Salero arrived in Fall of 2014 and its website announces its mission in clear terms: “Welcome to Spain in Chicago’s West Loop.” Visually embedded within this greeting is an aqua asterisk symbol, similar to the Michelin star icon. This may lead the uninitiated to infer that Salero has garnered a Michelin star (it hasn’t); or we may read this as ornamental augury—a wishful foreshadow of Michelin recognition in the upcoming year. The website, then, begs the following: how, exactly, would Salero transport us to Spain? And is there the promise for culinary greatness?
While this restaurant is a relative newcomer, its chef, Ashlee Aubin, isn’t. In addition to the usual platitudes (an investment in eating local, on the relationship between food and community, and the forth), his website bio indicates that he spent four years at Zealous, which no longer exists but seems to have been a paradigmatic locus for early aughties fusion. Aubin then spent a year at Alinea, and the website credits Grant Achatz as Aubin’s chief mentor. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Wood Restaurant in Chicago, a respected eatery but without the Spanish concentration Salero declares; this left me wondering whether Spanish cuisine was indeed native to Aubin’s culinary vision.
Locating Salero presented no challenges, since it occupies a small space adjacent to Blackbird and Avec, both of which I’ve dined at in the past. Our early reservation netted us the option of indoor or outdoor seating; arriving before my companion, I chose the former. Were I in Maine, I might have gone al fresco; at Salero, however, to dine outdoor is not to enjoy a prime layer of real estate, but rather to come into physical contact with Blackbird and Avec, the restaurant’s formidable competition. With exposed brick and wood, as well as wooden chairs and tables unadorned with cloth, the indoor dining room registers as fashionable, yet not particularly comfortable (perhaps these attributes are correlated.) One can see from the photo above the substantial variance in luminosity between the blinding sun outside and the dark interior milieu; combined with the nearly empty early evening dining room, the space felt almost cavelike (I imagine, however, that the exposed brick makes for a noisy late evening scene.)
Our server performed an efficient menu description, her presentation made all the easier by the absence of nightly specials. I was disappointed to find that jamon iberico had been replaced by cheaper serrano ham, which is delicious but relatively ubiquitous. Many dishes still caught my eye. Despite the Spanish focus, Chef Aubin accents his menu with touches extracted from a broader spectrum of European fare—harissa, foie gras, and orecchiette pasta, for example. I have no problem with such cultural borrowing; a nationally-specific focus need not entail the outright exclusion of other cuisines. I chose grilled octopus as a starter and whole lubina for my main. My companion chose differently, but I only tried my dishes and so I’ve limited this report to my plates.
A foodrunner stopped by with good bread, which I neglected to snapshot.
The octopus came with radicchio, escarole, and a croquette filled with tete de cochon. I don’t find the composition particularly attractive, perhaps because of the relatively monochromatic interplay between the reddish hues of the octopus and those of the lettuce and croquette. If there was aesthetic overlap, the taste proved just the opposite, and I couldn’t harmonize everything. The croquette wasn’t a bad match for the octopus and while the octopus was slightly overcooked, it remained within the bounds of enjoyability; yet the harshness of the lettuce really besmirched the complementary flavors otherwise at work.
The lubina was the real star of this meal, served with rouille, potato sticks, and charred escarole. I could have done without the latter (especially after the escarole and radicchio from the course prior), but this seems to be the age of bitter lettuces and so its presence may have been inevitable. The fish was cooked perfectly and the kitchen dexterously filleted it so zero bones littered the composition—often an issue with whole fish preparations. This dish had everything: a well-prepared protein, textural contrast, and an appropriate sauce. Given the youth of this restaurant, I imagine that Chef Aubin is mediating between overhauling his menu as the season dictates and hitting upon signature dishes; I hope this course claims signature status as it was a real tour de force.
To conclude, I ordered churros, served with salted whipped chocolate, and milk jam. These lacked the more dense sugar coating of the decorated version at Xoco, yet we may perhaps attribute this to a difference between Mexican and Spanish churros. The churros were satisfying, but lacked the modicum of sweetness that I enjoy in a dessert.
My hasty, one-meal conclusion is that Salero’s cuisine isn’t vastly different from what one finds at other West Loop spots, particularly Spanish-inflected restaurants like Vera and Avec (there may be others as well.) Certainly, those two restaurants remain anchored in small plates, distinct from the 3-course experience of this meal; all the same, Salero’s forte doesn’t seem to involve serving atypical ingredients, but rather configuring those ingredients into a more conventional dining experience than its competition. Salero might do well solidify its niche through offering more luxurious Spanish ingredients. The most high-end ingredient was foie gras—what does it say about an upscale Spanish restaurant when its chief luxury ingredient derives from another cuisine? I have no objection to foie gras being served, but the absence of iberico ham feels like a lost opportunity.
It was also a mistake, I think, not to produce a more distinctive décor, perhaps with more Spanish artwork. In other words: if Salero purports to transport its diner to Spain, national specificity is achieved through cuisine alone (unlike Topolobampo, for example, which represents Mexico through cuisine, décor, stemware, and so on.)
Fortunately, in Chef Aubin, Salero possesses a worthy chef who produces plates that are attractive to both eye and tongue. I can see that the middling octopus preparation has been replaced by a more compelling preparation, and other dishes invite return visits. Salero may not achieve a proper Spanish experience, nor even a singular experience within the West Loop, but the skilled preparation of my fish leaves me optimistic that Salero should manage to avoid getting muscled out of town by its more famous neighborhood competition.