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Latinicity's Flagship Restaurant Is A Big Disappointment

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 29, 2016 5:30PM

Clockwise from top right: Anchovies, garlic shrimp, grilled octopus, patatas bravas.

Pata Negra, the tapas sit-down restaurant inside of Latinicity, has everything going for it. It's inside one of the most buzzed-about concepts in town, it's got a celebrity chef/owner who already has an awesome and popular restaurant in Chicago, and it's serving mostly-traditional Spanish tapas, a type of food nearly everyone likes. So what went wrong?

Somehow, Pata Negra manages to turn all of those potentially good things against them. There's no way to avoid that, despite its location inside of the hot new thing, you're eating fancy food at a mall restaurant, and like all mall restaurants, looking out "windows" into a retail space isn't quite as special as it should be. The fact that Chef Jose Garces has another restaurant nearby invites inevitable comparisons that don't favor Pata Negra (more on that later), and many of the beloved tapas aren't... quite right.

Latinicity also hasn't quite figured out how to have a sit down restaurant inside a food court. When you arrive, you are required to take a plastic card—the card that will record your purchases at the stalls in the food court. But we aren't going to the food court, I protest, we're going to the restaurant. No one cares—and beware, because if you lose that card and try to get out, you're fined $25 (according to the back of the card). I secreted it away for safekeeping.

The interior design is pleasant enough, if you can get over the odd dissonance of sitting inside a pleasant beach house-like space where all the windows look out onto corridors. This wouldn't be a problem if the rest of Latinicity outside lived up to its promised spectacular design, but, honestly, the whole place feels dark, unfinished and empty. There are a lot of blank walls and empty shelves.

As often happens when I'm confused about what's to come, I immediately turned to the drink list. Pata Negra is right on trend, boasting a list of fancy, Spanish-inspired gin and tonics with craft spirits and small batch tonics. The process of choosing your own particular gin and tonic, as well as herbal and fruit additions, sounded promising, but when the drinks arrived, they were disappointingly weak. I resolved to switch to wine, which served me well - Pata Negra has a good selection of Spanish reds by the glass, one of my favorite categories to sip on.

Iberico pork neck.

The menu is filled with traditional tapas like tortilla espanola and gambas al ajillo, along with an impressive charcuterie and cheese selection. They've got a whole menu full of just Iberico meats, and while they are a bit pricy, the large portions of amazing ham are worth every penny. Go for the slightly cheaper (and incredibly fatty) Iberican pork neck ($16), creamy, salty and delicious. Their cheese (I choose the cana de cabra goat cheese, $8) came with a perfect accompaniment of dulce de leche. Frankly, if I'd stopped there, I would have left a relatively happy, if disappointingly sober, diner.

That's when dinner kind of went off the rails. I ordered a huge selection of tapas, mostly off of the traditional list. Comparisons to Mercat a la Planxa became inevitable, because it began to feel like i was in a strange Twilight Zone version of Garces' other restaurant. Presentations were similar, but the flavors were all slightly off. Patatas braves ($6) were served in the same individual, orange daubed presentation as Mercat, except they were covered with a huge dollop of almost-inedible mayonnaise that added nothing to the dish. Tortilla espanola ($7) would have been perfect, except that the kitchen had finished it with so much salt that it was difficult to eat (and this coming from a critic who eats salt from the shaker). The wagyu brochettes ($15) were a waste of wagyu, overcooked, chewy and covered in a thick, opaque chimichurri that tasted like I imagine green crayons would taste.

I should point out that there were plenty of hits on the tapas menu as well. It just felt like a bit of a minefield. The pimientos de padron ($7) were perfectly cooked, the ideal snack with just the tiniest hint of risk (one in ten is spicy), and the white anchovies ($7) came dripping with oil and topped with a mixed salad of olives that added a savory note to the fishy funk. Garlic shrimp ($10) could not have been better, and were served with slivers of toasted garlic, swimming in savory oil.

But then we tried some grilled octopus ($11), and it came topped with the same pasty chimichurri as the wagyu. Someone needs to tell the kitchen the chimichurri should look like thick oil, not mayo, or just ask them to put away that particular squirt bottle.

There were some odd service issues as well. I opted for a fancy bottle of bottled water from Spain that I've otherwise been unable to find in Chicago: Vichy Catalan, rich with salt and minerals and, I thought, totally worth the $7/liter it cost. But halfway through dinner, a server poured tap water into my half-full glass. When I politely pointed this out, he scurried away in fear . . . and never came back to do anything about it. So much for my fancy water. Two of the dishes we ordered never showed up, and when we asked about them, the server insisted they were coming—then obviously ran to the POS terminal to order them.

It's not that Pata Negra is a terrible restaurant, especially when you consider that, at base, it's a mall restaurant in the Loop. But dinner cost almost $200, and if I'd just sauntered about ten blocks south to Mercat a la Planxa, I would have had a memorable dinner in an epic space for the same price.

Latinicity is also missing some opportunities for synergy. The retail space is disappointingly bare (I would love to have a real Spanish speciality market downtown!) but when our server told us we could buy our fancy water by the bottle in the market, we hurried over. The attendant had no idea what we were talking about, and after 15 minutes of confusion, told us we could just buy it from the restaurant at the restaurant markup.

Bottom line: If you're heading to Block 37 and want meat and cheese, say, before a movie, absolutely go to Pata Negra. If you're such a tapas fiend that you want to try every spot in Chicago and are willing to risk it, you'll find some gems. But sadly, Pata Negra is not worth a special trip.