I went in search of more than Spanish food. I went in search of some sort of culinary vehicle capable of transporting me back to Spain.
Nothing brings back the memories of a trip as vividly as eating the same cuisine. For me, that means hunting for ramen like in Tokyo, schnitzl like in Vienna and pastries like in Paris well after my travels. I was craving Catalonian tapas identical to what I ate in Spain: delicately sliced jamon, slightly spicy patatas bravas, crispy croquetas and – dare I dream it – even morcilla.
I searched for “Spanish tapas in Chicago” and Mercat a la Planxa came up with promising attributes: run by Iron Chef and Food Network regular Jose Garces, the Michelin Guide gave the restaurant a Bib Gourmand nod in 2014. More importantly, the menu is decidedly Catalonian, served tapas style with the exception of paellas, suckling pig (by special order) and a chef’s tasting menu.
Turns out, the dishes weren’t identical to those I ate in Spain. Instead they were enhanced with modern twists or presented in unexpected combinations. The essence of Catalonia was prominent, yet the execution was refreshingly different.
My favorite dishes maintained their authenticity: the Patatas Bravas ($5) had its signature smoked paprika flavor, yet intensified like none I had in Spain. I wanted to eat an entire meal full of them paired with the Croquetas de Pollo ($9), sensational chicken croquettes with lemon truffle that surpassed any eaten on my trip.
Even the complimentary Pa amb Tomàquet (literally translated as “bread with tomato”) was identical to the toasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with crushed tomatoes that was delivered at the start of every meal I ate in Spain. Before you brush off this lame-looking bread the same way as any table-side toast, it’s surprisingly satisfying, like garlic bread enhanced with tomatoes.
The Gambas i Xorico (pictured at top, $14) — a flatbread topped with manchego cheese, marinated shrimp, chorizo and garbanzo bean puree — was indeed Spanish in flavor, yet so unique I couldn’t help ordering it all three times I ate at Mercat a la Planxa. Similarly, the Escalivada amb Boquerones ($14), a build-your-own bruschetta with bell peppers, roasted eggplant, anchovies and whipped goat cheese was full of familiar tapas tastes, although lacked the punch I hoped for.
The Rabo de Toro (pictured at bottom, $16), braised oxtail ravioli with shaved truffle, strayed from the traditional tapas further, yet blew me away with the creativity of its explosive flavors.
But not every dish surpassed those I ate in Spain. The Butifarra Negra Morcilla ($10), the blood sausage I discovered and coveted on my trip after vowing I’d never try it, was grittier than I remembered, lacking the richness of the sausage I ate in Madrid. Likewise the Cordero Lamb ($24), boasted by our server as a signature dish, was identical to every other charred lamb chop I’ve ever eaten. Not necessarily boring, but there are much better things on the menu to order.
The server’s other suggestion, Pulpo ($12), or grilled octopus, redeemed my faith in him. It was insanely tender, the subtlety of its flavor enhanced by the char from the grill. Definitely on my must order list.
On one visit we opted for the paella, one of the most memorable meals from my time in Barcelona. We ordered the Paella Negra ($75), named after its black calaspara rice. It was overwhelming in its contents, yet underwhelming in flavor. Loaded with lobster, scallops, clams, octopus, mussels, tomatoes, artichokes and toast, it was a lot even split between two of us and felt like work to dig through the rice to find seafood worth eating. But it was satisfying nonetheless; just be willing to wait 40 minutes for it to come out of the kitchen. (The significantly cheaper option, Paella Valenciana, with saffron rice, chicken, chorizo, artichokes and tomatoes, is $42.)
Mercat a la Planxa ended up being more than a perfect way to conjure the memories of my trip to Spain. It was the first restaurant in Chicago that truly took my breath away with its flavors and execution, and continues to do so every time I go. It’s quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in the city and I don’t expect it to lose that status anytime soon.
Next time I’d love to splurge on the tasting menu ($65/85). Not to be transported back to Spain, but to take advantage of the amazing restaurants within walking distance of where I live in Chicago.
Go to Mercat a la Planxa for :: incredibly creative and immensely flavorful Spanish tapas. Order the pulpo, croquetas and gambas i xorico flatbread. Notes :: Located in the Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel. Reservations are available online.
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