Restaurant Week 2011 - Mercat a la Planxa

In economic terms, February is kind of a slow month for Chicago. Tourism is at a seasonal low, and as a result, restaurants and museums have their slowest month of the year. Several local museums deal with this drop in traffic by clustering their state-mandated free admission days during this month, to minimize their lost income. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, local restaurants have banded together to minimize the impact of a slow February with the advent of Restaurant Week. Restaurant Week has become an annual gastronomic event in the city, where an ever-expanding roster of eateries feature $22 fixed-price menus at lunch, and $33 fixed-price menus at dinner, as a way of attracting new business and inspiring locals to get out of their houses and venture out into the cold.

The best way to take advantage of Restaurant Week is to dine at an establishment that is far beyond one's ordinary means, where $33 for a three course meal could be considered a true deal. In the past, I've used the bargains provided by Restaurant Week to sample the fare at then uber-trendy Italian spot Piccolo Sogno, and the venerable upscale Vietnamese food at Le Colonial. Both years afforded me with the opportunity to try places I hadn't been before (nor have I been able to return to since), and expanded my experiences with the local dining scene.

This year, I decided to spend a ton of money and consume a vast quantity of calories to maximize my Restaurant Week potential. I picked three restaurants, and made plans with three different friends to go try them out. Tonight, I started my 2011 Restaurant Week journey close to home, at Mercat a la Planxa, a very expensive tapas restaurant located in the newly-renovated Blackstone Hotel. I've passed the restaurant literally hundreds of times on my way to and from my apartment, but it was the kind of trendy restaurant that I'd never be able to convince my Dad to take me to, and it was far out of my budget on my own. When I saw it on the Restaurant Week website, I knew I finally had my chance to check it out, so I posted an invite on Lisa's Facebook wall, and dinner was quickly arranged in tandem with a viewing of tonight's new episode of Glee. The plan had all the makings for a perfect Girl's Night.

Ultimately, I'm not sure it turned out to be a perfect Girl's Night, but it was still pretty decent. The food at Mercat a la Planxa was fantastic, but our experience there suffered on several other accounts. I was happy to finally satisfy my curiosity about the place, but I'm not sure if I would return, despite it being in the neighborhood. Here's a rundown of our experience:

Service - Even before we opted for the Restaurant Week tasting menu, our waiter was out to upsell us on everything possible. He talked Lisa into a more expensive "seasonal" sangria, which featured charred apples that didn't look particularly appetizing, but was delicious, according to her. Very annoyingly, the waiter never made eye contact with me again after I failed to order alcohol, and talked only to Lisa for the rest of the meal. Just because I didn't order a beverage with a high mark-up doesn't mean I'm not a good tipper.

The real hard-sell came when it became clear that we intended to order the cheaper tasting menu, whereupon he tried to talk us into Chef's Tasting Menu, which was $65 per person, a fact he conveniently failed to mention. The more expensive option was more customizable, which he touted as a benefit given Lisa's allergy to nuts, despite our assurances that she would not enter anaphylactic shock over our meal. We remained firm with our choice, however, but the waiter tried valiantly to convince us that the Restaurant Week Menu would leave us hungry, and we should order at least two additional small plates from the regular menu, at a cost of roughly $10-15 a pop. After we refused, he essentially disappeared, and we barely saw him again until it was time to request the check, aside from his appearances to fawn over the higher-spending table next to us.

Ambiance - The space was dark, and trendily decorated. It could be romantic if the tables weren't so close together and it weren't so noisy, though plenty of couples were clearly there on dates. I suppose one could argue that being seated so close to one's fellow diners ups the sense of European realism, but given that we were seated next to two of the most obnoxious, demanding restaurant patrons I've ever encountered, I would have just have soon had a little more personal space. At least our waiter got some karmic retribution for his rudeness, in the form of the people sitting next to us.

Food - Interestingly, the food at Mercat a la Planxa was presented in a different way than any other Restaurant Week experience I've had. Usually, the restaurant provides 2-3 options for the three standard courses -- a starter, entree, and dessert. Tonight, perhaps due to the tapas/small plates focus of the restaurant, we were offered no choices, and simply received a small portion of everything listed on the menu. The first course was far and away the best, in my opinion, and my enjoyment of the dishes veered slightly downhill until dessert. Contrary to the views expressed by the waiter, we had beyond enough food without ordering extra dishes, such that we didn't even finish all the food we had.

First Course

  • Serrano Ham & Fig Salad - For a humble salad, this was probably the best dish of the evening and the most generous portion. The entire salad came wrapped in several slices of unctuous Serrano ham, which paired nicely with the sweet figs. My only criticism of this one was presence of bacon in a salad that arrived wrapped in ham, which was a bit of a pork overload.
  • Trutia de Patata - While not quite a classic tortilla española due to the presence of spinach, it was definitely tastier than the frittata I made with the same ingredients. I think the key was the musky saffron aioli that accompanied it and provided a perfect complement to the flavors.
Second Course
  • Cepes & Butifarra - This flatbread was tasty, but the sausage was too thinly sliced and it got lost among the other toppings, leaving me to question whether it was on there at all. The mushroom flavor was also little dominant for my liking, so I picked them off and gave them to Lisa.
  • Mejillones a la Roussillon - These mussels, baked and served with a saffron hollandaise were probably the best mussels I've ever had, which is a grudging admission from me, as I really dislike mussels. They were plump, juicy, and tasted of the sea, which people say is a good thing though I'm not sure I agree. Again, the creamy saffron sauce won me over.
Third Course
  • Butifarra con Judias - This sausage dish would be familiar to anyone with some tapas experience under their belt, as I think I've had some version of it at every tapas restaurant I've been to. This version had good garlic and cinnamon flavors, but it was the lovely tomato/bean/ham stew underneath it that made the dish.
  • Calimari a la Planxa - Again, another seafood protein that's not on my favorites list, but the calamari didn't win me over as much as the mussels did. The grilled squid was a little bit tough and rubbery, though it did receive some good char from the eponymous "planxa" or grill from which the restaurant takes its name.

  • Calçots - This vegetable dish imitates a seasonal Catalonian gastronomic event, the calçotada, in which spring onions are harvested, grilled, and consumed with various dipping sauces at a raucous outdoor picnics. Without all the fanfare, these grilled green onions were a little boring, though the almond-based dipping sauce was rather delicious.
  • Croquetas de Xocolata - This dish that had everything; salt and sweet, hot and cold, and a strange effervescence from the banana marshmallow foam. The unusual presentation offered prepared bites of dessert so that the eater would get just the right balance of flavors in each mouthful. Lisa was deeply skeptical about the presence of straight up olive oil in her dessert, but the unconventional addition contributed a rich, almost fruity note that was difficult to place, and rosemary added an almost medicinal albeit not unpleasant taste. Overall, the dish was overwhelming to the senses, but it was definitely fun to eat, and provided an ideal closing moment to the meal.

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