by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
In 2010 Ryan Poli was at a crossroads in his career. He had a great gig as Executive Chef at Perennial in Chicago, his hometown (Poli grew up on the south side and went to Mount Carmel High School), but he was beginning to flounder there. The cuisine of Spain, where he had spent his formidable years as a chef, in turn sparking his culinary creativity, was what held his heart. Try as he might to find a way to spread his wings at Perennial, he never felt secure enough to do so. And, despite being told that he had the freedom to make Perennial his own, the opposite impression remained.
Discussions about Poli starting a Spanish restaurant with Perennial‘s owners began but never materialized. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a Sunday Supper Club idea he and his Sous Chef at the time, Jeff Pikus (now Executive Chef at Chicago’s Maude’s Liquor Bar) wanted to do was undermined. “They were like, you have to offer the whole menu,” Poli says. Though he had no intention of leaving at that time, a chance encounter would soon put him on his path to career and personal fulfillment.
Some time after the supper club was nixed, Poli ran into Alfredo and Felipe Sandoval, brothers and partners in Mercadito Hospitality, who were not only receptive to Poli’s concept of bringing real Spanish food to Chicago, but were excited enough by it to offer him a partnership. Out of this meeting grew the idea of the recently opened Tavernita (as well as the adjoining Barcito featuring pintxos and the moto “stand and eat”).
Though it took a while longer than expected, in early January of 2012 Tavernita “soft opened” to brisk business and rave customer reviews. On January 23rd, 2012, the restaurant and Barcito both officially opened. Poli was behind the bar serving up pintxos at Barcito opening night, underlining his excitement for this part of the restaurant.
“Barcito will have a more tavern, bar feel with pintxos that you can stand and eat. We want to capture that feel of camaraderie, of strangers talking to strangers. Barcito, the crudo bar, the wood burning grill and the vegetables we’re going to be using, if I had to narrow it down, those are the components of the kitchen I’m most excited about,” Poli says.
Continuing about Barcito, “We’re really trying to distinguish Barcito as its own separate restaurant from Tavernita. It’s going to be 2 or 3 guys that are going to be running the Barcito kitchen and they’ll be making things right at the bar. Like a pintxo bar in San Sebastian.”
One of the main ideas Poli is trying to get across at Tavernita and Barcito is for healthier eating. “Vegetables are going to be the new pork. It’s going to be very focused on vegetables of the season. I just want to see people eat a little more healthy. Not saying we’re going to be some sort of vegan restaurant or anything, but if we can put it out there, it’s a step in the right direction.”
With a beautiful design inside and a fresh, young, hip feel to the room (without being insufferably so), featuring a menu bursting with flavor and comfort (the crudo section is particularly exceptional), along with a wall (behind the restaurant’s bar) of kegged cocktails and sodas from the Tippling Bros. (Ted Carducci and Paul Tanguay) capped off by Poli’s beaming exuberance, Tavernita and Barcito is one of the freshest, most original and exciting spots to dine at in Chicago.
I have already had the opportunity to dine at Tavernita and I was blown away by what I sampled (oysters, oyster cocktail, fluke, faroe island salmon, coca de pato, croquetas, corn pudding, suckling pig confit, meatballs and tres cremas – Poli also handles the deserts). Both Tavernita and Barcito will see multiple visits by me in the future. I’m telling everyone I know that it’s a must dine. Go there soon and often.
Below is a Q&A with Tavernita / Barcito Executive Chef/Partner Ryan Poli that took place over two different dates in 2011. The first part was on the eve of his final day at Perennial back in March and the second part was done late November ahead of Tavernita and Barcito‘s opening.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: Was the decision to leave Perennial a hard thing to do?
Ryan Poli: It was very difficult. I opened Perennial. I hired and fired and seen people come and go. I’ve seen every employee that ever worked for Perennial up until tomorrow. The decision was hard. Working with Rob (Katz) and Kevin (Boehm) has been great. But (with Tavernita), it’s like, here you go, here’s everything you want!
Are you happy that you get to stay in Chicago?
Ryan Poli: Absolutely. My family’s happy. I’ve moved around so much. Florida, Napa Valley, I did a little jaunt in Arizona, then I went back to Spain. (Chicago’s) where I’m from. I know the people, I know what to expect.
How excited are you to be moving into something different right now?
Ryan Poli: I’m really excited because this concept is something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. It just seemed that the timing was right in my professional career and my personal life to take on something like this. I lived in Spain for a couple of years and Spanish tapas, small plates and those kinds of flavors…I really have a passion for that style of food.
What led you to go to Spain to begin with?
Ryan Poli: I was French trained by Jean Banchet and Thomas Keller. I was ready to leave The French Laundry. I went to Thomas and said, I really want to go to France. He said,’Can I help?’ I said I want to try and do this on my own and he gave me some places to start. I sent out my resume and weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. I was like, what do I do now? Do I just go there and show up? I had a friend who was working in San Sebastian who said I should go to Spain. I e-mailed Thomas and asked what do you think about me going to Spain? He told me, any opportunity to work in Europe is going to be great. I picked the top ten best restaurants in Spain and Sergio Arola from La Broche e-mailed me almost instantly. I really fell in love with the culture. I fell in love with the people. I have so many great friends there who took me under their wing, who took me to Madrid, who showed me what Spain was all about.
