Wednesday, November 7, 2007

New South Loop spot is hit or miss

photograph by Steven Johnson

To me, the word tapas implies Spanish cuisine. If I hear the word tapas, I’m going to expect patatas bravas and croquetas; tortilla Espanola and paella. Perhaps this is a result of eating tapas for a year straight while teaching English in Madrid, or of constant visits to places like Emilio’s Tapas and 1492 Tapas Bar in an obsessive attempt to find the best, most authentic Spanish restaurant in Chicago (side note: so far it’s Arco de Cuchilleros). So I was surprised when I walked in to the South Loop’s new restaurant/lounge Exposure Tapas, glanced at the menu, and found nary a patata brava in sight. Instead the menu was filled with a range of globally influenced hot and cold small plates.

If you can push aside that craving for paella or jamon Serrano and focus on Exposure’s food, you’ll find the food is either excellent or totally sub par. The Nantucket crab cake was served with a basil aioli, which was a nice balance with the very slight spicy kick of the crab cake. But the teriyaki beef skewers were dry and lifeless (though I was happy to douse them in a creamy, delicious and not at all overpowering horseradish sauce). The smoked bacon-wrapped dates were served with a supposedly spicy red pepper sauce that ended up being bland and spiceless, but a drastic jump to the crab meat cocktail found tender crab meat enhanced by a light and tangy citrus aioli. The Exposure salad was soaked in dressing, a disappointment as we were looking forward to the combination of feta cheese, pine nuts, shallots and tomatoes; but the Caesar was dressed perfectly, and kicked up a notch by the welcome addition of shaved red onions. We tried the pan-roasted chicken breast, one of their four large plate options, which was delicious if you managed to finagle a bite with a light dose of the roasted garlic sauce, but intense and suffocating if the piece was ultra-coated. We left the majority of our berry cobbler dessert uneaten, partly because it was too sweet (a scoop of ice cream would have helped) and partly because we overdid it on the small plates. Oops.

It seems the portions at Exposure are slightly bigger than at a traditional Spanish restaurant. In Exposure’s defense, the phrase tapas has come to mean any sort of small dish, a fact that they detail on the top of their menu where they inform us that tapas are “any of various small, savory dishes, often served as a snack or with other tapas as a meal.” They’re just jumping on the small plate bandwagon. They’re not trying to be a Spanish restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, although the lusty d├ęcor seems inspired by Spain. The prominent colors –- deep red and black –- bring to mind a bullfight and take on an air of sensuality in the dim lighting, while details like glass-enclosed support columns and curved ceiling beams are reminiscent of the modern art and architecture so celebrated in cities like Madrid and Barcelona. It’s the kind of swank yet warm environment that makes a group of gals feel Sex and the City-ish; makes a couple feel like pulling their chairs a little closer together; and makes everyone feel like settling in for an extended dining experience, especially when the live jazz music kicks in. And if you can ignore the Tapas in Exposure’s name, and go in expecting a trendy lounge rather than Flamenco music and paella, you just might enjoy yourself. - Molly Each