If La Sirena Clandestina is the sultry date night spot of the West Loop, then El Che Bar is its sexy younger sister. A new addition to the West Loop, it combines fabulous cocktails, mouth-watering food, and delicious desserts together in an atmosphere matched by few.
A new edition to the West Loop, El Che Bar opened on August 1, 2016. Despite being only about 3 weeks one when I had the opportunity to dine there, it already operated like a well-oiled machine—something many restaurants struggle with for months, and something many restaurants never seem to achieve.
It has been my experience that restaurants succeed in either the kitchen or the front of house, but El Che Bar has the dream team that carries both to complete success. Executive Chef John Manion has created a beautifully inspired menu that nods to the fantastic cuisine of Buenos Aires, while his wife Nicole makes guests feel at home in their dining room. The perfect duo of excellence in the kitchen and a personable front-of-house, Nicole and John have created a dinner environment that leaves everyone feeling and feeling loved.
And it is not just John and Nicole who have brought this restaurant to success. John leads his powerhouse kitchen to put out tremendous pairings; the servers are constantly checking in on you to make sure your food and drink meet and exceed expectations and are able to offer excellent recommendations; plates and silverware are cleared within minutes between courses and fresh ones immediately follow; and my water glass could never even reach being half empty before someone came to refill it. They have truly created a team that makes your whole dining experience a joyous occasion.
The decor perfectly matches the Latin/local vibe the restaurant produces with their food. The dim lighting and open view of the kitchen’s hearth reminded me of going to a restaurant in Buenos Aires at 10pm with its elegant soft lighting and huge focus on the kitchen and cooking of the meats. It was like being transported back to one of my favorite times in my life—but it was the food and drinks that really pushed El Che Bar to greatness.
While the food is inspired by Chef Manion’s time living and dining in Argentina, every dish also evokes his Midwestern roots. The cooking styles of parilladas and asados in Argentina are paired with beautiful South American class accompaniments such as chimichurris, provoleta and “Dada” mustard steak sauce. And the drink menu exudes the same nods to Argentina, using yerba mate in cocktails, having bottles of Quilmes beer, and an expansive wine list including Malbecs from Mendoza.
Before I dive into my meal—my apologies for the photo quality. While the dim atmosphere makes for a fantastic ambiance and perfect date night setting, it is not the greatest for food photography. Where possible I have substituted images from El Che Bar’s social media and website, all noted appropriately to give credit where credit is due.
I began my visit with a tea pisco sour. As a huge fan of the pisco sour at La Sirena I hoped this one would meet my high expectations, and it did. The drink was a light and refreshing beginning to a fabulous meal. The amount of foam created on top from the egg whites balanced perfectly with the cocktail and did not leave you feeling like half of your glass was an egg white – something that I have met with sadness and disappointment from pisco sours in the past. And the tea was a welcomed addition that enhanced the flavor of the pisco rather than detracting from the classic cocktail. This is definitely a great starter drink for someone who has shied away from drinks with egg whites in the past.
I decided to start my meal off with the pickled shrimp and melon salad. The dish, which featured cilantro, scallion, cucumber, avocado puree and lime, had a perfect marriage of acidity, heat and cooling ingredients. The pickled shrimp had a bold and highly acidic flavor from the lime. And after each bite a spicy profile starts to heat up and build upon itself. This heat is met and cooled by the melon and cucumber that quickly soothe your taste buds so that you’re ready for your next bite. The portion is enough to share with two people, and could be shared with up to about four people with an ample taste for each person, though I recommend two for larger parties or small groups who all want a generous portion.
After devouring my salad I moved on to my next dish, the gnocchi. The dish, described on the menu as herbed Parisian gnocchi, blistered cherry tomatoes, chimichurri, summer squash, shaved Parmesan and Parmesan Brodo, leaves vegetarians feeling the love on this meat-heavy menu. These light dumplings melt in your mouth with every bite. The slight char on the gnocchi adds a great depth of flavor and the still slightly crisp vegetables balance out the dish by providing a beautiful, satisfying crunch in between the luscious
bites of gnocchi. The dish is complimented beautifully by a glass of the Brooks Pinot Noir.
For my main course (well second main course) I tried the swordfish steak – swordfish with tomatillo and guajillo, watercress, cherry tomatoes, and pepitas. The dish was phenomenal. By using such a hearty fish, Chef Manion made it possible to create a seafood dish that hold up to the cooking style of charred Argentinian steaks. The fish was moist on the inside while having a perfect char on the outside that added both texture and layers of flavor. The salad on top of the swordfish pairs wonderfully, offering a peppery flavor from the watercress and an additional crunch from the pepitas. The salad did feel slightly overdessed when eaten as it’s own bite, but when paired with the swordfish (as intended based on the plating being on top of the fish), the bite came out perfectly. The Brooks Pinot Noir paired wonderfully with the swordfish steak as well.
Despite how delicious my swordfish was, I had to force myself to stop eating it so that I could save room for the dish I was most excited about – dessert. There are two things you need to know about me.
- Ever since my summer in Argentina I have been OBSESSED with alfajor cookies.
- Ice cream is my weakness. While I love almost all dessert equally I will always look for an excuse to get ice cream and never turn down an opportunity to get a scoop.
While the entire dessert menu looked delightful, I knew, without question, that I would be trying the alfajor ice cream sandwich. Pastry chef Marianna Reynolds hit a home run with this dessert, as I’m sure she did with the dessert menu. The maizena cookies have the beautiful crumble and are easy to bite through to get to the rich, creamy dulce de leche ice cream. The ice cream has just the right amount of flavor that you can taste the dulce de leche in it without it being overly sweet, and the amount of dulce de leche on inside the sandwich itself perfectly balances and enhances the flavors of the ice cream and the cookie. This dessert was my dream come true. I enjoyed a fernet on tap with my cookie, which happens to be my favorite type of liquor.
A somewhat acquired taste, my first introduction to fernet was not a pleasant one. A staple in Argentinian culture, fernet was one of those drinks that you found on every single menu. At restaurants it was served on its own, and at the nightclubs everyone would order fernet y coca (fernet and Coke). With its strong flavor that is reminiscent of sugarless black liquorice, it is overwhelming at first. The closest thing I could relate it to is Jäegermeister.
When my friend first introduced me to fernet y coca at my first bar in Buenos Aires he aired me on the side of caution. His warning; You have to try fernet 5 times to like it, but then you will love it. And he was right – each time I ordered the drink my opinion changed:
- OMG ew. This is terrible. How do people drink this? I don’t want to try it again but I promised Sam I would.
- Still not great, but I don’t hate it.
- Nuetral. I no longer dislike it, but I also don’t like it.
- This actually isn’t so bad. I think it’s growing on me.
- I LOVE FERNET!!!!!!!!!
By the time you fall in love with fernet you grow to appreciate its strong flavor. As a pairing with dessert, it helps to cleanse your palette of the strong flavors of your meal, something I always look for in my desserts. While this might technically be a beverage, since I had mine after my meal it was a “dessert beverage”.
Overall my experience with the food and service at El Che Bar was outstanding. I will definitely be returning soon, whether it be for a full meal or just a cocktail and alfajor ice cream sandwich. If you are looking for a new spot to try out in the West Loop, this is a must.
Have you been to El Che Bar? What are some of your must-order dishes and drinks?
El Che Bar
845 W. Washington Blvd
Chicago, IL 60607