After hours spent "virtually" eating my way through the city via Urbanspoon and several enticing local blogs, I narrowed my search to three or four likely candidates.
Not willing to fight the crowds at Top Chef Stephanie Izard's white hot Girl & The Goat, I was in search of a unique dining experience, preferably within walking distance of my hotel, hoping to feed my iPhone picture taking habit while also getting some sorely needed exercise (I consider it way to beastly hot to walk more than a block outdoors in Jacksonville most of the year).
I settled on Iron Chef Jose Garces' Mercat a la Planxa in the recently renovated Blackstone Hotel, where the signature offerings are Catalan tapas and grilled to order seafood and steaks. Two words: GOOD CHOICE.
These days, the mod Michigan Avenue spot is in the capable hands of Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorello, who just days after my visit was crowned Chicago's "Porc Prince" at Cochon555 Chicago. Chef Garces does make the odd return visit as well, I'm told.
|Serrano ham and fig salad ($8)
Arriving in record time, the Serrano Ham and Fig salad was beautiful to look at AND one of the best salads I've eaten in recent memory. The flavors melded well, yet each stood out on its own.
Sweet, salty Serrano ham was arranged as petals over a bed of baby spinach, studded with firm bits of smoky lardon and chewy fig.
Subtle, creamy Spanish blue La Peral and a nutty, tart sherry vinaigrette rounded out the flavor profile. I am pretty sure I licked the plate clean.
Choosing a main course was simple once I saw the words Potato Croquette, Hanger Steak AND Braised Short Rib - on the same dish... Add in a Mushroom Escabeche? I was perplexed as to how this dish was ever going to come together. When it arrived, all packaged neatly in one layered piece, it all made perfect sense.
BLACK ANGUS HANGER STEAK, POTATO CROQUETTE,
BRAISED SHORT RIBS And BEECH MUSHROOM ESCABECHE ($13)
A healthy portion of Black Angus Hanger Steak is grilled to order, and tops a satiny short rib braise, which in turn rides atop the long, crisp plank of potato. The mushrooms are sprinkled on top of that, and the whole thing is dusted with herbs and plated with brightly colored infused olive oil. This is a great dish for lunch but would also be easy to slice up and share as tapas.
The ambiance at Mercat at early lunchtime was one of warmth and relaxed elegance. Light streamed from the tall windows and made sihouettes of nearby diners.
The service was impeccable, and I felt like I was on my own little island, where I was welcome to relax and stay as long as I liked, eat as much as I could hold.
Eventually, however, meetings beckoned, and I reluctantly surrendered my cozy corner table and eased out into the brisk March air for the short 11 block walk back to my hotel, snapping pics of buildings and their fabulous architectural details all along the way.
I probably drove my friends crazy posting all the pics on Facebook and Instagram, but I was inspired. Maybe it was the cool crisp air. Or maybe it was the meal. It all just fit beautifully together into one lovely visit to one of my favorite cities.
I love Chicago. Next visit, I'll most likely stay at the Blackstone.
I hear Mercat has a great brunch.
Mercat a la Planxa