Mercat a la Planxa is a trendy ode to Barcelona that serves up Catalan inspired food and cocktails. It’s also one of the many owned restaurants of Iron Chef Jose Garces, which means this place would be a lot cooler if it was a constant kitchen battle. Although we definitely don’t want Alton Brown narrating our meals, we would appreciate the Chairman backflipping around and screaming about secret ingredients.
Aside from the disappointment of no Chairman, Mercat a la Planxa has the rare distinction of being a place whose food we like, but whose atmosphere is kind of weird. The experience and ambience of a restaurant matter, and the feel at Mercat a la Planxa is just kind of off.
After walking up a spiral staircase, you're hit with a large space, huge ceilings, plus a clubby and trendy feel. It's a beautiful and sprawling space, and at first glance seems like a cool spot where a fun crowd would hang. But despite it all, you're never truly convinced that Mercat a la Planxa is remotely trendy or cool, in large part because the crowd doesn't seem to match the atmosphere. It's the only time we've ever said to ourselves that a restaurant would be better off if it were in River North. The Michigan Avenue location close to Soldier Field is probably partially to blame, because no matter how hard anyone tries otherwise, this area of town always seems to cater to tourists and business people alike.
If you ignore the slightly strange crowd, or if you specifically need a restaurant in the Loop, the food here tastes pretty darn good. Mercat's traditional Spanish tapas are the way to go, so immerse your table in a whole lot of Spanish style seafood and meats. If you want something a little heartier, don't be distracted by flatbreads and steaks, but rather stick to one of the more traditional style paellas to share. Make sure you order enough food though, because even for tapas standards, there's a complaint to be made that the dishes are too small.
Mercat a la Planxa will never be a hot or trendy spot to eat, but it's worth having on the radar for the right occasion, particularly if they ever feel like turning it into Kitchen Stadium.
White anchovies that aren’t overly salty, which is often an anchovy trait. They come with a side mix of pine nuts, olives, and anaheim peppers that mostly tastes like a crunchy pine nut peanut butter.
Flash fried padrón peppers with sea salt. A staple Catalan side, and a pepper that doesn’t have too much heat.
Bacon wrapped dates. Tasty? Yes. Problem - they are the smallest dates we’ve ever seen, and four of them each the size of a cashew is kind of insulting.
Nicely grilled baby Spanish octopus with a good meaty flavor. But again, only one piece that’s not very large. Come on Mercat, we're growing people.
Mussels in a sherry broth sauce that’s so damn good we literally drink the whole thing. You’re going to need extra bread for dipping purposes, and possibly a second order of mussels after that.
Thankfully, the paella is a very respectable size. It's easily sharable among a few people, and this version comes with saffron rice, chicken, chorizo, artichokes, tomato, and saffron aioli toast. Solid flavor, although we wish the edges crisped up a bit more, and we aren’t sure why they throw a little lettuce and tomato salad in the center. Move the lettuce out of the way and dive right into the good stuff.