Getting fed a load of Del Toro

The space for Del Toro, Terry Alexander's hip new Spanish restaurant in Wicker Park, was formerly Mod, famed for its Austin-Powers-on-acid decor which set the standard for cutting-edge hipness one season. Ironically, by ripping Mod's cinematic/lysergic vision of the 60s out and replacing it with a sort of pseudo-Moroccan Spanish thing, Del Toro looks a hell of a lot more than Mod ever did like the real 60s, like a genuine leftover like Sayat Nova or Orso's. Jagged mosaic tile, Gaudiesque curves, a sort of cheating-with-your-secretary dark and sensuous feel, and a back seating area done in Brothel Red with little dangly curtains-- it's like Mod gave birth to the bastard child of That Steak Joynt.

But if the interior conjures up a distant era, the clientele is pure 2006 GenXer-- you feel like a striped dress shirt is going to walk up to you and say "Hi, my name is J. Crew and I'll be your wardrobe tonight." Suspicions that the Spanish cuisine theme went no deeper than the fact that Spain is young and hip at the moment, and that we had in fact walked into a totally ersatz experience for dating twentysomethings, a form of Spanish concept which in five years will be appearing in suburban malls everywhere (Olive Jardin? Bilbao Bicycle Club?), were about to be resoundingly confirmed by the food, which was food for people who think they're foodies but aren't. A few things were quite good, one thing was even completely convincing as something you'd get in Spain-- but most of it was crushingly ordinary, occasionally plastic, and frequently just plain annoying. And everyone but us seemed happy with it; the food is, evidently, not the point.

We had:

• Pre-dinner snack with almonds, paprika-dusted popcorn, and olives. Olives okay, popcorn is apparently the new bread when it comes to starting off meals, and I liked the old one better.

• Cured pork loin with wisps of cheese, a little jalapeno and allegedly apple. Doomed by exceedingly bland pork loin, neither especially cured nor especially porky. With two slices of Wonder bread and some mayo, would make a perfectly okay ham sandwich in the Ameritech cafeteria.

• Crudo of scallop, thinly sliced. I thought this was pretty nice in a sashimi kind of way, my dining companion thought it was too mayonnaisy.

• Jamon serrano with manchego and pa amb tomaquet. Again, very bland ham, decent cheese, tomato bread was perfectly edible. Still, at least a step or two up from the other bland pork dish.

• Crostini (or Spanish equivalent thereof) with white anchovies and some green onion and a spritz of lemon. Simple, the realest thing we'd had so far, and the best-- exactly the sort of Spanish bar food you'd hoped the whole meal would be.

• Crostini with chicken liver on a slice of bacon. Also very good. Maybe you want to stick to crostini here.

• Fried chickpeas. With the sort of breading that you normally expect on calamari, and after a couple of drinks, quite scarfable.

• Patatas bravas. The waitress suggested these and I thought she was pointing to a fritter-like dish on another table. Instead we got 8 rather precious cylinders of refried and formed mashed potato which immediately reminded me of fried potato skins at a bar circa 1978. Frou-frou and kind of gross, I was ashamed to have ordered them.

• Cube of bacon with braised endive. I've (fairly) recently had a knockoff of Blackbird's pork belly at four different restaurants-- Thyme Cafe, Hot Chocolate, Avec and now Del Toro. This was by far fourth out of four, the only one that made me feel they didn't understand the dish in the first place, as the bottom meat was stringy and overcooked and the sweetish sauce was insufficient to coat the amount of bacon we had (also kind of an un-user-friendly way of serving it, in one large cube). As my companion said, they could have redeemed the whole meal right here, but they blew it.

• Lentil stew with sausage and morcilla. This was probably the best thing after the two crostini, a wholly satisfying stew served in a mini dutch oven, with good and ample slices of sausage.

• Veal cheeks with mashed potatoes. A tragic mockery of a dish, one of the richest and most succulent cuts of meat turned into flavorless mush (the sauce should have been like boeuf bourguignon, but it was way too short on bourguignon). And the mashed potatoes it was plopped on had been so gooped up with cream cheese or mascarpone or 5-in-1 weatherstripping caulk or something that they were repellently inedible. This was the sort of dish where you want the power to take away the chef's foodhandling card for two weeks in retaliation.

