Bay­less’ base­ment bar

BE­HIND THE SCENES AT BAR SOTANO BE­NEATH FRONTERA GRILL

Red Eye Chicago - - Eat&drink - By Phil Vet­tel

“Don’t feel,” an­nounces Rick Bay­less to the group, “that you have to eat ev­ery­thing.”

“Ev­ery­thing,” in this case, is the en­tire menu at Bar Sotano (pro­nounced SO­tunno), the cock­tail-fo­cused con­cept that de­buted Nov. 15 in the base­ment space be­neath Frontera Grill.

I’m the only civil­ian in a group of 20odd in­dus­try types — chefs, cooks, frontof-house staff — in­vited to eat and drink their way through 16 cock­tails and 22 plates a few weeks be­fore the bar opens.

Rishi Manoj Ku­mar, un­til now Frontera’s pri­vate-din­ing chef, will be Bar Sotano’s chef. Lanie Bay­less, daugh­ter of Rick and Deann Bay­less and the restau­rant group’s spir­its direc­tor, is in charge of the cock­tail pro­gram (as­sisted by bar man­ager Roger Lan­des); in­deed, Bar Sotano was cre­ated to let Lanie Bay­less spread her wings.

The Bay­less fam­ily, Ku­mar and Lan­des are all present, ob­serv­ing in­tently.

“It’s re­ally the only way to do it,” Rick Bay­less says of the all-in­clu­sive tast­ing. “That’s how you re­ally see which dishes work in re­la­tion to the oth­ers.”

There are rules. As we taste, we’re to keep in mind Sotano’s “Modern Mex­i­can bar food” def­i­ni­tion, and con­sider not just whether we like the dish/drink (“do the fla­vors sat­isfy?” Bay­less asks), but also whether it fits con­cep­tu­ally. We’re to keep value in mind as well; prices are in­cluded for ev­ery drink and dish. We’re to take notes, which will be turned in at the end.

The mus­sels with gar­lic, lemon­grass, ser­rano and cilantro are a hit, but the broth was deemed too thin.

Sev­eral dishes are deemed in­suf­fi­ciently spicy.

Cer­tain items re­quire no ver­bal feed­back, their pop­u­lar­ity mea­sured in time. Chile-dusted Oax­a­can peanuts and hot­sauce-ac­cented pop­corn dis­ap­pear by the fist­ful, as does the pot­ted car­ni­tas spread, the high­light of the char­cu­te­ria plate. Slices of A5 wagyu with Frontera ac­cents — smoky-spicy chin­tex­tle aioli and crum­bled pasilla pep­pers — are gone in a flash.

Lanie Bay­less’ cock­tails are grouped con­cep­tu­ally. There are the juice-driven Fruit Stand cock­tails, in­clud­ing a tequila, mango and spicy-tangy chamoy con­coc­tion served in a plas­tic bag with a straw (“the way you’d get it on the streets of Oax­aca,” she says).

Spice is king among the Chile Stall cock­tails, but the drinks aren’t as pi­cante as one might sup­pose; or­di­nar­ily, I’d ap­proach a cock­tail with ser­rano and an­cho chiles with oven mitts, but this drink, its fire muted by cu­cum­ber and egg white, is won­der­fully bal­anced.

Fonda cock­tails are “provoca­tive in­spi­ra­tions”; Lanie Bay­less’ drinks in this cat­e­gory are meant to re­call sa­vory dishes.

Three hours and change later, and we’re done. Ar­eas of need have been iden­ti­fied.

A lot can hap­pen be­tween a late-Oc­to­ber tast­ing and a mid-Novem­ber open­ing, so I’m con­fi­dent about ex­actly one thing.

The Mex­i­can paella. It will as­tound you.

E. JA­SON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Mex­i­can paella has large fresh Gulf shrimp, Gun­throp chicken, red Chile adobo, roasted poblano, tomato, peas and chicken chichar­ron.

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