Mercat A La Planxa

January is acting a fool this year, providing you with all the more reason to treat yourself to a warming meal during Restaurant Week in Chicago. There’s nothing quite like braving negative wind chills to gorge on tapas that are much more appropriate for warmer weather. It’s as close we’re getting to a vacation. I tend to feel skeptical towards tapas: they’re so tiny that you’re smart to arrive with a semi-full stomach and aren’t there always a couple of blah dishes? Not at Mercat, where nearly every course is fresh and flavorful—and you almost leave full!

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A diner’s haven on Michigan Avenue, Mercat A La Planxa is explosive but civilized all at once. The first floor of the restaurant space features a waiting area with a bar alongside a swirling staircase leading into a sprawling dining room. A massive, plateau-like open kitchen overlooks the diners, allowing the wait staff to glide around the restaurant in a circle. It’s an intelligent design, allowing for quick transportation and a loud, bustling atmosphere.

photo courtesy of http://hautelifechicago.com/

photo courtesy of http://hautelifechicago.com/

{ service }

The staff is very friendly, attentive and efficient. There was one lull between courses, but the server apologized often. Overall, the service was very fast but not rushed. We were in and out in a little over an hour.

{ drinks }

The libations aren’t too shabby: plenty of fresh cocktails, sangria, beer and bottles to choose from. To pair with our meal, we selected a bottle of El Pedrrosal, a bright Tempranillo at a decent price.

{ food }

The restaurant week menu is an eight tapas tasting and it all starts with a cheese-themed first course starring La Peral blue cheese, a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese with a buttery texture and smoky backbone. We began with the Serrano Ham & Fig Salad: baby spinach tossed in a sherry-shallot vinaigrette and topped with spiced almonds, Le Peral cheese, bacon lardons, Serrano ham and figs. The salad was not wrapped in the seranno, as I know they have done in the past, but the flavors and textures of this salad are lovely and I was not disappointed. The next bite was the Datiles Con Almedras: a marcona-stuffed date drizzled with La Peral sauce. It was smoky, sweet, crunchy and all together mind-melting.

baby spinach tossed in a sherry-shallot vinaigrette and topped with spiced almonds, Le Peral cheese, bacon lardons, Serrano ham and figs.

baby spinach tossed in a sherry-shallot vinaigrette and topped with spiced almonds, Le Peral cheese, bacon lardons, Serrano ham and figs.

marcona-stuffed dates drizzled with La Peral sauce.

marcona-stuffed dates drizzled with La Peral sauce.

After the strong starters came the most simple and filling of all the dishes: Cepes Y Butifarra Coca, a flatbread flecked with wild mushrooms, catalan sausage, roasted garlic, micro greens and melted Manchego. While I wish the crust was a little crunchier, it tasted so good that I can’t complain. On the other hand, the Gambas al Ajillo, a tiny shrimp in a garlic sauce, was served with a burnt, tooth-chipping slice of baguette. It was a laughably small bite and the baguette hurt to eat, but the shrimp was fantastic.

flatbread flecked with wild mushrooms, catalan sausage, roasted garlic, micro greens and Manchego.

flatbread flecked with wild mushrooms, catalan sausage, roasted garlic, micro greens and Manchego.

small shrimp in a garlic sauce with a rather burnt piece of baguette.

small shrimp in a garlic sauce with a rather burnt piece of baguette.

Aside from the fondue, which easily stole the show, my favorite dish was the Cordero a la Planxa, a lamb chop with pickled guindilla aioli, and romesco. My chop was a little overcooked, but still delicious. The Prawn ala Planxa, was so perfect that I refused to accept that the shell was empty and accidentally ate some of the head. The Patatas Bravas were a fantastic side: little deep fried potato lumps dotted with smoked paprika aioli.

lamb chop with pickled guindilla aioli, and romesco.(

lamb chop with pickled guindilla aioli, and romesco.(

head-on prawn with garlic and lemon

head-on prawn with garlic and lemon

little deep fried potato lumps dotted with smoked paprika aioli.

little deep fried potato lumps dotted with smoked paprika aioli.

The meal ended with Croquetas de Xocolata: chocolate croquettes with banana marshmallow, rosemary caramel and arbequina olive oil. The croquettes were filled with liquid chocolate that spewed out like lava. This was enough to win me over, but the dish truly shines when mixed with the fluffy marshmallow and the already luxurious combination of fragrant caramel and silky olive oil.

chocolate croquettes with banana marshmallow, rosemary caramel and arbequina olive oil.

chocolate croquettes with banana marshmallow, rosemary caramel and arbequina olive oil.

{ value }

Not a great value for restaurant week, but the pricing is average for fancy tapas. You’ll probably spend about $40-$50 per person, with only one drink.

{ verdict }

All together the meal was fantastically tasty and I had a lovely evening. Unfortunately, I was still pretty hungry an hour later, which left me wondering if you really save money with the restaurant week deal. If I had not stuck to that menu, I surely would have ordered more food and left satiated. Rather, I felt like all I saved was room for a bag of banana chips from Trader Joe’s.While I strongly recommend the restaurant, you might want to go during a different week.

This article was originally written for Chicagoist.com.

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