For my day job, I venture to Chicago the week after Thanksgiving for the biggest industry tradeshow of the year. It’s a busy week filled with hours on the show floor, customer dinners, drinks at the bar, and many conversations. It usually ends with a night out on Wednesday where we can cut loose a little bit and toast another successful year. During this night out last year, I was out on the dance floor when I met some fun Canadians. Turns out one of them was a CT technologist, and their hospital was in the process of purchasing a new system (this ties to the day job, bear with me…). So, naturally I gave her my card. Over the next few months I stayed in touch with her as well as one of her co-workers/friends as the deal progressed. Eventually it fell through which was disappointing, but we’d struck up a pretty good friendship to the point that we thought that we should get together for dinner this year when we all again found ourselves in Chicago. And I knew the perfect place; Mercat a la Planxa.
I’ve been to Chicago three times in the last 2 years, and all three times I’ve had dinner at Mercat. It is a Spanish tapas restaurant located in the Blackstone Hotel which is next door to the Downtown Hilton, and is owned by Jose Garces, one of the newest Iron Chefs (as well s the chef/owner of Amada in Philadelphia). Mercat actually has two different levels, though both serve the same menu. Upstairs is the main dining area. It is vibrant and full of energy. Downstairs is much more like a grotto with the cool colored, concrete walls, dark wood, comfortable couches and bar. I really enjoy the more laid-back downstairs where conversations are easy and I can just kick back and enjoy good food.
I’d invited a couple of my co-workers to join me over at Mercat, but they declined due to customer events. So, I headed over by myself, found a table downstairs, and ordered a red wine sangria to start. One of the other nice things about downstairs is that it tends to be much less crowded and doesn’t require a reservation. The sangria didn’t take long to arrive, and when it did, I took sip, kicked back and just waited for my dinner guests. (BTW, the sangria is great…not overly sweet, and not bitter, just nice and bright).
When Karen, Sheila and Krista arrived, we exchanged greetings, ordered a round of drinks, and settled in to catch up and take a look at the menu. Given that this was my third time, I ordered a couple of my favorite things to start; the Costillas de Ternera which is a shortrib flatbread, and the Datiles con Almendreas which are bacon wrapped dates. We also decided to go with a chef’s selection of charcuterie (it ended up being Serrano Ham, Chorizo and Salchichn de Vic).
It didn’t take very much time for the food to start coming out…first the flatbread, then the charcuterie. One of the great things about tapas is that things come out when they are ready so they are always hot and fresh, and they are served family style, so everyone just dives in. The flatbread was just as I remembered it; the meat being perfectly cooked and melt in your mouth tender on a wonderful flatbrad that has just a bit of crisp. The whole thing was topped with parmesan cheese which added that perfect amount of saltiness to the dish. It disappeared very quickly and we moved on to the cured meat. The flavors of each of the meats was great, as were the accouterments like the homemade mustard and peppers. It also offers the opportunity to snack and chat at the same time (side note: bread, cheese, and cured meat is one of my favorite pre-dinner appetizers at home, as well as a perfect picnic lunch).
Before the dates arrived, we decided we were going to need more food, so we decided on the Tocina con Cidro which is a cider glazed pork belly served with a green apple and truffle slaw (any of that sound bad?). We were just completing that order and another drink order when the dates arrived at the table, and I was literally giddy with excitement. The dates capture everything that I enjoy in food. There is the crispiness and the saltiness of the bacon. There is the sweetness from the dates and the sauce that tops them. And there is a crunch and earthiness from the almond. It’s like the perfect bite. After the dates, we received an order of bread that is usually served at the beginning of the meal, but due to how busy it was upstairs, took a little while to make it down to us. The bread is like a Spanish version of bruschetta; the bread is soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and the topping is much more of a relish texture. But the whole thing is absolutely delicious.
As we were polishing off the bread and our drinks, the pork arrived, and it was anticipated. A perfectly cooked and tender pork belly whose richness was offset by the slightly sweet, slightly tart slaw. At this point, everyone was feeling full and happy, but I insisted that we order dessert, and without hesitation asked for the Croquetas de Xocolata. These are a croqueta filled with a creamy chocolate, served with a banana and marshmallow cream, and topped with a little bit of rosemary and olive oil. I’m not a big chocolate person, but these things are amazing. In fact, I believe Karen said it was quite possibly the best thing that she had ever eaten.
With that, we finally wrapped up dinner, and I received mad props (goin’ old school) from the three of them, even though there was some trepidation at the beginning (Karen claimed she absolutely would not eat a date and just wanted meat). This seems to be a bit of theme with my Chicago dinners….(read: Topolobampo and Dave’s concern about Mexican in Chicago). But it the end, it played out as I’d anticipated. We all had a wonderful time with fantastic food. In fact, in the three times that I’ve been to Mercat, I haven’t had anything that I thought was sub-par or even just ok. It has always been great; both the food and the atmosphere, as well as the dining companions. It’s one of those places that is on my must visit when in Chicago list because it is truly unlike anything that I’ve found in Seattle.
When we left, we went to Buddy Guy’s for a little bit before the three of them jumped in a cab and headed out dancing while I made my way back to my hotel room via the bar at Kitty O’Shea’s. It was definitely a fun night of reconnecting over great food and conversation. So good that they are still talking about it. I wonder if we’ll be back next year…