One of the best compliments I feel a restaurant can receive is if it can make items you previously felt indifferent about or even hated seem almost addictive.
That was the case with Jaleo by Jose Andres (500 N. Clark St.; jaleo.com), which recently started serving lunchand a friend and I decided to see what the place has to offer.
The restaurant is just as vibrant as one might imagine, with whimsical paints, unique lights and even one dining table that doubles as a foosball table (and, no, you can't engage in both activities at once).
However, it's with the menu and Executive Sous Chef Jose Davila's execution where Jaleo really shine.
Even with a pretty substantial menu, practically everything was delightful. (With many choices, it can sometimes be hit-or-miss with restaurants.)
To start, we chose the chicken fritters (croquetas de pollo) and the toasted slices of crispy Spanish "crystal" bread (pan de cristal con tomate). The fritters (with fillings of chicken and a creamy white bechamel sauce) were almost worth the price of admission because of the items and the presentationon a unique ceramic chicken platter.
Then we selected the tortilla de patatas clasicathe delicious Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions. It was something my dining companion constantly had during his travels in Spain, and he gave this version certainly garnered his approval (although this version was warm, in contrast to the room-temperature tortillas he had).
We decided to go for the "Lunch Like a Spaniard" option (served 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m Monday through Friday), which is a four-course culinary exploration of Spain. The chilled strawberry-and-tomato gazpacho I had was absolutely wonderful while my friend raved about the endive (served with goat cheese, oranges, almonds and roasted garlic dressing). However, even those items took a back seat to the eggplantone of those previously mentioned items I could take or leave. Jaleo's take on the fruit involved frying it and topping it with honey and lemon. Believe me, you must try this dish.
For the entree, my friend thoroughly relished his spicy cauliflower. I opted for the grilled pork sausage with sauteed white beans and aioli (pork and beansget it?); the flash-fried beans actually had a wonderfully crunchy texture that enhanced the dish even more.
For dessert, we went with the flanand that was another excellent choice, as the item was the right firmness and taste. The added mascarpone cream definitely didn't hurt.
However, there are many more enticing choices on Jaleo's menu, such as sauteed spinach with pine nuts, raisins and apples; various cheeses, such as Rey Silo Blanco and Rojo as well as queso Manchego and Cana de cabra; and tapas and paellas.
And then there are the drinks. The server recommended the sangria de cava, and I'm so glad he did. A heady mix of cava, gin and vermouth with seasonal fruit, it was absolutely delicious and refreshing; however, the alcohol might sneak up to you so be careful about how much you imbibe. But there are other cocktails (like the Castaway, which as rums, cava, lime, honey, a touch of sherry vinegar and mint) and spirits that probably warrant the same warning I posted regarding the sangria de cava.
Jaleo has four other locations (in D.C., Disney Springs, Las Vegas and Dubai, as Andres had already made his mark around the world). I'd like to think the Chicago restaurant is the bestbut if I happened to land in one of these other spots, I certainly wouldn't object to visiting those restaurants. In the meantime, I certainly plan on returning to the Chicago spot.
Note: This visit was arranged.