Was there a meal or a specific dish that just felt right to you or made you realize that this was the food you wanted to cook?
Ryan Poli: Yeah, there are these things called Sea Cucumbers, they call them espardenyes. They’re kind of like calamari with a little more texture but not as rubbery. Once I found them I started eating them everywhere. It was just a la plancha with a little bit of olive oil over some wild mushrooms.
The best meal I had was through my friend Raoul. It wasn’t anything fancy, we were just in t-shirts and jeans. The chef came up and said I want to do a menu for you. My Spanish wasn’t so good, so if I started to daydream I’d lose track of the conversation. So the food starts coming to the table and it’s like, the cheese was dipped in liquid nitrogen and this is a piece of fish that is cooked for exactly eleven minutes at 62 degrees Celsius. This was back in 2003 before this was mainstream. I turned to Raoul and was like “Where the hell are we?” And it was Dani Garcia‘s restaurant El Tragabuches. That meal really took me by surprise because it exposed me to a lot of molecular cooking techniques and it really grabbed me because I didn’t know what to expect. (End of first interview).
How have you been?
Ryan Poli: Things have been getting crazy, but they’re a good crazy.
The last time we talked you were on the eve of your last day at Perennial. You sound a lot more elated from then. Has this whole experience of opening Tavernita been an awakening for you?
Ryan Poli: An awakening is a great word to use, I think. Working with Alfredo and Phillipe Sandoval has been a lesson for me in how to run a restaurant and how to run a restaurant group. They have a way of looking at things that is beyond the bigger picture. And then they have a way of looking at things such as the small details of what a guest is going to think or the way something should be placed on the table. I’m learning so much from Alfredo about how the restaurant works. The money side of things, the business aspect that I’ve always wanted to learn. Every day is a constant lesson of how or why we do things. It’s so comfortable speaking with him, because he has no ego. If I have a question, he’ll take me through it. He wants nothing more than for me to learn the restaurant as much as I can so that we can go and open more restaurants. He’s prepping me to be a chef of not only one restaurant, but to be a chef overseeing many restaurants.
My impression is that your time at Perennial was good, but that you were looking to do something else. The Time Out Chicago article on you indicated that you were promised something and it never materialized. Was that crossed wires or that the ball was dropped by the BOKA guys?
Ryan Poli: I can’t speak for the BOKA guys and I have no idea why they didn’t want me to do something else with them or if I had upset them somehow.
What I’m asking more specifically, was it a lack of perhaps initiative on your part or you not chasing after it or…
Ryan Poli: Oh no. We had talked specifically about doing another restaurant. We had specifically talked about doing restaurants after Perennial and we had specifically talked about doing a Spanish tapas restaurant. It just kind of fell to the wayside. It never seemed like it was ever going to happen. It just got to the point where I didn’t want to do Perennial anymore. I started to look for other things and people to work with. I wanted to do this Spanish cuisine that was in my blood.
There are no hard feelings. I still have a great relationship with both of them (Katz and Boehm). We’re still friendly. I think the main point of me leaving Perennial is, I wanted to do something different and we both didn’t want to do it with each other. It was just time for me to go and do something else.
What have you enjoyed most about the downtime, though I know it’s not like you’re not doing anything.
Ryan Poli: Only a chef has this kind of lifestyle where you go from running a restaurant to opening a restaurant where it can take months. I did a lot of soul searching and collecting my thoughts on what I want the restaurant to be. Really engulfing myself in Spanish culture.
What can people expect from Tavernita?
Ryan Poli: There’s going to be an energy. Everything (will be) well thought out. It’s not going to be like they’re walking in to a huge gymnasium. There’s no resemblance to Martini Park (the old space). Total gut rehab of everything.
With regards to the kitchen, do you have everything you wanted to play around with?
Ryan Poli: We had to be tricky with the space. They gave up a little bit of space at the bar so I could have a huge prep area. We have this Uruguayan wood burning grill where the grill plates raise up and down so we can rake the coals to get it as hot as we want to. We have a jade plancha which is going to be one of the work horses in the restaurant, everything’s cooked a la plancha. I’m ecstatic about how the kitchen turned out.
Finally, what are your favorite places to eat in and around Chicago?
Ryan Poli: I like Hub 51. RJ & Jerrod (Melman) are friends. I like avec a lot. I like Lao Sze Chuan. I love Tank Noodle and Ba Le across the street.
El Barco – It’s unbelievable, man. They have this shrimp dish, like whole shrimp that are chopped up and cooked in this almost onion sofrito with orange. Then they have this whole roasted snapper with grilled vegetables. We found Sun Wah BBQ, too. Unbelievable. Roasted duck three ways with all of the things they bring to the table.