New head chef tweaks tapas menu at Oak Brook's El Tapeo

Diners have been heading to the ninth floor of the Le Meridien Hotel in Oak Brook for two years to sample Spanish cuisine and share plates of tapas, but a new spin put on the menu by executive chef Matthew Cappellini makes a reason to return.

When El Tapeo opened, Cappellini was executive sous chef and helped fashion its concept of handcrafted, authentic Spanish cuisine served to share. He took over the helm in the kitchen in August and introduced a new menu last month, keeping some favorites while introducing his own creations.

Taking its name from the Spanish phrase “vamos de tapeo,” meaning let's go for tapas, El Tapeo's menu is about half tapas and half entrees, all of which can be shared, if desired. You'll find plenty of steakhouses and Italian restaurants in suburban Chicago, Cappellini says, but Spanish cuisine and the tapas style of dining “is completely different.”

How you experience a tapas restaurant depends on your appetite and penchant for sharing food. You might start with ordering one tapas per person and then swapping plates before moving on to an entree, such as El Tapeo's three kinds of paella, each one of which should satisfy three or four diners. Or a table of three or four might linger over 10 tapas to share along with a bottle of wine or sangria before calling for the check. The average dining time is two hours.

“It's all about sharing and enjoying each other's company,” Cappellini says. “The idea is to have fun and not be a stuffy, fine-dining restaurant.”

  The arroz negro con mariscos paella is meant to be shared at El Tapeo in Oak Brook. Daniel White/

Enjoy we did. Our party of four ordered five tapas. The datiles - a classic dish of fried dates stuffed with marcona almonds and wrapped in cherry wood bacon - felt velvety in the mouth, a nice counterpoint to the crackle of bacon. We all agreed that the sherry tomato sauce on the albondigas - lamb and bacon meatballs - made the dish, as did the zesty tomato sauce in the calcot - green onion, red and yellow pepper - a new item on the menu. Also new, the coles de Bruselas - Brussels sprouts, Iberico bacon and sherry gastrique - pleased even the member of our party who professed to detest that particular vegetable. The sauce moderated any bitterness in the sprouts, cooked to just the right balance between tough and soft.

The hit of our evening was the pulpo - charred octopus, harissa, fingerling potatoes, tarragon and black pepper sauce. Word-of-mouth has made it one of the most popular items on the menu, Cappellini says. We can see why. Not rubbery, as octopus often can be, the char added just the right texture and the sauce just the right level of spice. “We figured out the secret here, I guess,” the chef says.

  Albondigas - lamb and bacon meatballs - come bathed in a sherry tomato sauce at El Tapeo. Daniel White/

As an entree, we split a pan of arroz negro con mariscos - seafood paella - the most expensive item on the menu. Beautiful to look at, the black rice glistened in the bottom of the white dish, contrasting nicely with the pink and white shrimp and clams. A fringe of mussels shells stood at attention along the perimeter. The dish was skimpy on lobster, though, and what we did find was chewy and lacked flavor.

Service never felt rushed. At the two-hour mark we split a satisfying leche frita - fried milk, apple compote and burnt caramel ice cream - and ordered cappuccinos.

  Decorated in black and red, El Tapeo's dining space seems on the small side, though floor-to-ceiling windows make it feel larger. Daniel White/

Decorated in black and red, popular colors in Spain, the dining area seems on the small side, though floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the shopping center and office towers make it feel larger. On a Saturday night, well-dressed millennials filled about three-quarters of the tables. The lounge area is roomy, stays open a bit longer than the restaurant and serves specialty and classic cocktails, red and white sangria, a nice selection of beer and wine and an abbreviated tapas menu.

The tapas style of dining isn't for everyone. My traditional meat-and-potatoes husband grumbled as we made our way to our car that it seemed like a lot of money for not a lot of food. I, on the other hand, felt happy to be satiated, not stuffed.

<i>Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.</i>

El Tapeo

2100 Spring Road, Le Meridien Chicago-Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, (630) 828-2044,

Cuisine: Tapas and Spanish entrees

Setting: Contemporary with floor-to-ceiling windows on the ninth floor of the Le Meridien hotel

Entrees: $25-$44, tapas $6-$18

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday

Also: Free self-parking, valet parking $5

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