A wonderful restaurant opened Saturday in the newly refurbished Blackstone Hotel (corner of Balbo and South Michigan Ave) featuring creative tapas as would be found in Barcelona: Mercat a la Planxa (pronounced PLON-cha). We were fortunate to dine there Sunday evening and found it one of our most memorable dinners in a long time.
Our menu choice was “La Mesa de José ” (Chef’s Selection priced at $55.00 per person, with wine pairings to accompany at $20.00 per person). The José in question is José Garces (Chicago-born, 36 years old, has made a good name for himself in Spain, New York, and Philadelphia, including nomination for a James Beard Foundation award).
Now to the chow: first off was amuse-bouche of toasted bread strips spread with finely chopped tomatoes. Then came a dish of 3 different olive types: Gordal, Arbequina, and Verdial, in oil and fresh parsley flakes. First plate was a sampler of 3 different Spanish cheeses, each with a ramekin of companion flavorings: Castellot (cow’s milk cheese) served with truffled apple and lavender jam; Caña de Cabra (goat’s milk) paired with balsamic strawberries; Aragonés (goat’s milk) with a spread of smoked pecan and nigella butter. Each cheese was a delight and the accompaniments were delicious by themselves when spread on thin slices of crusty bread also provided.
Second plate was Serrano Ham and Fig Salad which looked almost like a small loaf of bread as the ham slices were draped over the salad hiding underneath. The salad included baby spinach, spiced almonds, black figs, and crumbles of Cabrales cheese, all in a sherry vinaigrette. Following this was a plate of Patatas Bravas, small potato chunks which had been lightly fried in peanut oil, blanched, then dusted with smoky paprika, and topped with a spicy paprika aioli.
Next was Pulpo con Patatas, a plate of small bites of grilled octopus and potatoes in a light sauce. Then came Gambas al Ajillo, fresh seared shrimp swimming in garlic butter. For a complete change of tastes, we were served Costillas de Ternera, a mixture of finely chopped beef shortrib meat, horseradish, parmesan cheese, and bacon, topped with arugula sprouts spread on thin slices of flatbread.
One of the finest dishes followed: Arroz con Cangrejo, a ceramic dish with a lump crabmeat risotto on top of which rested a silver-dollar size crispy crabcake, which in turn was topped with a “sunny side up” fried quail egg – great flavors and presentation. Then we were served 2 magnificent baby lambchops, tender as can be and grilled to perfect rareness (nothing for garnish, just the chops alone). As if this were not already enough, our final dish was Confit de Bacalao, a nice chunk of cod cooked in circulating hot moist air served with warm haricots verts, potatoes and an orange-saffron emulsion.
After this we had no room for dessert, but thought the entire meal was outstanding and full of great variety of flavors, textures, etc. We highly recommend Mercat a la Planxa now before Phil Vettel reviews it, after which you can’t get in because of the crowds. This is not a huge restaurant, but it is well-laid out and the kitchen overlooks the dining area so you can see what is going on there. A bar is located on the ground floor and you access the dining room by a curving stairway (believe there is also elevator access for those needing it). Another bar is located in the dining space. Both bars offer 3 kinds of sangria: white, red, and seasonal (last night’s seasonal included pomegranate juice and blood oranges). Drink prices are reasonable ($10 for Macallan 12 year, for example). By all means, check out Mercat a la Planxa soon.