Tiny Bites in the Heights

by Amy Chovan

With an already diverse blend of upscale establishments dishing out French, Italian and American cuisine, Peoria Heights is ready to welcome the newest eatery to grace the 4600 block of Prospect Road—Noir Tapas & Rendezvous Lounge. As the popularity of tapas continues to grow in the United States, a healthy dose of anticipation has built among locals who caught wind of the coming eatery. Promising to offer the fresh and fashionable style for which its location has come to be known, Noir is sure to be a hit.

Owner and manager Jeanne Zimmerman-Bloom, who has been in the bar and restaurant business off and on all her life, and previously ran Johnny Vig’s and Dominic’s in the Metro Centre, decided she was ready to get back into the business about the same time she and her partner, James Richmond, were traveling in Europe. “I started seeing [tapas bars] and thought that it would be a good time to introduce it to Peoria,” said Zimmerman-Bloom. Not having visited an American version of a tapas bar before experiencing the real thing in Europe, Zimmerman-Bloom was a blank slate. “Peoria Heights has had great success with a great variety of restaurants,” she claimed, “and I think tapas will add to that.”

While tapas bars have flourished in large American cities for some time, their popularity has skyrocketed in the last three or four years, with a dramatic surge in their numbers across the country. That, says Zimmerman-Bloom, has paved the way for their rise in smaller cities, including, now, Peoria.

A Storied Past
Some say the first tapas were simple slices of bread or meat placed on top of glasses of sherry in Andalusian taverns to keep the fruit flies out. In fact, the word “tapas” comes from the Spanish word “tapar,” which means “to cover.”

While that sounds logical to Zimmerman-Bloom, who knows that fruit flies have a taste for wine, the history of tapas isn’t that cut and dry. Some contend that the first tapas came about when King Alfonso X of Castile became ill and was told by his doctors to have small snacks and sips of wine between meals. Upon recovery, King Alfonso issued a decree that taverns always serve small portions of food with wine and beer.

Others say it was King Alfonso XII who, while traveling on the windy Andalusian coast, was given a piece of bread topped by cured ham to cover his drink. It is said that he asked for a second glass of wine and a “tapa” to keep the sand out of his glass. Still other legends attribute the origination of tapas to King Felipe III, who ordered that a snack be served with all libations to help maintain his subjects’ sobriety.

However the style of eating got its start, tapas have become important parts of daily life in Europe, where siestas often push dinner times back to 9 or 10pm. Zimmerman-Bloom explained that, in Spain, people go out for tapas just as Americans would go out for happy hour, giving them a chance to gather with friends and family to unwind from a busy workday. This also makes it possible to wait until late evening to eat the biggest meal of the day. In many parts of Spain, drinks ordered in bars are often accompanied by a complimentary tapa.

Roasted Peppers and Mozzarella
A Noir original recipe from executive chef, Adam Feinerman

Fire-roasted red and yellow peppers accompanied by fresh buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction

Roast red and yellow peppers on grill until skin is charred, then place in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. Once cooled, peel off black charred skin and rinse off and remove stem and seeds.

Unroll fresh mozzarella sheet and arrange alternating red and yellow peppers. Finely chop fresh basil and sprinkle over the peppers. Roll up the mozzarella sheets, keeping the filling from pushing out the sides, and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator and chill.

Meanwhile, combine 2 cups of balsamic vinegar and 1 cup of brown sugar over medium heat, reduce to the consistency of syrup, and cool to room temperature.

Slice mozzarella roll and arrange on a plate. Drizzle with the balsamic reduction and serve.

While Noir will feature a happy hour menu with select tapas and expect their main dinner crowd between 6 and 8pm, the restaurant will also feature a late-night menu for those who enjoy a more European lifestyle. “Their dinners are evening events—it’s a relaxed social time,” noted Zimmerman-Bloom, and that’s exactly what Noir will offer.

It’s In the Small Things
In order to make dining at Noir an evening event, Zimmerman-Bloom will host salsa nights and bring in live entertainment to keep with tradition. Because of the long, narrow shape of its building, Noir couldn’t allow for bigger bands, but two- to three-person bands playing Spanish music will fit the bill nicely. “I would like to stay ‘ethnic’…We’re definitely having salsa night because it’s way too fun!” she exclaimed, adding that she hopes to bring in people who can give her patrons short lessons before opening the floor up for dancing.

Taking its name from film noir, a school of cinematography categorized by crime drama, low lighting and ominous background music, the restaurant will feature noir films on a back wall reserved specifically for that purpose.

To fulfill her vision, Zimmerman-Bloom said they bulldozed the previous building and built Noir from scratch, cutting no corners and sparing no details. With perfection in mind, she ordered doors from Brazil and is determined to keep everything authentic. The interior has a contemporary lounge atmosphere while the outside looks a bit more traditional. In keeping with the al fresco trend that has become quite popular on this block of the Heights, diners can eat on the front patio, which will be decked out during the warmer months.

“This is so fun and we’re so excited. It’s such a huge project…I want everything—all the bells and whistles,” said Zimmerman-Bloom eagerly. “Everyone’s really excited about this coming to Peoria, so when we open, I want it to be everything!”

Small and Savory
Zimmerman-Bloom is excited about Noir’s menu, which will highlight local organic produce as much as possible. “I always feel like we’re overwhelmed with over-processed food, and this doesn’t have to be,” she explained. In Europe, the focus is on fresh ingredients, with minimal processing. Much of their food is smoked or cured, so they don’t have all of the added chemicals we tend to have in American food. “The size of our restaurant gives us a good opportunity to stay local and fresh,” added Zimmerman-Bloom.

While the search for a local grower with whom they can partner is on, Zimmerman-Bloom and Noir’s executive chef, Adam Feinerman, are working on creating traditional items for the menu. The restaurant will feature homemade chorizo, the spicy Spanish sausage, and seasonal menu changes to reflect only the freshest ingredients. 

Per tradition, Noir will serve both hot and cold tapas. Zimmerman-Bloom recommends that each person order two or three items, as the portions are indeed small. “To me, it’s a healthier style of eating,” said Zimmerman-Bloom. “You don’t get a plate in front of you to serve four and feel like you need to eat the whole thing,” as is typical in many American restaurants. The small portions characteristic of tapas are perfect for sharing and just enough to hit the spot. 

To finish off the meal, Noir will offer wonderful desserts. “I have a sweet tooth,” said Zimmerman-Bloom, “and if I’m going to serve food, I’m going to have desserts!”

Finally, what tapas restaurant would be complete without a vast wine list? “Wine is a big part of the Spanish culture,” Zimmerman-Bloom explained, “and it’s becoming a bigger part of our culture. We love wine, so we’ll have a great wine list.”

As the Peoria area ushers in warmer weather, we will see more than flowers popping up around town. The opening of Noir Tapas & Rendezvous Lounge in May will bring something new to the area, enhancing the coterie of eateries that already cater to local taste buds. The Spanish flair and tapas dining style is sure to be a welcome addition to the Heights. a&s

Noir Tapas & Rendezvous Lounge
4606 N. Prospect Rd.
Peoria Heights, IL 61616