An Authentic Wine and Tapas Experience in Chicago

bombollaWhen it comes to reviewing food or wine, the older I get, the more I realize that absolutely nothing beats experience.

When talking about experience, it’s important not to confuse it with age. I’ll take a 25-year-old restaurant reviewer who has graduated from an acclaimed culinary school any day over a 55-year-old reviewer whose only real knowledge encompasses the weekly meals he has eaten on somebody else’s dime through the years.

I was reminded of the difference between experience and age during a recent visit to Chicago, a fabulous restaurant city where I lived for 13 years beginning in 2000. During my tenure there, the “benchmark” Spanish restaurant — at least, according to one of the noted critics in town — was Café Ba-Ba-Reeba! Looking back now, just the name should have been a tip-off that perhaps the dishes produced there were not an authentic representation of Iberian Peninsula cuisine. But the food tasted good and, in my mind, I gave the restaurant an enthusiastic ¡ole!

Then, last fall, I went to Spain. I quickly came to realize that my hunch about Café Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s name was correct. I was quickly blown away by the different ingredients, different flavors, different preparations, different textures, and general wine-friendliness of the dishes, not only at the fine restaurants, but even at the ubiquitous tapas bars.

(That didn’t mean that Café Ba-Ba-Reeba! wasn’t good. It was just… different.)

So when I returned to Chicago for a visit, one of my goals was to find an authentic Spanish restaurant. As it turned out, I didn’t have to look too far. In fact, I didn’t have to look at all. After a sublime meal at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ acclaimed sister restaurant to the even more acclaimed Frontera Grill, I asked my server for a suggestion. He recommended Bom Bolla in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

When I stepped through the door, I felt as if I were back in Barcelona, with a large horseshoe-shaped bar dominating the space. It was obvious that this was a place for noshing.

Since I still don’t claim to be an expert on Spanish cuisine, I asked my server for some recommendations. As each dish was described, I perused the roster of adult beverages, looking for a complimentary Cava, red wine, white wine or rosato (rosé). There are lots of by-the-glass selections, so one could easily get carried away; the good news is that taxis are easy to hail in the Windy City — no designated driver necessary.

Adding to the authenticity is a nice selection of Spanish beers, sherries, vermouths and ciders.

It turns out that the owners of Bom Bolla are the same people behind Chicago’s most acclaimed bubbly bar, the venerable Pops for Champagne. As far as my satisfied palate was concerned, just as they bring bliss to sparkling wine drinkers, they have nailed the concept of a Barcelona tapas bar.

And I would not have been able to tell you that without the experience of having been to Barcelona.

• Bom Bolla is at 1501 N. Milwaukee in Chicago. Call 773-698-6601 for further information or directions. On the Web: I noted a few comments on Yelp about the length of time it took to get certain dishes, but that was not my experience. As is the case with any new restaurant, it can be wise to wait a few months before visiting to give them a chance to get their service and prep processes up to par. I did not have that choice, and I can honestly say I was not disappointed by either the service or the food.

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