it's the rather tired dinner and a movie (or museum exhibit, theater show, etc.), meeting friends for lunch, or even taking a break from studying over a steaming mug of hot chocolate, a rather inordinate number of social events are centered around eating. I'm not sure if it's part and parcel of college life, something about Chicago in the winter, or a personal issue. The point is that the sheer volume of meals one must consume causes the number of truly memorable ones, sadly, to be small. Thankfully, this weekend offered me the chance to meet up with good friends over good food—offering the best of both worlds.

As is often the case, a social event gathered us together for dinner on Sunday night. We were celebrating a friend's birthday, and his restaurant of choice was a tapas bar called Arco De Cuchilleros. We planned to drive to the restaurant, but it was a plan doomed to fail—the saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men comes to mind. Instead, we trudged to the Garfield 55 stop near Shoreland and took the Redline to Belmont. Arco De Cuchilleros is about five blocks from the Belmont Redline stop at 3445 North Halsted Street. For a change, the night was not particularly cold, and the walk felt short.

Acro De Cuchilleros is a modest little restaurant tucked into its own narrow niche. The walls are decorated with memorabilia from Spain—plates, flags, and the like— and customers sit at sturdy wooden tables. A banner embroidered in reds, greens, and golds hung above our heads. If the atmosphere leads you to doubt to restaurant's quality, give it a chance: the excellent tapas belies its humble demeanor.

Due to the vagaries of the CTA, our party trickled into the restaurant like drops of water running downhill. After about half of us had arrived, anticipating the commands of the missing birthday boy, we decided to order a few dishes. Tapas, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, are Spain's answer to Chinese dim sum. While the term originally applied exclusively to Spanish dishes, it now connotes any small dishes from the Mediterranean region served as either hors d'oeuvres or as a meal. Many are ordered at a time and shared among the table. At Arco De Cuchilleros, the plates of tapas run from around $4.50 (marinated olives) to $8.50 (mussels or salmon). We all chipped in to pay for the birthday boy, and each person's $20 share bought plenty of food—and was enough to cover tax and tip.

We considered waiting at the restaurant's bar, but in the end, allowed our waiter to show us to our table. He left us with olive oil and a tall stack of bread plates. We greedily anticipated the basket heaped with bread that appeared moments later. While we waited for the missing members of our party to arrive, we whetted our appetites by having each person order a tapas plate. In the first of two rounds, we tried two of the evening's specials: vieriras y gambas (shrimp and scallops cooked on the griddle and served with caper butter) and cerdo al brandy (sliced pork loin sautéed and served in a brandy sauce). The caper butter gave the shrimp and scallops an enticing hint of saltiness, while the taste of the thick brandy sauce made the pork loin tender and rich. In addition to the specials, we also sampled the almejas a la marinera (fresh clams cooked with white wine, onions, and garlic) and the patatas ali-oli (boiled potatoes in garlic mayonnaise) for which the Arco De Cuchilleros is known. The clams were savory and melted in my mouth. The potato dish, served at room temperature, resembled nothing so much as potato salad from my days of office picnics. It was creamy and delicious; the garlic added a crisp note that made it well worth its reputation.

Nearly an hour after they were expected, the rest of our party arrived. By that point, the early birds were on the verge of needing another round of food. The newcomers were famished, so a flurry of orders ensued. Tapas are great for large parties because every dish is shared. Our group of eleven or twelve managed to try a bit of everything. I especially recommend the berenjena formentor, a fried eggplant dish with a side of Spanish sausage, as well as the croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes). For a few extra dollars, Arco De Cuchilleros offers larger portions of select dishes such as paella valenciana, a rich combination of rice, chicken, seafood, chorizo, and pork served in a large pan. The saffron used to season this dish gives it a vibrant orange color, and the melding of tastes and textures is heavenly. Be forewarned that Arco De Cuchilleros's paella features squid—but the texture and taste can come as a pleasant surprise for even the most adventurous diners.

For all its variety of tapas, Arco De Cuchilleros does not offer much in the way of dessert. Maybe this was fortunate, given the sheer amount of food we consumed in the course of dinner. Once we'd sated ourselves on the delicious meal, we bundled up and headed out into the Chicago night We headed eagerly towards our humble dorm kitchen and the promise of a three-milk birthday cake prepared by my very own roommate.