Mercat a la Planxa
638 S. Michigan Ave.
One of the best things about tapas restaurants is the huge variety of food options, however, it is also the worst things since there is never any way to try all of the enticing options. So when we had the occasion to go out in a group of four we figured a tapas restaurant would be perfect, thereby upping everyone’s chances of enjoying as many dishes as possible. Mercat a la Planxa, helmed by Jose Garces, has been open since 2008, and specializes in Barcelona-style tapas. The menu changes frequently and has a rotating selection of traditional and more avant-garde tapas, as well as fish and meats “a la planxa” (“grilled”). We went to Mercat with quite an appetite, so we were excited to sample the extensive tapas menu. You’ll find what we had below, along with menu descriptions. As you might notice, all of the dishes have Catalan names – very Barcelona!
At the start of the meal we were presented with the house Pa amb tomàquet, a kind of riff on bruschetta. Typically, Pa amb tomàquet is typically a lot lighter on tomato, but we liked this non-traditional take as well. Next, we picked from the Spanish cheese selections, and tried La Peral, a Cow’s Milk Cheese with Apricot-Cider Mustard ($9) and Garrotxa, a Goat’s Milk cheese, roasted garlic dulce de leche ($8). Garrotxa is one of our favorite cheeses, and it paired perfectly with the dulce de leche, the Peral was good, but less memorable. Next, we had an order of Gambas al ajillo – Garlic Shrimp ($10) – a classic tapas dish, perfectly executed, though the portion was a little small.
Pintxos Muranos – Lamb brochettes wrapped in bacon with a lamb jus ($14). Another classic tapas dish, this one was M’s favorite, which was not surprising, given the wrapped in bacon. Since the brochettes were served on skewers, they were a little hard to share, so the two non-bacon lovers ceded their portions.
Next were the Pelotas de calabaza y cordero, Butternut squash dumplings, lamb ragout, beech mushroom escabeche and black truffle ($11). What looks like fried bacon in the photo above was in fact mushroom, which had an amazingly earthy flavor. The dumplings were more like squash-filled ravioli, and were tasty, though the lamb ragout definitely stole the show.
Black Angus Rib Eye – 12 oz. ($42). The steak was good, but probably nothing we would really get again at a tapas restaurant, good for the two major carnivores at the table, though. Looks like we forgot to get a photo…oops.
Mar i Muntanya (“Sea and mountain”)- Serrano-wrapped yellow fin tuna, potato croquette, foie gras torchon, pickled pearl onion. The yellowfin tuna was wonderful, but we’re not sure it needed the foie gras on top, maybe we aren’t just big foie fans though. The pickled pearl onions provided an unexpected tangy zip, and the potato croquettes were both substantial and flavorful. We also appreciated the beautiful presentation.
Gratin de Escalivada (“Grilled Gratin”) – Oven baked roasted red peppers, tomato, eggplant & cipolini onions with goat cheese and grilled sourdough ($10). There needed to be more goat cheese with this dish (as with any dish), the grilled veggies were fine, but nothing to write home about on their own.
Coliflor amb Xato – Roasted cauliflower with currants, padron peppers, truffled tarragon xato and shaved manchego cheese ($13). Despite never ordering cauliflower out on a regular basis, we found this take on caulifower was unexpectedly delicious, and perfectly complemented by the spicy xato sauce (Xató sauce is made with nuts, vinegar, garlic and nyora pepper). This was L’s pick out of the tapas we ordered.
Patatas Bravas – Spicy potatoes with spicy paprika aoili ($5). This is an item we always have to order at a tapas joint. As you can see from the presentation above, this is more of an avant-garde take than the usual haphazard potato cubes, with each potato being formed into a little fried cake, topped with a dollop of spicy sauce.
Plantain empanada – Spinach, Manchego & Piquillo artichoke escabeshe ($10). Though it arrived with our savory foods, the empanada provided a hint of plantain sweetness. The piquillo pepper was a nice contrast to the somewhat-rich empanada.
Horchata Bon Bon – Horchata ice cream, dark chocolate, cinnamon, puffed rice, coconut crema and marcona brittle ($3.50). The bon bon was filled with ice cream – and the combination of flavors was absolutely perfect! The Spanish horchata flavor (made from Tiger nuts) was rich and almond-y, and worked perfectly with the cinnamon and coconut flavors. The marcona almond brittle was also a nice touch.
Our final dessert was the Pastissos d’Avellana (“Hazelnut Cake” – sounds better in catalan, no?) Hazelnut Mascarpone gateux, apricot, dulce de leche, salted hazelnuts, apricot sorbet ($12). This was a very successful take on cheesecake, with a rich hazelnut flavor. The apricot sorbet was also delicious, and tasted exactly like biting into a fresh apricot.
We enjoyed Mercat a la Planxa, and we were happy to try both the traditional and nouveau tapas dishes. We think the new takes on tapas were really Garces’ forte, and our favorite dishes were the more unusual ones. We were pleased with our choices – but there was one item we really were coveting – we noticed a party table next to us getting a suckling pig (cochinillo asado), which looked absolutely fantastic ($220 for half, $440 for a whole). However, you have to order the pig 72 hours in advance, so you can’t order it on the fly. Maybe next time… thanks also to our dining companions, who helped us sample this veritable feast!