Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dining Out in Chicago: Mercat a la Planxa

The past week and a half marked a special time of the year in Chicago—Restaurant Week. During these magical 10 days, Chicagoans get the opportunity to take advantage of some of the best dining the city has to offer at a fraction of the usual cost. Participating restaurants offer 3-course prix fixe menus that run from $22 at lunch to $33 or $44 at dinner. I had the pleasure of dining at both South Loop's Mercat a la Planxa and Boka in Lincoln Park. The former was an experience that exemplified the essence of what is great about Restaurant Week—excellent food at a stellar price. The latter, however, was a lesson in where restaurant week falls short. But that's a story for another review.

I am a huge Iron Chef fan, so I was excited to check out Jose Garces's tapas hot spot. Upon entering, I was struck by the Gaudi-esque decor. The space is covered in geometric patterns and bright colors and exudes hip modern sophistication. The dining room's deep blue ceiling and hanging light fixtures create the illusion of a starry night sky. While the main dining area is a little cluttered, overall, the space is great and the decor is lovely. In terms of ambiance, the vibe is trendy and the place was buzzing all night.

The Gaudi-esque space @ Mercat. Source: Chicago Magazine

The service wasn't particularly impressive. Our waiter was absent for most of the night after we ordered. However, we received all of our food in a pretty timely fashion, so I can't complain too much. We sampled a pitcher of sangria, which was a little disappointing, since the only fruit I could find in mine were lemons and limes. Not exactly the fruit I envision when I picture a glass of sangria.

And now on to what you really want to hear about, the food.

My meal consisted of:
Serrano Ham & Fig Salad Baby Spinach • La Peral • Bacon • Spiced Almonds • Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrette
Pimentos de Padrons Flash Fried Padron Peppers • Salbitxada • Sea Salt
Gambas Con Garbanzos Shrimp • Chorizo • Flatbread • Garbanzo Bean Puree
Pelotas de Calabaza y Cordero Butternut Squash Dumplings • Lamb Ragout • Beech Mushroom Escabeche • Black Truffle
Croquetas de Xocolata Milk Chocolate Croquettes • Banana Marshmallow • Rosemary Caramel • Arbequina Olive Oil

Serrano ham & fig salad and flash fried Padron peppers

My first 'course' consisted of a Serrano ham and fig salad, as well as flash fried Padron peppers served with salbitxada, a classic Spanish accompaniment to fried and roasted vegetables. The salad, a hefty portion of baby spinach topped with deliciously salty ham, figs, Marcona almonds and a tasty sherry-shallot vinaigrette, was the standout item and possibly my favorite dish of the night. The flavors were nicely balanced and the dish was the perfect combination of fresh, tangy and salty.

The fried peppers were tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary. Padrons are a small, green variety of peppers that are generally sweet and mild. In this dish, they were fried, topped with olive oil and coarse salt, and served with salbitxada, a no-cook sauce made from a base of ground almonds, tomatoes, olive oil, and vinegar. The thick salbitxada brought a lovely freshness to the dish, but the peppers could have been fried a tad longer. The dish was well executed, but still, a pretty run-of-the-mill tapas item.

Shrimp & chorizo flatbread with garbanzo bean puree

For my second course, I had shrimp and chorizo flatbread as well as butternut squash dumplings over a lamb ragout. The flatbread was a bit of a surprise when it appeared in front of me, considering nowhere on the menu did it mention pizza or flatbread, but hey, who doesn't love a personal pizza? I was a huge fan of the dish. The flavor combination was outstanding. The butternut squash dumplings on the other hand, were disappointing. The portion size was stingy and the dumplings themselves were very starchy tasting, and not in a good way. Also, I didn't like the tiny mushrooms accompanying the dish. The lamb ragout underneath the dumplings, however, was excellent.

Chocolate croquettes w/ banana marshmallow & rosemary caramel

Last but not least, was dessert. We ended our meal with what the menu described as chocolate croquettes. I would describe them as fried balls of ooey gooey chocolate goodness, served with banana marshmallow fluff, caramel sauce flavored with rosemary and Spanish olive oil. This dessert was unlike anything I've ever encountered and was crazy good. The croquettes had a crispy exterior, but oozed warm rich chocolate as soon as you broke the shell. They needed to be eaten quickly before losing their crunch, but with the delicious caramel sauce and banana marshmallow fluff, that was not a problem.

Overall, I was very impressed. The flavors were on point, the portion sizes were more than respectable (particularly considering it was Restaurant Week), the dishes were creative and well presented, and the decor and ambiance were both solid. I definitely plan on a return visit to sample from their full menu.

The rundown:
Price: $$$ ($31-$60 per person, including one drink, tax and tip)

Final verdict: Definitely worth a return visit. My first impression was a good one, but I'm eager to dine from their full menu before making my final call.

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