Mercat a la Planxa - wow!
A wonderful restaurant opened Saturday in the newly refurbished Blackstone Hotel (corner of Balbo and South Michigan Ave) featuring creative tapas as would be found in Barcelona: Mercat a la Planxa (pronounced PLON-cha). We were fortunate to dine there Sunday evening and found it one of our most memorable dinners in a long time.
Our menu choice was “La Mesa de José ” (Chef’s Selection priced at $55.00 per person, with wine pairings to accompany at $20.00 per person). The José in question is José Garces (Chicago-born, 36 years old, has made a good name for himself in Spain, New York, and Philadelphia, including nomination for a James Beard Foundation award).
Now to the chow: first off was amuse-bouche of toasted bread strips spread with finely chopped tomatoes. Then came a dish of 3 different olive types: Gordal, Arbequina, and Verdial, in oil and fresh parsley flakes. First plate was a sampler of 3 different Spanish cheeses, each with a ramekin of companion flavorings: Castellot (cow’s milk cheese) served with truffled apple and lavender jam; Caña de Cabra (goat’s milk) paired with balsamic strawberries; Aragonés (goat’s milk) with a spread of smoked pecan and nigella butter. Each cheese was a delight and the accompaniments were delicious by themselves when spread on thin slices of crusty bread also provided.
Second plate was Serrano Ham and Fig Salad which looked almost like a small loaf of bread as the ham slices were draped over the salad hiding underneath. The salad included baby spinach, spiced almonds, black figs, and crumbles of Cabrales cheese, all in a sherry vinaigrette. Following this was a plate of Patatas Bravas, small potato chunks which had been lightly fried in peanut oil, blanched, then dusted with smoky paprika, and topped with a spicy paprika aioli.
Next was Pulpo con Patatas, a plate of small bites of grilled octopus and potatoes in a light sauce. Then came Gambas al Ajillo, fresh seared shrimp swimming in garlic butter. For a complete change of tastes, we were served Costillas de Ternera, a mixture of finely chopped beef shortrib meat, horseradish, parmesan cheese, and bacon, topped with arugula sprouts spread on thin slices of flatbread.
One of the finest dishes followed: Arroz con Cangrejo, a ceramic dish with a lump crabmeat risotto on top of which rested a silver-dollar size crispy crabcake, which in turn was topped with a “sunny side up” fried quail egg – great flavors and presentation. Then we were served 2 magnificent baby lambchops, tender as can be and grilled to perfect rareness (nothing for garnish, just the chops alone). As if this were not already enough, our final dish was Confit de Bacalao, a nice chunk of cod cooked in circulating hot moist air served with warm haricots verts, potatoes and an orange-saffron emulsion.
After this we had no room for dessert, but thought the entire meal was outstanding and full of great variety of flavors, textures, etc. We highly recommend Mercat a la Planxa now before Phil Vettel reviews it, after which you can’t get in because of the crowds. This is not a huge restaurant, but it is well-laid out and the kitchen overlooks the dining area so you can see what is going on there. A bar is located on the ground floor and you access the dining room by a curving stairway (believe there is also elevator access for those needing it). Another bar is located in the dining space. Both bars offer 3 kinds of sangria: white, red, and seasonal (last night’s seasonal included pomegranate juice and blood oranges). Drink prices are reasonable ($10 for Macallan 12 year, for example). By all means, check out Mercat a la Planxa soon.
I had dinner at Mercat last Sunday (they day after it opened). It was fantastic! Here’s what we had:
White sangria with grapes and pear – this was a lot lighter than any sangria I’ve had. It was very refreshing.
The bacon wrapped, almond stuffed dates: These were great, possibly the highlight of the meal. They are drizzled with a light cheese sauce at the table. You get two skewers of two dates each, so you might want to get more than one order.
The mixto cheese plate: we had the same combination as CJT. I particularly liked the cow’s milk cheese with truffled apple and lavender jam. The combination worked really well.
Jamon de Pato (cured duck) – this was probably our least favorite item. Tasted good, came with spicy mustard and cornichons, but was a little boring. You get so much though that they we couldn’t finish it all.
Shrimp, chorizo, and garbanzo bean flatbread – I loved this, but my date thought it was a little heavy. Flavors melded very well.
Pork belly – this just melted under your fork and the sherry glaze was divine.
We had the 4 chocolates for dessert. The cake was dry, but the sippable white chocolate was delicious (but not good for sharing) and the walnut ice cream was nice too.
