Sunday, June 3, 2012
Mercat a la Planxa
As part of Mrs. Hackknife's promotion last year, her firm began paying dues for an annual club membership to assist her with client relations (because nothing promotes business development more than a steak and a glass of nice Bordeaux). The club that she chose, the Union League Club of Chicago, has an impressive list of member benefits, including access to a fine dining restaurant in the club's building called the Wigwam. We received a packet of coupons to use as new members, one of which was a complimentary 3-course meal at the Wigwam with the purchase of a second comparable meal. With the coupon expiration date fast approaching, we decided to book an online reservation to eat there this past Memorial Day, right after attending the Cubs' 11-7 drubbing of the equally-horrendous Padres (thus ending the North Siders' 12-game losing streak - you can call us slumpbusters if you want). After a quick change of outfits from ballpark casual to business casual in the club restrooms (dress code, you know), we proceeded to the 3rd floor of the club to find a completely dark and deserted Wigwam, closed for the holiday. After some consultation with the bell desk, we came to the conclusion that the online reservation system failed to recognize the fact that the restaurant wouldn't be open on Memorial Day, leaving us out of luck for dinner. On the bright side, however, this gaffe left us free to choose another dining option in the Loop; after some brainstorming, I came up with the idea to walk about 7 blocks towards the lakeshore and stop in at the historic Blackstone Hotel (best known for its infamous "smoke-filled room" where Warren Harding was selected as the Republican nominee for the 1920 presidential election, plus the Al Capone baseball bat-bludgeoning scene in "The Untouchables"). The Blackstone is where Chicago-born (and now Philadelphia-based) chef Jose Garces chose to open his first hometown restaurant back in 2008, a Catalan tapas bar called Mercat a la Planxa. Now in its 5th year, I had long kept it on my to-dine list, but never had the opportunity to try it until fate intervened in the form of garbled holiday dinner plans.
When we entered the hotel lobby, we found the entrance for the restaurant somewhat hidden through its small 1st floor bar (called Bodega No. 5), then up the stairs to the soaring dining room on the 2nd floor, a trendy space with an open kitchen (described somewhat cryptically on the website as "mod-Mediterranean") and big windows overlooking Michigan Avenue/Grant Park. As it was fairly early for dinner (5:30p), we pretty much had our pick of tables, settling into a corner banquette. Since tapas was being served, sangria must be drunk (I think it's a law or something), so I chose a glass of the house seasonal sangria (featuring strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries) with my lovely wife picking the house white version (with bartlett pear, peach, and sage), both of which were refreshing. Our server brought us a complimentary appetizer of toasted bread covered with a spread of fresh tomato and olive oil puree that was divine and I inhaled my slice without leaving any crumbs behind. Looking over the menu, we settled on a number of different small plates in lieu of the specialty entrees (such as paella and cochinillo asado, or whole roasted suckling pig), which began to arrive in quick succession. A tumbler contained two almond-stuffed and bacon-wrapped dates, each skewered and resting on a bed of chopped slaw (jicama?) - our server poured a melted cheese sauce over them, adding a rich creamy element to the smoky/sweet dates. This was followed by a vegetable course (although that's a bit misleading since it came in fried form) of an empanada stuffed with spinach and cheese, served with piquillo pepper and tangy artichoke escabeche (i.e., fried and marinated). A braised rabbit agnolotti (something that you're more likely to see on a menu at a Northern Italian restaurant) came next, served with a smear of roasted chestnut puree, studded with brandied cherries, and topped with brown butter foam - the slightly-precious presentation did nothing to diminish the knockout flavor combination of the parts involved. Our subsequent plate was the obligatory pork belly (by this time, I'd moved on to the house red sangria, not as good as the first one), covered in a sweet cider glaze and accompanied by a crunchy Granny Smith apple-black truffle slaw. The pork belly was slightly better than the lamb meatballs we selected to close out our initial round of ordering, which were just average (and a tad undercooked).
To finish things up, Mrs. Hackknife suggested that we get the cheese plate instead of dessert - as always, the smart lady made a good call. We picked the chef's selection of 3 cheeses: a Cadi Urgelia (raw cow's milk) with a sherry-bacon caramel, a Garrotxa (goat's milk) with a roasted garlic dulce de leche, and an Ombra (sheep's milk) with an orange-guindilla pepper marmalade. All three cheeses were great and paired phenomenally with their respective dipping sauces, with the sherry-bacon caramel receiving Mrs. Hackknife's vote for best stuff on Earth. In fact, the cheese plate was so good (and a pretty good value at $16 to boot) that we mentally noted our return just for this item at some point when a late-night snack was needed following a special occasion (like after the opera, for example, or Thursdays). Overall, Mercat may not be our favorite tapas bar in town (I believe Vera currently holds that title), but it certainly belongs on the short list...