Spanish restaurants are having a moment in Chicago, with the openings of Barcelona-style Boqueria, Galician-Portuguese Porto and famed chef José Andrés’s forthcoming Jaleo all bringing tastes of the Iberian Peninsula to the Third Coast.
Papa Cenar, the newish Logan Square tapas joint that overtook bygone Twain, is not a Spanish restaurant per se, as a waiter dutifully corrected me on a recent visit. Restaurateur Branko Palikuca (the Dawson) takes inspiration from the whole of the Mediterranean, resulting in a varied menu that wants to be something for everyone. The results are promising but at times muddled.
Walking to our seats on a recent Thursday night, the vastness of the space (an auto-body shop in a past life) felt disquietingly amplified with just a handful of diners inside. As we contemplated the menu, our waiter deposited toasted bread with bracing, freshly grated tomato for smearing, which we washed down with a round of food-loving cocktails.
My date’s classic Gin & Tonic quenched with a bright, herbaceous edge thanks to housemade tonic. I sipped the restaurant’s elegant take on the sherry-based Bamboo cocktail, which subbed cocchi americano for vermouth, imparting bittersweet citrus notes on the amontillado sherry’s woody profile. It went down pleasingly with the farmer squash pisto, a compendium of roasted winter gourds accented with pumpkin seeds, goat cheese and pickled peppers on a velvety bed of puréed squash.
A tidy row of earthy, rich albóndigas (beef, pork and lamb meatballs) sat atop glossy cipollini agrodolce, an Italian preparation in which the tiny onions are reduced in vinegar and sugar until soft and sweet with pickly twang. My date observed that the delightful dish reminded her of a Persian eggplant-onion dip (kashke bademjan) that she grew up eating.
The next two proteins left us wanting. The octopus was pleasantly tender and edged in char, but an undertone of funk suggested the meat itself was a bit less than fresh. What put us off more were the accompaniments: beluga lentils with sweet stewed piquillo peppers battled an herby, melony salsa verde tinged with cucumber. In another dish, a fatty slab of porchetta was tender and deeply savory, wading in smoky pork jus tinged with caramel-sweet dates. Unfortunately, its subtlety was overwhelmed by assertively cabbagey roasted brussels sprouts.
The seafood paella offered some redemption. A shallow base of crisp-edged bomba rice tinged with paprika and saffron cradled impeccable just-done scallops, tender mussels and hulks of meaty, snow-white branzino, with fresh jolts from thinly sliced radishes and carrots. My affection for the dish was no doubt in direct proportion to the sizeable ratio of rice-to-pan contact.
We ended on a pleasing, if less memorable, dessert of date-sweetened toffee cake with caramel ice cream, relishing a long chat in the dining room’s sultry light. As we recounted our choicest bites, the explicitly Spanish dishes stood out most. I uneasily wondered if pleasing everyone would be enough to hold our collectively fickle attention.
Atmosphere: This vast eatery unfurls across a 63-seat bar and a 60-seat dining room—overlooked by a cheerful collage of felt animals on one wall and a soaring, copper-etched back bar on the other, two decorative holdouts from previous tenant Twain.
What to eat: A solid offering of veggies balances out the meaty menu. Don’t skip the savory-sweet albondigas, squash pisto and seafood paella.
What to drink: Easy-drinking house and classic cocktails range from bright, like the citrusy Gin & Tonic, to sultry, like the smoky El Unico with mezcal, chicha morada and a hit of minty Fernet. Old World wines and a few local beers round out the menu.
Where to sit: Papa Cenar’s 120 seats provide a multitude of experiences, from livelier high boys and barstools to more relaxed lounge couches and intimate tables for two, four and more in the well-spaced dining room.