Vera

Brussels sprouts have a notorious reputation as far as vegetables go. Kids turn their noses up at them during dinner, and few adults would claim them as their favorite veggie. But if more people tried the brussels sprouts with Iberico ham from Vera, they’d quickly change their minds.

The small cabbages are slightly charred, which gives them an added textural crunch. Then, the brussels sprouts are topped with ground Iberico ham that chef Mark Mendez makes himself. He buys whole Iberico ham legs (which you can watch the servers slice over at the bar), then grinds the meat with some of the fat from the leg to hold it together. To finish it off, he adds a splash of acidity by drizzling the dish with sherry vinegar. Liz Mendez, Mark’s wife and Vera’s wine director, has quite a penchant for sherry, so it’s no surprise that it finds its way into this dish. Overall, Mark says, the brussels sprouts are a simple recipe, one that any home cook with a high fat content ham could recreate.

It was just one of the dishes that I really enjoyed at Vera. The wine bar/restaurant opened a few months ago at Lake Street and Carpenter, in a space that used to be a sports bar. Now, the corner storefront has a warm dining room, a wide, wood bar, and an open kitchen window.

The food is authentic, straight-forward Spanish cuisine. Mark Mendez was previously the chef at Carnivale, and he packs a lot of bold flavor into what seem, at first, like simple dishes. The huge garlic shrimp are served with heads on, while the sauce adds a bright burst of lemon and chile. Grilled octopus was also memorable, and not chewy or rubbery like some versions can be.

While the food is Spanish, the wines are global. As I said, Liz has a special fondness for sherry, so you’ll find some surprisingly approachable sherries on the list. There are also wines on tap, which may be the next big trend in Chicago. Wine on tap saves money and waste on packaging, and the wine stays fresher than it would in a half-drank bottle. Of course, there is also an intriguing, global selection of wines by the bottle.

When recreating the brussels sprouts dish, I wanted to compose it in a very different way from the iPhone photo. When I saw the sprouts come out of the oven, I loved how simple they looked against the roasting pan. We tried to keep that look with the darker, metallic surface. When we shot the same vegetables against a white surface, it was also a beautiful photograph, but didn’t give the same impression of the roasting pan that this darker one does. I thought the char on the sprouts should really shine, so I separated the sprouts from the chunks of ham, and let just one leaf crumble off. I also had the stylists add grains of kosher salt, plus a few drops of water for shine. Overall, I’m happy with the depth of color in this shot, and I love the texture of the sprout’s leaves. Hopefully, the photo and the delicious flavors at Vera inspire more people to try this under-appreciated veggie.

An iPhone shot of Vera's brussels sprouts
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