Catalan Tapas at Mercat a la Planxa
Location: 638 Michagan Ave.
The food at Mercat a la Planxa, in the historic Blackstone Hotel at 638 South Michigan, has always been great, but under the dynamic guidance of current Chef de Cuisine, Cory Morris, it has been raised to the level of phenomenal. Showcasing traditional Catalan tapas dishes updated with contemporary flourishes, Mercat offers an outstanding dining experience in a beautiful setting. The single large room of the restaurant features impossibly high ceilings and unobstructed sightlines from corner to corner, yet remains elegant and inviting. Lit by thin fixtures hung on long tendrils, the large, oval-shaped main dining area is an un-stuffy space filled with tables set at asymmetrical angles. From the top of the entryway stairs, a long walkway arcs around the dining area, past the bar, past an open passageway to the glorious Beaux-Arts lobby of the Blackstone, past the open kitchen, and ends at a quaint landing filled with a few more tables and booths.
Our party sampled several small plates from the substantial but not overwhelming menu, and, without exception, all were unambiguously terrific. From the “quesos” section we enjoyed the Monte Enebro plate, an uncomplicated presentation of the namesake goat’s milk cheese, apple slices, and a pear saffron compote, which, when stacked upon the fresh, thin-sliced sourdough bread, elicited complex flavors. This set the alchemic tone for the entire meal: simple, fresh ingredients brought together in profoundly satisfying combinations. From “sopas y ensaladas” we were knocked out by an enormous cigar-shaped salad composed of figs, La Peral cheese, baby spinach, spiced almonds and sherry vinaigrette wrapped in Fermin Jamon Iberico De Bellota, which comes from free-range pigs raised in Spain and fed only acorns (I misheard the server the first time and pictured the happy roaming porkers feasting on “eggrolls”).
From the traditional tapas menu, the bacon-wrapped dates plate, an always solid mainstay at tapas restaurants, was given an impressive boost by stuffing the plump, toothpicked balls with almonds and covering them with a La Peral fondue. The “Pintxos Muranos,” a pair of beautifully presented Colorado lamb brochettes wrapped in bacon (one of the great Spanish axioms: everything is better wrapped in bacon) with a lamb jus dipping sauce, was pure carnivore heaven. From the rice and pasta menu, the “Conill Amb Castanyes,” a thoroughly modern presentation of braised rabbit agnolotti, roasted chestnut purée, brandy cherries and rosemary brown butter, looked like a bowl of seafoam-covered dumplings sitting in a shallow purple broth — definitely from the “contemporary flourishes” approach. This dish was like nothing I’ve ever seen or tasted on several trips to Spain, or anywhere else for that matter, but made for one of the most delectable combination of tastes and textures I’ve ever consumed. The olive oil poached wild Alaskan halibut with artichokes, fava beans, Yukon potato and lemon emulsion was a light, citrusy delight, white and fluffy as a poached egg. Also from the shellfish and fish menu, the serrano-wrapped yellow fin tuna, potato croquette, bruléed foie gras and pickled red pearl onions with anchovy aioli was outstanding, and the stacked geometric shapes provided an apt illustration of the stacked tastes.
Further adding to the alchemy, the wine pairings chosen by our knowledgeable, congenial server were perfect: a Gramona Gessami Penedes Muscat Sauvignon Blanc, and an Utiel-Requena Passion Bobal.
We shared two desserts. The chocolate cremeaux, with hazelnut nougatine and espresso granita was great but the milk chocolate croquettes capped with gooey banana marshmallow and rosemary infused caramel, each sitting in a tiny pool of Arbequina olive oil, was otherworldly great. A perfect finish to the meal, this was the kind of dessert that makes a person want to share it unselfishly with the world in the hopes it will contribute to peace, love, and understanding.