Monday, May 10, 2010

Vamos a Chicago

As if our Rueben experience at Lucky’s in Cleveland wasn’t enough to fulfill my daily goal of finding and eating good food on the road, we hit Chicago that afternoon.
Oh Chicago, oh how I needed to stay for at least 3 more months to even put a dent into your epic food scene. I had a taste and now I only want more.

It started on the rooftop bar of our hotel theWit – a hotel any visitor to Chicago should try to get a room at when visiting, we had a phenomenal stay. It has the highest open-air bar in the city, and they serve food and drinks with options of both indoor and outdoor seating. It was overcast and quite windy by the time we got up there, but the thoughtfully constructed deck had been built to block all of that Windy City wind out.

That, along with the strategically placed space heaters and chic long rows of fireplaces, kept us comfortable and warm and still enjoying fresh air and the excitement of being outside. The drinks were great – I had a pear vodka, honey, and lime cocktail (yum), Mom with a cosmo, of course – and the food looked superior. The only criticism we could give was that the big screen on the side of the building was forcing us to watch the Cavs completely spank the Celtics. We tried to synchronize our sips with every drained 3-pointer to hide our wincing.

And soon enough, it was time to get to dinner.
In preparing for this trip, I will admit that an embarrassing amount of time was spent on researching where we should go out to dinner in Chicago. We only had one night, so the pressure was on. I wanted it to be worthwhile, memorable, not too expensive, not too generic, flavorful, original.
Trying to plow through the options of ‘Chicago restaurants’ on Google on my own proved tiresome and pointless, so I tried farming out to friends who had already visited the city for advice. This only left me with multiple lists, none of which overlapped, of different places that all shared the same group title of “YOU MUST EAT HERE”.
Oy vey.
Nonetheless, after countless readings of menus and reviews, I followed my love for Spanish cuisine and decided on Mercat a la Planxa, a restaurant located right across Chicago’s gem of Millennium Park. The menu is based specifically on Catalan cuisine, in tapas style of course, which meant smaller plates of different tastes and preparations.

The style of the restaurant was open and warmly decorated, where we could plainly see the chefs in kitchen bustling to prepare our orders. The staff was incredibly helpful, and kept a perfect pace with the rate at which we were enjoying our meal. Although on the pricier side in general terms ($12 for four small scallops, $11 for a shortrib flatbread the size of an oversized piece of pizza) quality way overrides quantity here. You are paying for attention to detail, for the pure craft of the creative marriage of flavors, for quality ingredients, and for the talent of a chef who can deliver these things successfully (who I found out later is coincidentally the last Next Iron Chef winner Jose Garces).
With this in mind, you end up only needing a few bites to truly enjoy the dish anyway, seeing that each one will hold you for longer than you expect as you try to map out the flavors that are unfolding in your mouth. This is not something you can do with a cheaper, one-note flavored dish that you’re not fully enjoying or noticing anymore after bite five.
A few cocktails, seven plates, and after dinner drinks later, I sat there satisfied with our Mercat experience.
Chicago proved to be one great city, but in that moment the meal left me craving only one thing: the Spanish countryside.

Here are a few of my feeble attempts to photograph our experience:

My Sangriatini with the house bread in the background:
Crispy bottom, chewy and soft interior, and a tomato and garlic soaked top. Very Mediterranean, and very delectable. I didn’t want another slice, I wanted the whole pan.

Datiles con Almendras
Bacon-wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds
I even devoured the garnish.

Pulpo con Patatas
Spanish Octopus, Confit Potato, Smoked Paprika
Even for our 'least favorite' dish of the night, it was still pretty darn good. Love that Spanish paprika.

Costillas de Ternera
Beef Shortribs, Horseradish, Parmesan & Bacon
Peppery, savory, smoky, with a bite.

Diver Scallops
Simplicity at its finest.

Arroz a la Cazuela
Saffron Scented Broth with Maine Lobster, Chicken,
Chorizo, Rabbit, Shaved Artichoke Salad & Piquillo Aioli
Served still steaming. My heart stops for paella...

Croquetas de Mariscos
Shellfish Croquettes, Tarragon Emulsion
Eat them whole right from the spoon. A symphony of textures and flavors.

Croquetas de Xocolata
Milk Chocolate Croquettes, Banana Marshmallow, Rosemary Caramel, Arbequina Olive Oil
No, youre wrong. It's the farthest thing from disgusting you will ever find. The flavor combination is pure genius.

Oh, also, one of our favorite Chicago attractions; what we like to call, 'The Bean':

Although similar to any other ordinary mirror, you cannot pull yourself away from taking pictures off The Bean.

Mom whipped out her go-go gadget arms just for The Bean. Look at those limbs!


  1. Look at em! Banana AND caramel?? It's cause she's blonde...

  2. Chicago was amazing. This "Bean" Elizabeth refers to is technically called Cloud can't help but pose to see your distorted reflection. I didn't know it would be appearing in the blog...what fun we are having!

  3. Hi Lizzy,
    This is great! Saw your Mom at work and she mentioned the Guy Fieri places ... I love that show too! Lots of awesome greasy not-good-for-you food! I always say, I wish I had his job! Your photos and comments are wonderful ... I can just picture your Mom sitting there in that booth being a "nerd"! How neat that you got to experience the trip together.
    Keep the posts coming!