Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mercat a la Planxa - a taste of Catalonia in Chicago

I don’t get excited about much in the morning. Usually, I’m asleep dreaming about beating Mario Batali on Iron Chef America or sweeping the James Beard awards in every category. However, when my food writing instructor told us our next class featured a specially-prepared Catalonian meal and the chance to interview a rising star at one of Chicago’s best restaurants, I knew that this was something I could get excited about!

I arrived at Mercat a la Planxa (638 S Michigan Ave, inside the landmark Blackstone Hotel) a little after 10 o’clock, and was ushered through the door into the ground-level bar area. Hopped up with anticipation – or more likely, hunger – I skipped across the dark, hip and appropriately empty room to the winding staircase that led upstairs.

Emerging in the dining room, the sunny mosaic-ed walls, the lively Catalonian music and the bustling open air kitchen oozed energy, and I was immediately transported to Spain. Some restaurants try to force 'atmosphere,' and it ends up feeling tacky – but Mercat felt just right.

Our group sat down and started in on the first course. At the risk of sounding dorky, the bacon caramel that accompanied wedges of creamy, nutty Cadi Urgelia cheese was a revelation! How have I managed to live for a quarter-century without experiencing the flavors of bacon and caramel together? The pinky-sized, sea salt-garnished, flash-fried peppers with pureed almond/garlic/tomato sauce were also terrific.

As I chewed and tried to memorize each flavor for future reliving of this meal, Sous Chef Cory came out from the kitchen and began to demo the king of Catalonian comfort food – arroz a la cazuela. Though at first soft-spoken and serious, he soon relaxed and I learned a few things about the 29-year old wunderkind.

(Okay – maybe he’s not technically a wunderkind, but what would you call a guy who got his first executive chef gig at age 21 – with no culinary training?!)

Chef Cory revealed his guilty pleasure foods (Totino’s pizza and Pepsi), divulged his hobbies (ice climbing and fly fishing) and educated us on Catalonian cuisine, all while building layers of flavor in the fragrant stew. My first reaction to the spoon they set beside the bowl was that it was HUGE – but it made perfect sense. I obediently heaped every ingredient into one huge spoonful – the tender rice, the smoky saffron-chicken broth (apparently made thicker than regular stock by using chicken feet), the tiger shrimp, and the lemony artichoke and lobster garnish. That first big bite was so luxurious and comforting. And look at the bright yellow color!

I licked my bowl clean, and promptly continued eating. Bacon-wrapped dates, chorizo and scallops ‘a la planxa’ (grilled on a metal plate), spinach with chewy currants, and a crispy-yet-melty milk chocolate ball rounded out our Catalonian feast.

As stuffed as I was by the end of this meal, I wished I could order lunch and dinner from here and bring it home with me. I'm pretty sure that if I could eat at Mercat every morning, I wouldn't have a problem waking up anymore.

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