My visit to Ronero, the new pan-Latin rum-focused spot on West Randolph street, almost crashed and burned before it really began. I was coming down from a spot of food poisoning, and my very first taste, a drink that purported to be a Hemingway Daiquiri, was so bad that it sat, mostly undrunk and mocking me with its badness, for almost an hour. Luckily, I was so impressed by Chef Cory Morris's awesome food (and assuaged by subsequent drinks) that the evening ended up a smashing success.
Morris did a long stint as the chef at Mercat a la Planxa, and his most recent gig before striking out on his own was at Rural Society, the Latin steakhouse in the Loews in River East. Clearly, the man has a passion for the food of various nations that speak Spanish. While, like all pan-[insert region here] restaurants, the menu is a little bit incoherent, everything is well executed enough that, somehow, it works, and I don't mind seeing yucca with mojo and ropa vieja next to ceviche and alfajores.
The dining room, which is deep, dark and cool, is pretty darn sexy. Small, curtained booths for two sit opposite the bar, and I want to invent a clandestine rendezvous just so I can go there to enact it. Once I got over the daiquiri (which combined too much grapefruit with a smoked sea salt that brought out all the bitter notes and made the drink harsh) and had my first bite, a refreshing salad of hearts of palm with a dressing that incorporated vanilla and coconut, I knew that I was in for a pretty good night.
Morris has always had a good touch with vegetables (despite Rural Society's reputation as a meat palace, I always thought the veggies were the best thing on the menu) and that carries over to Ronero. Spicy shishito peppers, served with a Columbian-style peanut sauce, were the perfect opening snack, and smoked heirloom carrots with queso fresco were so savory that they could have satisfied as a main course. A smoked avocado "salad" was really just an excuse to stuff my face with plantains, but it had enough of a twist from traditional guac that it's worth ordering. And the yucca, which I generally avoid ordering outside of a Cuban restaurant, was delicious, covered with far too much garlic (in the best possible way), and way, way better than any potato ever was. Take that, french fries!
The rest of the cocktail menu is middling to good, though for a rum bar, I wasn't impressed with any rum-based drink I tried. The cadejo blanco, a sort of green juice cocktail with rum, lime and "Chimichurri Greens" was refreshing but bland. Ronero, like every other bar in 2017, has to have a fancy, over-priced upsell cocktail, and I always go for it—in this case, a fancy rum old fashioned. It was fine, if over-iced, which somewhat diluted the expensive liquor. The one true standout on the list was the Desierto Florido, a super complex combination of American brandy, pisco, pinot noir, cinnamon and rose. I'd return just for this drink.
Meat dishes kept the good things coming. The "expensive" steak on the menu (a $28 skirt steak with chimichurri) was served sliced, at exactly the right temperature, smoky from the grill and seasoned to perfection. Lamb chops were served with a Peruvian sauce made from Huacatay, an herb that has a lot of similarities to mint, which makes this both exotic and a super-traditional pairing (think roast lamb with mint jelly). The chicken anticuchos were well cooked, though they could have used a hit of acid to make them less of a bland "dish for people who only order chicken at restaurants no matter what other yummy things are on the menu."
My one universal complaint about Ronero isn't actually a complaint for me, since I eat salt out of the jar: pretty much everything I tasted was incredibly salty. That's actually a draw in my case, but for anyone who hasn't resigned themselves to a life of high blood pressure, you may want to ask the kitchen to tone it down.
As I ended the meal with with an alfajores-inspired sweet (made with a thick dulce de leche flan that I couldn't stop eating), I remembered that early reviews of Ronero weren't great. Whatever growing pains the restaurant might have had at first, I can say with confidence that it's comfortably out of its adolescence. If you're looking for a creative take on Latin flavors, with a flair of sex appeal, make your reservations now.
Ronero is at 738 W. Randolph.