The community has yet another new addition to its rapidly flourishing international restaurant scene: Papa Cenar, which took over the former Twain storefront.
While Logan Square may not have fully embraced the whole midwestern comfort food vibe of Twain, even though it was nostalgic and distinctive, Papa Cenar (2445 N. Milwaukee Ave.) could be more in line with what Logan Squarites are in the mood for: relatively affordable Spanish small plates ($8-18) with a chic, Mediterranean vibe and plenty of vegetarian options.
Papa Cenar recently opened on Oct. 2 and is a Spanish-Mediterranean tapas-themed restaurant inspired by famous American author, Ernest Hemingway, and his intimate romance with European cafes. The space is reminiscent of 1920’s French and Spanish cafes frequented by philosophers, writers, and intellectuals like Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and of course Hemingway.
‘Papa’ was Hemingway’s nickname and Cenar means to eat in Spanish, which is fully embodied in the design and architecture masterminded by the extremely imaginative Jordan Mozer of Jordan Mozer + Associates, Ltd., who is a partner with the restaurant and enthusiastic restauranteur, Branko Palikuca ( of Twain and The Dawson).
Palikuca said he was moved by his recent travels to Spain, where he found himself in adoration of their dreamy tapas culture.
Papa Cenar is trying to do a lot. It’s appealing to a wide variety of diners, ranging from shareable vegetarian small plates ($8-$14) to large meaty entrees ($12-$20) made on a wood-grill, paralleled by its sultry backroom adorned with vibrant bulls and roses to its more child-forward, colorful murals of adorable animals inspired by Hemingway.
Their music embodies the chill and relaxing vibes of a European café where you can still have a lively conversation without losing your voice. I remember hearing calming Radiohead covers to more jazzy, electronic tunes throughout my dining experience.
The service was extremely attentive and friendly, and they were willing to customize for dietary restrictions! They have a versatile beverage menu curated by manager and beverage director, Anna Henscey, with a fabulous assortment of Mediterranean wines and creative cocktails ($10-14) that enhance and complement Logan Square’s booming cocktail scene.
I first tried the Sangria Rioja, which was a vibrant red sangria showcasing fresh fruit that perfectly soaked up the brandy flavors. I especially loved the El Unico cocktail given that I am obsessed with smoky mezcal—it had potent flavors with a hint of lime and Fernet Branca balanced by the distinct mezcal.
While the cocktails did not disappoint, I was super enthused to try out their Tapas from la tierra, the land! Diners were given a complimentary Heirloom tomato spread with their homemade bread. The tomato spread was so fresh and was an inspiring invitation to a sensual meal.
One of my favorite small plates was the Falafel—chickpea fritters, which were super fresh, and toothsome with a tangy mint flavor. It paired exquisitely with the mild smoked eggplant purée and the perfectly salty whipped feta and pickled onions. The fermented honey provided a hint of sweetness to the savory foundations of the dish.
Another show stopper was the Farmer Squash Pisto! I’m not usually excited about squash–I like it, but it’s not something I seek out–however, this one was incredible! There were three different types of squash that were perfectly roasted and topped with crunchy spiced pepita seeds and fresh goat cheese to tie all of the components together.
Of course, I had to try the Halloumi because who doesn’t like a brined cheese from Cyprus. While the Halloumi was good, the eggplant caponata was the star of the dish. It was reminiscent of an olive muffuletta, which was a perfect complement to the milder halloumi flavor.
I found Papa Cenar to be a vegetable-forward restaurant. They not only had veggie-centric small plates but really know how to celebrate the scrumptious flavors and crunchy textures of vegetables. For example, the Heirloom Cauliflower had impeccably roasted cauliflowers with a delicate vegan Sardinian vinaigrette, and blistered grapes topped with Manchego. The dish did not even need the Manchego because it was so strong by itself attesting to the strength of the chef’s abilities to feature vegetables.
Given the Spanish-Mediterranean theme, Papa Cenar, of course has interesting seafood and fish options. If you’re looking for a larger entrée, the Branzino is a distinct and flavorful fish. It comes with juicy, grilled squash and an exquisite mole rojo sauce, which transcended the fish.
Last, But Not Least
While I usually don’t leave space for dessert, it is worth it to leave some space! It is not an afterthought–there is as much care and innovation put into their dessert as they put into their savory items. I had the pleasure of trying their Strawberry Sangria, which was a creative, deconstructed strawberry cake, to put it simply. I have had many desserts in my day, but I’ve never had anything like this before! The sea salt ganache was enamoring with the macerated strawberries, yet the almond cake, cocoa nibs, and sangria ice cream were also quite satisfying together.
But alas, I had to stop myself from entering a food coma because even though it’s tapas-themed, their portions are quite sizeable making this a perfect spot for sharing because you can eat more than a measly bite of each dish.
I hope Papa Cenar is here to stay given their veggie-forward plates and sultry Mediterranean vibe that is playful with inventive cocktails. I sense that they might be trying to do too much at once but it does come off as an eclectic vibe and space that the neighborhood can embrace.
Vegan Options Rating: ★★
Vegetarian Options Rating: ★★★★
Pescatarian Options Rating: ★★★★1/2
Food Quality: ★★★★1/2
Cocktail Quality: ★★★★★
Overall Rating: ★★★★1/2