The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Review: Mercat a la Planxa

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 10, 2009 5:35PM

We love tapas and (since this author lives in the South Loop) we love to see good restaurants opening in the neighborhood. So, it’s possible that we were predisposed to like Mercat a la Planxa before we walked through the door. Chef Jose Garces' tapas outpost made Esquire's list of Best New Restaurants last year. On the other hand, Time Out Chicago's David Tamarkin decried Mercat's supposed "lack of soul," and there have been a fair share of mediocre reviews on Yelp, so we were interested to see how the place would stack up.

Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was the space. Located in the Blackstone Hotel, the restaurant has an ambitious design, with a huge, 2-story ceiling and an open kitchen. One of their party or conference rooms has a “balcony” that overlooks the dining room. This cool design feature, plus the huge windows and high ceilings give it a very “dining under the stars” sort of feel.

After waiting a bit too long in the bar for our table, we were confronted with the decision of what to drink. Mercat has an extensive selection of Spanish wines and a small cocktail menu, but we were really interested in Sangria. We were a bit shocked at the per-pitcher price ($30) but then we realized that, unlike other Chicago tapas restaurants, this sangria had a kick! The restaurant serves 3 varieties - a white, a red and a “seasonal,” which that night was a blood-orange pomegranate. It was amazing, and when the pitcher arrived, it contained a full 6 glasses - a much better bargain than we had thought. If you want, ask to taste the various options.

The menu allows you to order whatever you want, from flatbreads to cured meats and cheeses to traditional tapas. We tried a bit of everything. The restaurant serves individual-sized portions of Paella as tapas (marked as Arroz on the menu), which is a brilliant innovation. We tried the Paella con Mariscos, which included prawns, clams, shrimp and octopus with saffron rice - excellent, with a flavorful rice base and well-cooked seafood. Traditional tapas are well-represented, including classics like bacon-wrapped dates, Spanish omelet and the best Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) we’ve had in Chicago. The flatbread we tried was exceptional, with shrimp, chorizo and a garbanzo bean puree.

The cheeses are presented in an interesting way. The portions are generous, though the prices ($8 for a single cheese) seemed a bit high until we saw all the accoutrement. Each cheese is served with a unique homemade spread (ours was served with a garlic Dulce de Leche), as well as bread and fruits. If you’re in the mood for a more traditional desert, we had a chocolate fritter with olive oil that made us groan and beg for more.

Mercat is a restaurant where the amount on the check is entirely up to the patron. We escaped with a bill of about $80, including $30 for sangria, and were completely stuffed after eating 4 dishes and a dessert. You could easily go for just a taste, or order the entire menu. They also serve more traditional entrees, which are significantly more expensive. We barely scratched the surface of the enormous menu, and we’ll be heading back as soon as we can save up for it.

Mercat a la Planxa is located in the Blackstone Hotel at 638 S. Michigan Avenue. Phone is 312-765-0524. Reservations are recommended.