Located in the historic Blackstone Hotel, Michelin-star Mercat a la Planxa is Chicago’s top Spanish restaurant. Guided by Executive Chef and native Chicagoan Jose Garces, recipient of the James Beard Award, and winner of Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, the restaurant operates under the daily guidance of Chef de Cuisine Cory Morris. The Catalan word Planxa means grill or iron, and in this case refers to Catalan style grilled tapas that are synonymous with the region. Chef Morris’ unique approach to food reflects his travels as well as the influences of great chefs he’s worked alongside, including Jose Garces and Joyce Goldstein. He believes that food should excite the palate and so Chef Morris has taken traditional Catalan tapas and updated them with a contemporary flair, producing small and mid-size plates that challenge convention and excite diners.
When you enter the dining area through the glorious Beaux-Arts lobby, a dramatic swirling staircase and a long bar offering unique cocktails greet you. You can see the kitchen staff hard at work in a large, open kitchen that overlooks the dining room, allowing quick service despite the bustling atmosphere. The high ceilings provide an open atmosphere despite the room being filled with tables, while the eclectic combination of mismatch chairs, bright colors and bold patterns create a sophisticated contemporary feel. I choose a table by the window to take advantage of the ample natural light, and watch the kitchen staff busily serving up small plates. A few minutes later Chef Morris arrives with my first dish.
TOCINILLO DE CIELO
Saffron Vanilla Custard with White Wine Poached Apricots, Piqual Olive Oil and Micro Tarragon
Tocinillo del cielo is a traditional Andalusian custard made from the egg yolks left over when egg whites were used to clarify wines. The name means heavenly piglet, though it contains no pork. When Chef Morris was in Jaen, he visited Castillo de Canena to sample the legendary olive oil, which was so memorable that he imports it exclusively for his use at Mercat. The delicate saffron fragranced custard is made silky by the olive oil, and the micro tarragon lends a subtle herbal note. Rich but not overly so, and sweetened by the delicious wine-poached apricots, this dish can be enjoyed after both light and heavy meals, at any time of day.
DATILES CON ALMENDRAS
Bacon Wrapped Dates stuffed with Marcona Almonds and La Peral cheese
Bacon wrapped dates are a classic favorite at tapas restaurants, but these are stuffed with Marcona almond and La Peral, a rich, tangy Spanish blue cheese with a buttery texture and a hint of smoke. The bacon was crisp as I like it, and salty which amplified the flavor of the plump date, and the almond added crunch, while the La Peral balances the richness of the date, providing a subtle tang on the finish. Rich, sweet, salty, smoky, nutty, tangy, this dish really delivers!
CROQUETAS DE POLLO
Roasted Chicken Croquettes with Truffle Aioli, Fresh Lemon Juice, Olive Oil and Savoy Cabbage
These crispy chicken croquetas are filled with a béchamel and are a nice alternative to traditional croquetas. A rich, roast chicken filling lightened by the crunch of cabbage drizzled with truffle aioli, fresh lemon juice and olive oil, the result is satisfying to the palate and lighter than I had expected.
PEIXOS EN SALSA VERDE
Arctic Char, Salsa Verde, Lentil, Celery Root, Roasted Eggplant
The arctic char was delicate and flavorful, shredding easily under my fork. The creamy texture of the celery root puree was a perfect match for the char while salsa verde adds acidity and contrast; the roast eggplant and lentils add an earthy flavor and balancing richness.
MAR I MUNTANYA
Braised Pork Belly, Crispy Oyster, Pocha Bean Sofrito, Morcilla, Escarole Blood Sausage
Pork belly. Fried oysters. Blood Sausage. Need I say more? The beautifully braised, thick-cut morsels of tender, buttery pork belly and golden, lightly breaded fried oysters provide a rich and satisfying centerpiece; the layers of spicy pocha bean sofrito and savory blood sausage accentuate the indulgent nature of the dish and provide an explosive combination of bold flavors. I could eat an entire plate stacked with these fried oysters, they were wonderful and not the least bit greasy.
PATATAS CON BACALAO
Olive Oil Whipped Potato, Saffron Salt Cod Cream
The smooth, creamy, potato puree whipped with Spanish olive oil only and drizzled with saffron and salt cod cream. Amazing. These changed my opinion of potato puree and I will forever make mine with good olive oil. The salty burst of umami from the cod and the delicate yellow tinge of fragrant saffron are a stroke of genius, it would be a sin to call these ‘mashed potatoes’.
CORDERO a la PLANXA
Rack of lamb with Romesco and Guindilla Aioli Sauce
Grilled to a perfect medium rare, the lamb chops were tender, incredibly juicy and irresistibly seasoned. Marinated in a Nora Chilie, roasted garlic rub, and served with a guindilla pepper aioli and romesco sauce. This lamb is probably the finest I’ve ever tasted.
Fried Vanilla Custard, Braeburn Apple, Canela Ice Cream, Pedro Ximenez Maple Syrup, Candied Pecans
Leche Frita is a classic Spanish dessert. A crispy, golden, hot exterior concealing a firm, creamy custard with a cool center. The apples braised in Temprenillo are delicious and could be a fine dessert on their own, but they pair so nicely with the canela ice cream. There’s a hint of maple syrup and the crunchy, sweet and salty candied pecans are the perfect finish.
Chef Morris’ menu at Mercat a la Planxa changes frequently and is the perfect way to sample Catalan-style tapas right here in Chicago. Mercat is open until 10 pm Sunday – Thursdays and 11pm on Friday and Saturday, so the post-theater crowd can enjoy late night snacks and cocktails. Do yourself a favor, head to Mercat a la Planxa and take a culinary trip to Spain departing from Michigan Avenue, you won’t regret it.