By Tommy Hensel
Chicago has its fair share of tapas restaurants, from some old standards to some newer and funkier options. None of them offer a better experience than Black Bull. Not only does the food stand out as some of the best in Wicker Park, but upstairs above the restaurant is one of the city’s funkiest and most delightfully intimate music venues, Bordel. This pairing of tapas with a speakeasy may sound odd, but it’s a perfect combination to make both of the venues rise above the competition.
The website refers to Black Bull as “Wicker Park's Hidden Gem For Spanish Tapas” and although the phrase “hidden gem” is highly overused in reference to Chicago restaurants, in this case it really is an apt description. This excellent Spanish restaurant is located at 1721 West Division Street in one of Chicago’s fastest-growing restaurant neighborhoods, but among all that competition Black Bull manages to stand out.
Once you are seated you will be treated to some of the best tapas and pintxos you have ever tasted. Not only that, but once you have eaten your fill downstairs your host or hostess will guide you through an unmarked door and up the stairs to one of Chicago’s best Bohemian speakeasies.
But first, let’s talk about food.
I was recently invited to sample some of Black Bull’s menu and my guest and I both agree that nobody in the city does it better. During the visit, we sampled the following items:
Tabla de Pata Negra (100% pure Ibérico pigs, free-range, acorn fattened) In my opinion, this is the finest ham in the world. Luckily, we are finally able to get it imported to the United States and you will not find a better price on it than here at Black Bull.
Empañada Gallega (savory Galician pie filled with tuna, roasted peppers, onions) After trying this empañada you may never want to eat one anywhere else again. The flaky pastry crust was crunchy and light and the filling was something truly special.
Vieiras con Jamón Ibérico (seared scallops, pata negra, spinach sauce) The presentation on this was superb and the layers of flavor were even more so. The sauce was a trifle salty for my taste, but it didn’t overwhelm and the perfectly-prepared scallops more than compensated for that little extra salt.
Tataki de Atún (tuna tataki, salmorejo, saffron aioli, tomato tartare, black garlic) Wow! This was my favorite of the evening. It’s rare to find such excellent tuna outside of a sushi restaurant, but Black Bull’s chef clearly knows how to choose and prepare it. The black garlic was a perfect surprise and like the scallops, the layers of flavor were superb. It’s wonderful to taste every single thing separately, yet also get the experience of the combination at the same time. It’s the benefit of ‘less is more’ in the kitchen – choose fewer yet higher quality ingredients and combine them expertly.
Carrillada Ibérica de Bellota (braised Iberian pork cheek, mushroom confit, potato foam) I am of the opinion that bacon (and by extension pork belly and pork cheeks) makes everything better. This was a great comfort food choice on a cold Chicago night. If you’re a fan of pork, you should definitely try this one.
Bacalao con Pisto Manchego (fresh cod, aioli gratin, Spanish ratatouille) The chef has a personal favorite, and this is it. After sampling, I can understand why he takes such pride in it. The cod was perfectly prepared, still juicy and tender. The lightly-flavored aioli was just enough and the addition of the ratatouille provided a sweetish umami complement. Again, the layers of flavor were simple and precise yet the combination was delightfully complex.
But wait . . . there’s more.
After dinner, my guest had to leave but I was escorted upstairs to one of the most surprising bar/cabaret rooms I have seen in Chicago . . . or anywhere, for that matter. As a cabaret singer myself, I was delighted to experience the wonderfully intimate vibe of Bordel which captures the spirit of early 20th Century European cabaret and combines it with a funky, modern feel.
The interior captures the bohemian spirit that inspired the first modern cabarets in the Latin Quarter of Paris. To achieve one of the central design elements at Bordel, owner Daniel Alonso commissioned local artist Erik DeBat to create a large-scale collage composed of European “pulp imagery” from the 1960s & 70s and handmade baroque wallpaper. "Erik is an incredible artist and collaborator; after having such a great time working on Fulton Market Kitchen with him, I couldn't wait for another opportunity to work together again", said Alonso.
Bordel also has one of the most exciting cocktail programs in the city. The beverage program, by Brian Sturgulewski, is a celebration of the prohibition era. “When America undertook the ‘noble experiment’ of prohibition, the great bartenders of the U.S. took their skills and their cocktails to the bars and Cabarets of Europe -- what Brian has created is a cocktail program that imagines how these same bartenders could have been influenced during their travels and what they may have crafted upon their return back to the States,” said restauranteur, Daniel Alonso.
Just check out this incredible cocktail list and you will see what I mean. Although everything is worth a try, I would recommend the Ramos Gin Fizz (London Dry Gin, Egg White, Heavy Cream, Lemon, Lime, Orange Blossom, Sparkling Water). This one takes a bit longer to make than your “average” cocktail but it’s worth the wait – smooth, refreshing, and with just enough heavy cream/egg white foam to give it some comforting depth for a wintery night.
Of course, you cannot visit Bordel without sampling their (in)famous punches! My favorite is the Boston Club Punch (Cognac, Grand Marnier, Jamaican Rum, Kirshwasser, Raspberry, Lemon, Sparkling Wine, Pineapple 12/50) This is served in a large teapot with matching tea cups in a very British sort of manner. It’s vintage, quirky, and delightfully delicious. According to the Bordel website:
Punch is a European invention by way of India. The first "mixed" drink, Punch was a staple of high society; where there was a party there was Punch and vice versa. It found its way to the US, and in our own way, we made it democratic: we turned a shared drink for the wealthy into a single-serving cocktail for everyman. As a cocktail bar influenced by the Bohemian Cabarets of Europe and the speakeasies of the States, it was natural to celebrate not only the current cocktail culture, but also the classic Punches of Europe. And as before, where there is Punch, there will be a party.
I can also give a shout-out to their Sazerac, one of the most balanced and well-crafted I have tasted anywhere outside of New Orleans.
The space combines the concept of a speakeasy-type cocktail lounge with a music venue. There are two stages (one at each end) that host eclectic performances from local talent. Expect jazz musicians, flamenco artists, burlesque entertainers and a rotating group of musical curators to keep the pulse of the evening constantly elevated.
On my visit, we were treated to two amazing sets by the supremely talented Annalee and the Midnight Sons who are currently playing every Friday at Bordel. Don’t miss them!
Black Bull and Bordel are located at 1721 West Division Street in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, just a few blocks west of the Division Blue Line CTA stop. To learn more, you may call Black Bull and Bordel at (773) 227-8699. For email, contact Black Bull at email@example.com or Bordel at RSVP@bordelchicago.com.