People like to assume that restaurant critics know everything about food and drink. The truth is, I’m still building my fluency in pastry, cocktails and wine, though I make up for the latter with the devotion and enthusiasm of a golden retriever. Chicago’s recent proliferation of thoughtful vino-focused spots (Income Tax, Red & White, Passerotto, Arbor) has only fast-tracked my education.
I went into Bar Ramone, Lettuce Entertain You’s debut wine bar with a Spanish bent and an ambitious list, assuming it’d seduce me in a similar fashion. And in some ways, it does: The generally rad spot fills a massive void in River North’s clubby nightlife scene. My hope is that the beverage team better equips its staff with the know-how to do justice to its dynamic wine list—particularly since so many of the by-the-glass options ring up over $15. Without that expertise, my dates and I missed out on the memorable drinking experience we’d hoped for.
We walked into the bustling bar knowing we’d need to lean on our server to navigate the ever-changing menu. Lettuce sommelier Richard Hanauer curates a list that fluctuates daily, with about 25 wines by the glass and 100 bottles. Unfortunately, our server rarely strayed from a tight script, leaving us to revert to our typical orders rather than straying into the pricey unknown.
We munched on hunks of country bread smeared with grated tomato and piled with rosy ribbons of Spanish ham as we lobbed open-ended wine questions. Could our server recommend a fun white to my red-loving friend, she asked, perusing the list populated with riojas, a Portuguese treixadura and a chenin blanc from California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “How about rosé?” our server suggested, to which my date reluctantly agreed. I was also in the mood for white. Maybe an albariño? If I liked pinot grigio, I’d like albariño, she said. The Galician wine was crisp and elegant, an ideal match for our first nibbles.
Foodwise, the menu of Japanese-tinged Spanish pintxos was a mixed bag—certain flavor combinations soared, while others fell flat. Served in a bath of yuzu kosho vinaigrette and dotted with parsley oil, steamed clams were a perfect marriage of verdant earth and salty sea. The fried artichoke pintxos were another knockout—the crackly fried edges giving way to tender, herb-scented flesh, skewered and stacked atop toast lathered with savory olive-piquillo puree.
A towering slice of Spanish tortilla was a prescriptively tasty—if dry—omelet, which we soaked in mouthwatering, vinagery house hot sauce. A charred avocado sat in a viscous sauce of grassy parsley oil and tangy walnut-goat cheese vinaigrette, a slippery bite in need of a textural contrast. A blanket of tart yuzu foam struggled to uplift the dish’s muddled flavors.
No tapas bar would be complete without patatas bravas, a traditional Spanish snack of crispy cubed potatoes coated in spicy tomato sauce. Bar Ramone’s Patatas Bravas XL are a playful twist on the staple: huge, churro-sized sticks of crispy starch served with smoky paprika mayo for dipping. It’s the kind of hedonistic bite I’ll crave at 2am after a long night of drinking. As we spooned the garlicky, red-pepper–flecked liquid from a shallow cauldron of succulent shrimp sprinkled with breadcrumbs, one of my dates issued an all-too-common complaint of Chicago tapas bars: “Where’s the bread for sopping?”
Later, in a bright spot on the wine front, our server waxed poetic on a mineral, fresh-fruity Austrian Gemischter Satz I was considering. Lovingly dubbed “kitchen sink” on the chalkboard, the white blend combines up to 13 co-planted, co-fermented grapes in a traditional Viennese style. As she gushed, I could see the vision for Bar Ramone in a city on the brink of a serious wine movement.
And if anyone’s up for the task, it’s Lettuce.
Atmosphere: This cozy, bustling tapas bar is a reprieve for wine lovers in River North. Uniquely curated European wines put the onus on staff education, with mixed results.
What to eat: You can’t go wrong with savory bar snacks like fried artichokes on toast, bright and spicy clam ceviche and blistered shishitos topped with funky wisps of bonito flake. Large-format modern and classic plates can be hit or miss; don’t skip the duck poutine or garlicky shrimp.
What to drink: Ever-changing wines hand-selected by Lettuce somms are balanced and food-friendly, so engage staff and order outside your comfort zone.
Where to sit: Arrive early. Bar Ramone recently started taking reservations, and the space fills up quickly with post-work revelers. Belly up to the bar for a casual aperitif and snack. Rows of two- and four-tops are great for date night.
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.