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Return Visits: Mercat a la Planxa, P&P BBQ Soul Food

Let’s see how long it is before these two appear in the same article anywhere again.

A few months back I went to a dinner at Mercat a la Planxa, the celebrity-chef-spawned Spanish restaurant in the revived Blackstone Hotel, and came away convinced that it was the most authentic Spanish restaurant Chicago had seen by a country mile. Where most Spanish restaurants dabble in a sort of Spanish-American which is like Mexican-American was in the 60s, a stock set of dishes which you might or might not see in Spain, made “Spanish” by the use of certain spices identified as Spanish, food in Spain is actually often very simple and unseasoned, a matter of eating a spectacularly tasty pork skewer, a bunch of sauteed sea creatures you simply can’t get here, or a roasted pimiento de padron garnished with coarse salt. Trying to replicate that doesn’t mean taking Cisco meat and seasoning it from a big jar of “Spanish” spices, it means getting pork that actually tastes like pork. And needless to say, that’s a lot harder and more expensive.

Mercat is only about half or maybe 2/3 of the way there, but it’s far closer than any other restaurant I’ve eaten at in the US. The primary piece of evidence for that was the centerpiece of the meal, a roasted baby pig ($55 per person, several people required, large box of leftovers provided). The pig was indeed sourced from an Indiana farm where they’re raised naturally, and it had a clean, delicious flavor which needed no heavy sauce to hide any industrial-pig funkiness— or make it seem Spanish.

That said, I’m just not the sort who likes to make an entire meal of one hunk of meat, and I vaguely regretted that we only got to dabble in the rest of the menu, because the best thing we had wasn’t the pig at all— it was a simple plate of white beans, deep with porky jamony flavor, that came on the side. Simple and profound. So I have been eager to get back and try some of the regular dishes on the menu.

My chance came when Santander announced an LTHForum event at the downstairs bar at Mercat. Said “event” proving to consist of three of us standing there, enjoying a first-rate caipirinha from the Brazilian bartender Ricardo, and sampling the tapas menu in three waves.

The first wave included pimientos de padron— rather, an acceptable-but-no-more imitation of them with some local pepper; tocino con cidra, slow-cooked pork belly served with foam of cider and truffle, which was more silly than tasty, and patatas bravas, which came out looking disturbingly like the fake-food version at the late, lamentable Del Toro, six cones of potato topped with a red pepper sauce. They tasted better than Del Toro’s Potato Poppers, but still, simpler, cheaper and better could be had at several places within a reasonable distance. None of this suggested that Mercat was a stellar Spanish spot.

The second wave was far more successful than the first, and restored Mercat’s position in my mind. Squid ink pasta, rabbit agnolotti, and grilled morcilla sausage were all impressively delicate and tasty, and a warm salad of fava and white beans, tossed with some herbs and jamon serrano, was magnificent in its simplicity— interesting, that the two most awe-inspiring dishes of my two meals were both basically beans and ham. We concluded with two desserts— a peach cobbler-y thing with Pop Rocks (the trend du jour, I guess) and some tiny salty balls (RIP Isaac) of melon, which wasn’t bad, though only the second best peach cobbler of my week, and a really nice, very arty row of six little chocolate balls, in a rosemary-flavored sauce with a tiny piece of banana marshmallow. Visually it’s the sort of dessert you find next to the word effete in the dictionary, but it was a nice, light ending to the meal, the rosemary reminding me of one of the desserts I made from a Spanish party I had last year.

So a meal at Mercat seems to be struggling with the problem of Spanish authenticity rather than entirely solving it, but there is much to admire in it, and I continue to regard it as easily the best Spanish restaurant in town. The only knock I have against the place is that, having been started by a celebrity chef, Jose Garces, it’s now in the hands of his executive chef, and as a result… the menu has not changed one jot that I could see since that first visit in April. Which is not the worst thing, especially for a place that seems to be drawing on the tourist trade to a considerable extent, but I have to admit it dampens my excitement for a place slightly, or maybe denies it a spot in the first rank, if there isn’t the sense of someone at the top tinkering and evolving the menu, but merely executing dishes (however expertly) placed there by someone else. Nevertheless, what virtues Mercat a la Planxa has are very real and considerable, and if Spanish food interests you (and it must interest a lot of people to judge by the rate at which Spanish restaurants are opening lately), a visit is essential.

Mercat a la Planxa
638 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, 60605
312-765-0524

My report on visiting Spain.

* * *

I went back to P&P BBQ Soul Food with the kids and saw that they offered a 1/2 slab of ribs on the menu. I ordered it sauce on the side, but was somewhat surprised to find that the ribs had no smoke ring; they were a uniform gray and had, at best, only a hint of smoky flavor, even though some speckles did suggest time in the smoker. Not at all like the rib tips which even before being coated in candy-red sauce:

had the unmistakable pinkish hue of true BBQ. After I ate them I asked Keith Archibald, the pitman, if they had been cooked in the smoker or an oven. He assured me the smoker, but then explained that because of ribs’ tendency to dry out, they were only cooked for so long, compared to the tips, and then held or rewarmed or something.

Well, that’s a new one on me, and certainly contrary to my own experience, but hey, I guess all it means from a practical basis is, be sure and get the rib tips, which have plenty of real smoky flavor.

Meanwhile, Myles ordered the smothered pork chop. And frankly, it’s a reason to go there and not even worry about barbecue. A catcher’s mitt-sized hunk of pork– Myles, no slouch, barely made a dent in it– it is not merely smothered but downright drowned in thick, greasy, peppery gravy, and is absolutely wonderful.

Toss in a nice homemade cole slaw, real mashed potatoes, some candied yams, a peach cobbler for dessert… and nice folks.

P&P BBQ Soul Food
3734 W. Division
773-276-7756

My Reader piece on P&P

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