The dinner lasted 2 hours, which is long for me. Twice the waiter came over to apologize for things taking so long, but we hadn’t even noticed we were enjoying what we had so much. Any service kinks (if you notice them) will probably be worked out soon. The place was not very crowded on Sunday. Definitely check it out. I want this place to last.
This is the best restaurant I have been to in Chicago in a long time. The atmosphere is gorgeous with the light fixtures sparkling and reflecting in the large mirrors. The service was outstanding. that said the food is the highlight (with some better than others, of course). We started with the pitcher of seasonal sangria, with pomegranate juice, blood oranges and basil; it was a bit bitter. We preferred the white sangria with pears and apples; it was very light and refreshing.
We started with the razor clams, the bacon wrapped dates with almond and blue cheese sauce, and the octopus. All three were fabulous. The highlight of this first round was the dates, as the blue cheese sauce drizzled over them and the frisee salad was divine.
The second round was the artichoke, manchego flatbread and the shortrib flatbread Both were good, although I preferred the artichoke, as the flavors, surprisingly, were more robust. For salads, we had the serrano ham and fig salad, which we loved and the aspragus salad which was a bit bland (our least favorite dish). The fig has a great vinaigrette and candied almonds .
For arroz dishes, we had both the paella and the con cangrejo---both were fabulous. The paella had a good saffron flavor, which so many are lacking, and the con cangrejo had great flavors--the friend quail egg on top really added to the dimension of the flavors.
Next was the fideo course, and we chose the baby squid ink pasta with angel hair, which was light and very good. We also had the pork belly, with the side salad cider vinaigrette--their riff on carolina 'cue. It was divine!!! Our last course was the hamachi and it was one of my favorites--it was seared with little bits rock salt on top and an aoili drizzled on the bottom.
All this for four people, and we could barely move, but we had to have one dessert and let our server choose. He chose the first dessert, which was almost like a vanilla flavored creme brulee with a cake on the bottom. It was light, rispy and refreshing. A great way to end the meal.
I am still full! Run, don't walk to Mercat!
I went with a party of six on Friday (the 14th) and we were the first to reserve a whole suckling pig. It was 7 to 9 weeks old and weighed about 35 pounds. I'm not sure they served us the entire pig, but I was uncomfortably full after dinner. The pig comes with grilled green onions (just OK), spinach with apples and pine nuts (a great dish), roasted fingerling potatoes with carmelized onions (also outstanding), and white beans with rosemary and bacon (too salty and we didn't really need the bacon). The cost is $32 per person with a minimum of four people and 48 hours advance notice. Pics can be found here- http://www.flickr.com/photos/24748517... .
We brought our own wines and corkage is $25 a bottle. You could certainly find something reasonable on the restaurant list. Everyone was quite happy with their meal, and I will be "pigging out" again soon.
We went last Sunday and spent about $60 each all inclusive with two drinks. Standouts were the goat cheese plate with balsamic strawberry, spinach with apple and pine nuts (to die for), octupus and potato, and the fava beans. To my mind the anchovy and pine nut flatbread was muddled and the pork belly was well conceived but could have been sourced better (mine didn't melt under my fork, as a previous poster's did). All in all it was excellent however. Highly recommended.
I am sorry to rain on the parade, but I ate at Mercat on the 15th, and I found the experience sorely lacking. I will say that the service was outstanding from start to finish, attentive and friendly during the entire time we were in the restaurant. The room is also quite attractive, obviously a lot of money was spent in its creation. The techno/dance music that blared far too loudly did nothing to remind me of being in Spain, and made it difficult to talk across the table.
As to the food, while everything is priced reasonably, we found nothing about which to rave, and most dishes were mediorcre at best. The jamon serrano was shaved so thinly as to remove almost all flavor. We ordered the pimientos de patron as a tribute to Calvin Trillin, but I doubt that what we received resembled the peppers about which he raved. The peppers were soggy, lightly charred, and unimpressive in their flavor. The saffron aioli was quite good, but no enough to redeem the peppers. The patatas bravas were tasty, as one would expect from a tatter tot with aioli dabbed on top. We ordered the dish based on my time in Sevilla as a student, but the result was quite different, and not exactly inspired if a derivative thereof. The pulpo y patatas came swimming in olive oil, and spent too long on the planxa--blackened. The paella was apparently made without saffron, and the result lacked flavor. The best dish of the night was the pasta with squid ink, which was tasty, but short of "wow".
I would go back because the service was outstanding, but I can't figure out how to go, but not eat anything. There are too many other great restaurants in Chicago to ever go back to Mercat. It is a shame, since great Spanish food is a wonder.