First Bite: Mercat a la Planxa

Michael Nagrant / 03.08.08

It’s a tough call on what was more surprising about my Saturday night…the fact that a 190 seat Michigan Avenue hotel restaurant run by a guy who spent the last few years building a culinary empire in Philly was mostly spot on in terms of service and food on a packed opening night, or that later in the night, some dude managed to play the Miley Cyrus song Best of Both worlds on the jukebox in a Greg Louganis super triple flip high dive of Logan Square dive bars without starting a fight. It turns out that it’s the former.

I’ve been very critical lately of restaurants opening, charging patrons full price and then providing shoddy service and half baked food under the auspices of being entitled to some kind of grace period or “soft opening”. I feel like if you’re gonna ask people for big time money, you better bring the big time performance.

I’ve also been critical of the whole celebrity chef phenomenon, whereby some carpetbagger cook who’s built a name and an empire for himself elsewhere waltzes in to Chicago to add one more restaurant to his bottom line. I’d much rather spend my money on a local chef, sweating it out at the pass, trading on his sweat and hard work, infusing his personality in to the cuisine.

So basically, the deck was stacked when I hit up Mercat a la Planxa in the Blackstone Hotel on it’s Saturday night debut, especially considering Chef Jose Garces built an empire in Philly, got nominated for a James Beard, and then stormed in to town.

Turns out Garces is Chicago born and a Kendall grad, and as a transplanted Detroiter myself, he’s actually more Chicago than I am. He was in the house, working the pass. Both he and the staff in the open kitchen (which features a sweet vintage hand cranked Berkel meat slicer) looked like they’d been doing this for years.

Beautiful vaulted space with huge arched windows. Hexagonal patterns (inspired by the hexagonal shape of Barcelona’s market Mercat Boqueria) are echoed in everything from the sides of the entry staircase to the window etchings to the tile above the kitchen. Nice exposed bulb style drop lighting fixtures. My two female dining companions told me that the women’s restroom was as “dark as a Spanish prison”, and hoped for a little more lighting on future visits.

Food: Simple flat-top (planxa) grilled fare like head on prawns and meaty lamb chops with romanesco sauce were cooked to perfection. A ubiquitous tapas standard like Patatas bravas, or small crunchy potato cylinders gabled with smoked paprika mayo were spot on. Slow cooked pork belly with sherry glaze, green apples and truffle slaw was like an awesome Spanish gourmet riff on South Carolina BBQ

I also had my favorite new dish of the year tonight: Braised rabbit agnolotti with rosemary, truffle chestnut puree, and brandied cherries. I loved it so much, I almost ordered it for dessert. Super truffley creamy sauce, perfect pasta and tender rabbit…comfort food of the highest order.

Only real mis-steps: Baby squid ink pasta was cooked spot on, but the calamari on top was a touch over cooked. Black cod confit dish was undersalted, and the mixture of haricot vert, morcilla-potatoes and orange saffron emulsion undergirding it was a confused mess of flavor and texture. Out of 13 dishes we tried, this was the only failure.

Service: it seemed like there was at least one server or food runner for every single table in the house. No idea if it’ll stay that way, or whether it was just a smart opening night move to overstaff, but it worked. Plates and courses were delivered hot and quick and tables we’re getting turned like the teacup ride at Disney World (though we didn’t feel any pressure to relinquish our table).

When we left, we had a conversation with our valet while waiting for our car, and he knew as much about the food as our server. I’ve had a hard enough time getting valets to open the door for my wife, much less ever had a conversation about a restaurant’s food. It was uncanny how well he knew the menu and described the plates. An even nicer touch: they have a heated room on the side of the Blackstone that’s separate from the restaurant so you don’t have to wait in the cold for your car.

I can’t wait to go back. I don’t think I’ve said this about a restaurant in the last four months. Usually, for me it’s one and done followed by a begrudging second visit. The menu is expansive without being intimidating, the dishes are creative and far elevated above tapas stalwarts like Emilio’s, Babareeba, etc, the prices are right (from $5-15 bucks for most items, with a few large portions of a la Planxa roasted meats topping out at $32) for the portion size, and the room is madly energetic.

Mercat a la Planxa, 638 South Michigan Ave., 312-765-0524