Despite recommendations, we blew off the idea of dessert and were eager to pay up and get the hell out, so I can't tell you about the mission figs in red wine with whatever trendy-ass sorbetto they were served on. You know, after mocking the idea of hip new restaurants (as anointed by Chicago magazine) some months back, I found myself actually liking all of those places that I tried-- Avec, Scylla, Thyme Cafe, etc.-- and wondering if I was in fact a hypocrite for mocking the idea of trendiness while in truth liking it as much as the next yuppie. Well, tonight my faith in myself was restored. Del Toro is apparently the perfect restaurant for some people, and I am absolutely not them.

* * *

I interview myself about Del Toro:

You seem to dwell on the clothes of the other patrons--

Dwell? I don't think I was dwelling. Noticing--

Well, you have some rather pointed, sneering comments. Should that really matter?

It wouldn't matter if the food was good. Avec, which targets the same hip crowd, and which Del Toro's exterior seems to be rather consciously trying to copy (among many other influences they jumble up), is a terrific restaurant. But Del Toro, it seems to me, is an example of Gebert's rule, which is, if there's a reason to go somewhere other than the food, the food's no good. And the reason to go to Del Toro is the scene, not the food. That's not snobbery, or even if it is, it's also a fact.

But you seemed to like some things-- the anchovy montadito--

The entree-type things were almost a complete botch, though. One was good, two or three were rockets that blew up on the launchpad with no survivors. That's not good, when you completely fail at the stuff with the higher price point.

Maybe it's an appetizer kind of place then. It is Spanish, after all, tapas.

I could accept that if there had been any kind of intellectual consistency to them. If they'd all been as simple and authentic as the montadito, this would be an estimable place, one that, like Avec, pursued a certain simple but consistent ambition.

But the fact is that the small stuff was all over the map, too. It's hard to believe that those awful potato creations, which look like they belonged at a wedding reception in Des Moines, came from the same kitchen as the anchovy dish. The worst kind of plastic food--

But isn't that what Spain is all about right now?

Plastic food?

Not plastic, but the kind of experimental, artificial food that chefs like Ferran Adria are making--

The owners of Del Toro will be sending you a check for mentioning them in the same breath--

--But I read a piece, I believe it was in Slate, that Adria's high concept food has some resemblance to the kind of fake food made by big corporations--

Yes, the idea is that they're both in the business of breaking something down and reengineering it to deliver an artifically heightened flavor. I think there's some truth to that. But it has nothing to do with the fact that this place serves something so foodservice-crappy just because they can make eight of them in two little rows on a plate and they look so cute and they get six bucks for them. If you're going to play that Adria game, you have to deliver a knockout to the tongue and a tickle to the mind. We have restaurants in this town that do that, successfully.

But let's forget about the potato things. The real issue is, I think, the ham--

Mmm, jamon serrano, one of the glories of Spain--

It should be one of the glories! But what we had looked pretty but had none of that complexity and gaminess, I guess you can call it, which I have had at least a little of in jamon serrano which I've bought to cook with. And I doubt that what I can buy at Whole Foods represents the very best stuff being brought into America, let alone being made in Spain.

Are they toning it down because they fear that a ham with a little funkiness would scare their crowd? That they'd send it back as being spoiled?

I think that's a real possibility, and one I have some practical sympathy with, but you know, if you're going to be a real Spanish restaurant that's what you have to serve and educate people a little. If you're going to be a Spanish-themed restaurant, then you can serve this slightly-better-than-Hormel stuff and offend nobody.

So you see this as being a restaurant with a Spanish concept, not a Spanish restaurant.

I think you have to see it that way, yes.

Is Spanish a concept that's going to continue to be successful, then?

I think it could be THE next big concept, absolutely. It's Mediterranean comfort food, yet different from Italian which has gone so middle-American, it's got the hipness factor of Bilbao and chefs like Adria and so on, it's a colorful, nightlife-oriented culture-- I can definitely see Spanish food going mainstream in the next few years, being the theme of big splashy standalone restaurants in mall parking lots called Bar-Celona or Jamon Jamon! And I think hip urban restaurants serving an Americanization of Spanish food are the first step toward that. But where's the real, high quality Spanish restaurant in Chicago? We're still waiting for that one to appear.