We’re all guilty of preconceptions. When I read that mfk.’s Sari Zernich Worsham and Scott Worsham were opening a spot inspired by the Basque region with Joe Campagna, I pictured a sunny boite slinging garlicky prawns and cascading bright, fizzy wines from porrones into delighted open mouths. Delayed debuts and pre-opening chef shuffles notwithstanding, the entire Chicago foodsphere was awaiting this opening with rapt attention.
Thanks to joyfully irreverent design and a broad mix of dreamy, Franco-Spanish–tinged eats from chef Johnny Anderes (avec, Honey’s) to match botanically inclined cocktails, Bar Biscay upended many of my expectations. And I can’t wait to return.
My husband and I arrived before our two dates early on a Friday to find the bar already teeming with weekend revelers. That half of our foursome (my BFF and I) had spent time in the Spain portion of Bar Biscay’s purview only ratcheted up our anticipation. As its name suggests, the restaurant focuses its gastronomic sights on the roughly 1,100 square miles of Spanish and French coastline edging the Bay of Biscay.
For a spot that stakes such a clear geographic claim, Bar Biscay doesn’t necessarily scream “Spanish” or “French” in its design. In fact, I can’t think of any place quite like this South Beach-lite brasserie from the future.
The three-part space is bright and airy up front, with blonde-wood booths and tables, pastel-toned wire chairs and natural light seeping in from the wall of windows facing Chicago Avenue. A long wood bar anchors the middle dining area opposite a banquette connecting a series of two- and four-top tables. Floating tube lights overhead cast a soft bluish hue that borders on lavender thanks to the pink tint emanating from backlit plywood cube shelves on the whitewashed brick back bar. The semi-secluded back dining room more closely resembles the no-frills pintxos spots you might find in Spain, with café seating and a small chef’s counter overlooking the bustling open kitchen.
The best way to experience Bar Biscay’s full range of personalities is to hang out till after sunset when those LED lights come up—an easy feat since pintxo happy hour runs from 3 to 5pm, and there’s faintly effervescent red and white vermouth on draft to wash down said one-biters.
Which brings me to the consumable portion of this sorpresa-filled tale.
A handful of tastes seemed to broadcast Basque Country without embellishment. A bracing draft gin-tonic heavy on botanicals and pleasantly bitter from house-made tonic syrup. A plate of toothsome little (tinned! Chilean!) cockles bathing in tangy sherry butter. Buttery, pan-seared hake teetering atop a nubbly tomato-olive sauce tinged with meaty depth from jamon broth.
A vinegared white anchovy skewered into an S among charred asparagus and pickled haricot verts briefly teleported me to an unassuming storefront in San Sebastian that only served boquerones—which BFF and I downed off paper napkins at a standing table beneath a faded, signed poster of Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf.
The rest of the meal—especially the complex vegetable dishes and saucy entrees—said something brashly singular, almost like the moment night falls on Bar Biscay and you realize you’re suddenly in a very different place.
A tangle of clams, bitter greens, creamy gigante beans and crispy shards of serrano ham arrived surprisingly cold, its savory, jolting acidity almost kimchi-like. Rare slabs of hanger steak and thick fries were slathered with chunky, mayo-based sauce gribiche in a rustic take on steak frites that reminded me of a meal you might get in a newspaper cone from a food cart. A springy reprisal from Anderes’s Avec days mingled sugary-sweet peas with toothy, salinic ground squid sausage under a pair of canoe-shaped baguette slices packed with sweet roasted peppers.
We ate our way through this deliciously unique progression until our rumination gave way to the sound effects of the incoherently full. Our last, semi-lucid reflection as we drained our crianza was more of a question: Why did we keep asking to hang onto our plates after the food was gone and all that remained was a few spoonfuls of soppable sherry butter, or the drinkable remnants of paprika-tinged mornay laced with funky Idziabel cheese?
Oh, right. Because only a maniac would let that goodness go to waste. So here’s my sole plea to Bar Biscay to follow others’ lead: A basket of bread for the table, por favor?
Atmosphere: This upbeat, futuristic brasserie flits expertly among craveable pintxos, wine-bathed shellfish and saucier veggies and mains from the coastal Basque region with quenching, herbal cocktails and food-loving wines to match.
What to eat: Pull up a barstool to sip vermouth and snack on pintxos like crunchy, squishy manchego gougeres, ham and cheese skewers, and white bean puree on toast. Or work your way through the wide-ranging menu of minimalist seafood to more complex vegetables and proteins. (A few mano a bocas, a seafood dish, a vegetable and one entree should satisfy a hungry duo.) Cream puffs, scented with pistachio, citrus and espresso, are a dulcetly uncontroversial ender.
What to drink: The Wrath of Kalimotxo adults up the beloved Spanish teen drink, mixing red wine and house-made “Coke,” a blend of amari, vermouth and Angostura bitters. Faintly herbal and sweet red and white vermouth make ideal companions to most dishes. Or ask for a wine recommendation from the food-friendly French and Spanish list.
Where to sit: If you’re looking to nosh, grab a seat at the bar early for pintxos. For a bright meal, request the front table by the window, or feel fully transported as the LED lights come up on the main dining room.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.