I have to say straight out that I've been going to this restaurant for about ... hmmm.. I think we figured 13 years or so. We had been going on occasion to Cafe Iberico, as it's closer, but the last two times ended up with a few mediocre dishes and distant waitstaff.
We went to Arco on Saturday night and realized it had been over two years since we were last there (kids will do that to ya!). The menu had changed, some things were gone, a few new things. When we go we make it a point to have at least one of the "specials", as they are usually outstanding.
If you have never been, Arco is not a large restaurant. It gets filled quickly, and the back part of the restaurant, the non-smoking part, in winter is usually cool. You can order food at the bar, and the bartenders over the years have always been friendly and knowledgable (when we were first going the owner was the person we saw the most often behind the bar). If you have to wait, sitting at the bar and sipping on wine while chatting with the bartender is pleasant. The only drawback is that the bar is at the front, in the smoking section. We've never been there when it's been super smoky, but it could get that way.
We started by splitting an old favorite, garlic soup. it was still boiling for a few minutes after being brought to our table; once it had cooled enough to eat, we were again surprised at how good this simple dish can be. It was, perhaps, a tad oilier than we remembered, but had just the right blend of nutty garlic and garlic broth, with a few bread chunks floating in there as well (and the bread we couldn't help but dip into it!).
We then ordered only three tapas - croquettes, mussles in cream sauce, and a pan seared trout that was a special. The croquettes came first, and were disappointing. They used to come with a very nice garlic aioli for dipping; without it they were dry and nothing special. The trout arrived shortly there after, and was very good. The piece, maybe six ounces?, had an almond butter sauce on it. The sauce had very tasty roasted almonds and was not very buttery/oily, which nicely complemented the perfectly cooked trout. Last we had our favorite, mussles in a cream sauce. Perhaps it is the time of year, but the mussles were perfectly cooked, plump, very tasty. The cream sauce ... well, it is a really really good thing they put out as much bread as they do, since we ended up sopping up divine sauce with the bread.
We then debated about another tapa, or dessert. Usually we don't "do" dessert, but on a lark we asked for the menu and ended up with a sponge cake that had been soaked in amaretto and rolled with a very light whip cream based frosting. We were intrigued by the description, and fully prepared for very strong amaretto and a dense cake (coffee was ordered to counter this). Happily it was a very light concotion, a perfect end to the meal.
I almost forgot to mention that we had Sangria - but honestly if I had remembered I would have skipped the Sangria and had a few glasses of one of their Rioja wines. The Sangria certainly was tasty, I just really like a number of the Riojas they have by the glass. Guess I need to go there more often than every two years!
In sum, a balanced dinner, pleasant time, and if you are looking for tapas, something to check out.
Arco de Cuchilleros
3445 N. Halsted St.