Haro: Bringing Basque Flavor To The South Side
By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 6, 2006 4:00PM
When Chicagoist heard about the opening of Haro in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood – also known as the Heart of Italy or Little Village - we made a point to check it out as soon as we could. That day came blessedly Saturday, livening up what had to that point been an exasperating day. Chicagoist thought that a tapas restaurant would have stood out like a sore thumb along all the Italian restaurants dotting South Oakley, but it’s actually a welcome addition to an already crowded strip. By embracing the flavors and style of Spain’s Basque region, it’s also a welcome departure from standard tapas restaurants in the city.
Owner and restaurant namesake Javier Haro agrees (Haro also takes its name from the capital of Spain's La Rioja region). “We’re the first tapas restaurant in the city to introduce pintxos (pronounced “peen-chos”) to its customers,” Haro said. Pintxos places an emphasis on rich, complex flavors. One look at the menu and diners will find liberal uses of serrano ham, Basque white anchovies, baby eels, and morcillo (blood sausage). The dining area is small, almost forcing the social interaction that’s a staple of tapas dining. Chicagoist and his dining companion had an interesting conversation with a friend of Haro's who said his name was "Crazy." To our right a woman put up a brave front feigning interest in her date, but seemed more interested in the plates we ordered.
The décor inside is a mix of historic and modern Spain, anchored by a giant hanging arch that starts behind the bar, representing the inside of a wine barrel. The bar and waitstaff is gracious, accommodating, and efficient; an impressive feat considering that the place filled to capacity within five minutes of our arrival. Led by a Swedish bartender named Gregor, who assisted us through pronunciations and explained the dishes to us all evening, there is no pressure to engage in conversation with total strangers. It all seems to come naturally.
Among our favorites during our visit were the "tabla de quesos." This dish featured cabrales, murcia al vino, and manchengo cheeses, served with imported Spanish fig bread, membrillo (an artisan quince paste), and Spanish almonds. The fig bread worked as a pleasant palate cleanser, allowing us to fully enjoy the flavors of each cheese without one cheese dominating another. The "pimientos y huevos Vasco" featured a small red pepper stuffed with tuna and a saffron egg filled with crabmeat. Both were served with mojos and smoked paprika.
The "mejillones al Txakoli" (steamed mussels in a white wine-saffron broth) featured liberal helpings of chiles and garlic that had us continuously reaching for our wine. The slightly acidic white wine broth tempered the tangy elements of the mussels. Our favorite dish of the evening was the "caracoles al Jerez." This escargot dish prepared with sherry glazed forest mushrooms, truffle oil, and smoked sea salt was brimming with flavors that kept evolving as we ate. Feeling the sea salt crunch between our teeth was an unexpected texture.
Haro also has an extensive wine program designed to not shatter your budget to bits. A small selection of txakolina ("chock-o-leen-a"), a Basque white wine made from hondarribi zurri grapes, are offered. These wines have a slightly acidic palate and effervescent quality, which make a wonderful complement for the seafood dishes on the menu. Haro has a more prominent selection of riojas available by the glass or bottle; we recommend the 2001 Marques de Caceres at $7 a glass. This is a light-bodied, fruit forward wine with a warm oak nose that softens nicely when exposed to air. A large glass of sparkling pinot noir made a perfect complement for the "fresas al Haro", chocolate chili spiked strawberries served with a balsamic reduction and whipped cream.
No tapas restaurant is complete without some sangria, and Haro makes an exemplary batch. It's sweet without leaving your mouth too dry and goes down smooth. Here the sangria is served in a porron, a glass decanter with a tapered spout. Haro’s servers offer the option of pouring sangria directly into a diner’s mouth from the porron, similar to drinking from a Spanish bota bag. If you don’t want to opt for this, add a shot of cola to the mix and have a kalimotxo ("cal-e-mot-cho"). Most weekends flamenco guitarists and dancers entertain the clientele. Finally, for those of you more inclined to late night dining, Haro’s kitchen is open until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
As spring nears, Haro will be offering wine and sangria tastings, starting April 1st they’ll be open for lunch, and sidewalk seating will be offered during the warmer months. Haro is located at 2436 S. Oakley and the phone number is (773) 847-2400. If you plan on visiting with a large party, reservations are highly recommended (note: they do add an 18% gratuity for parties of six or more).