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Hitting It Big on the Market (Mercat a la Planxa)

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Bon dia!  Finally another post during this crazy holiday season.  It hasn’t always been the easiest to think of what great restaurant I should review next since this time of the year naturally comes with trips to various eateries as well as sampling a variety of homemade morsels.  However, today’s entry on Mastication Monologues has a special place in my heart based on the day we went there.  Next year, I will marry the love of my life, Janice, and Mercat a la Planxa was the ideal backdrop after our engagement photo shoot this past year.

It has been four years since I went back to Spain, and eight years since I lived in Barcelona for a year to finish my Spanish degree.  Although the peninsula is now a far-flung memory from my current home, it always is in the forefront of my mind, especially the food.  Therefore, when Janice said that she made reservations at one of Chicago’s premier Spanish restaurants, my taste buds were having their own tablao de flamenco in anticipation.  Needless to say, Mercat a la Planxa lived up to the hype.  The shoot before the meal went well minus my newer pair of shoes that were ripping the backs of my heels to shreds.  On top of it, it was unusually warm and humid for Fall, and neither Janice nor I are suited for hot climes.  Thankfully, we all took it in stride and much thanks to Tanya our photographer for doing an amazing job through it all (shameless plug for Tanya Velazquez Photography here!).  janicemark-18-of-43After we said our goodbyes and thanks for the enjoyable time, we eventually arrived at Mercat at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Ave.  It is very non-descript on the outside aside from a graphic printed on the windows. img_0706 The interior, on the other hand, is very sleek and modern.img_0677img_0678img_0679  Definitely made an impression on my fiancee and I given it shares a lobby with the Blackstone Hotel.  img_0704This building was known as “The Hotel of Presidents” since some kind of famous Commanders-in-Chief like FDR, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in their luxurious suites.  In addition to heads of state, huge captains of industry (Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt) as well as other famous stars (Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn) have made the building their temporary home (the entire list can be found here).  Little did we know that this historical building would lead to a historical night for our palates.  Looking over the menu, I realized that Mercat was unique in the sense that they focused on Catalan ingredients and dishes since all of the items were written in Catalan.  While the southern Andalucian region gets all of the credit for what counts as being Spanish (bullfights, flamenco, sunny beaches), Catalunya on the east coast of the peninsula is firmly anti-Spanish.

Never the best of friends

Never the best of friends

It caused me some trouble when living in Barcelona since speaking Spanish before Catalan is seen as sign of being an outsider, but thankfully at Mercat they were just focused on providing the best experience possible.  As we looked over the menu at the various tapas, we saw everything from vegetable, meat, olives, paellas, and even a roast suckling pig (half of one is $220 and a full is double!).  With that final option, the price reflects the fact it can feed roughly 4 to 12 people, and it comes with its own personal meat carver and sides.  Obviously, we weren’t going to take down one of these hogs, but we were starving since we hadn’t eaten all day.  While we were trying to make our choices, our server brought a classic Catalan pre-meal food:  pan amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). img_0682 This Catalan version of Italian bruschetta is relatively new to the region.  This 18th century invention is believed to be the result of abundant tomato harvests and using the juicy veggies to soften hard bread.  I found this take on the carb-based antipasto quite refreshing compared to what is commonly found in Spain, but that also was because it was closer to bruschetta with its large tomato chunks and oregano compared to the minimalist fare found in cafeterias in Espana.  Eventually we settled on several tapas that could satisfy our ever-burgeoning appetites.  First, there were the datiles con almendras/almond-stuffed dates ($9). img_0683 These were a bit different than typical bacon-wrapped dates given they were drizzled with La Peral Asturian cheese which imparted the salty-sweetness with a milky smoothness that served as the fulcrum to balance both flavors.  Next were the gambas al ajillo ($13).img_0685  This was a definite highlight when this Catalonian bowl was still bubbling when placed in front of us.  From the size and quality of the olive oil/garlic/chili mix the shrimp was swimming in, it was the ideal tapa.  Next was my favorite tapa:  patatas bravas ($5).  These “wild potatoes” are my judge of whether or not a restaurant’s tapas are up to snuff (or if they even have them!).  Honestly, if you’re a professional chef and have mediocre/terrible fried potato chunks and a spicy mayonnaise sauce on the side, you might as well pack up your cooking utensils and find a new day job.  While that has been the case in very few of my tapateos, at Mercat they are the real deal.  They are the closest thing I have tasted outside of Spain to the same bravas I would always get at my favorite cafe on Rambla de Brasil in Barcelona.  First, the presentation was exquisite as they were lined up in a little row with the spicy sauce atop each potato like a barretina or traditional Catalonian cap.img_0695  I don’t know if they did this on purpose, but it was an excellent homage to the culture.

Messi reppin' Catalunya!

Messi reppin’ Catalunya!

img_0694These typically red hats are worn as a symbol of Catalan identity, and they can be seen now every Christmas on their traditions that revolve around poop like el caganer  (the pooping man) and el tio nadal (the pooping Christmas log).  Then there was the taste.  Most patatas bravas I’ve had, they’ve had more of a tomato based, more Mexican-style salsa sauce which isn’t even close to the original.  Mercat, however, has just the right blend of mayo, cracked black pepper, and garlic to go with the crunchy potato pieces.  I highly recommend these tapas if you want a true taste of a Spanish tapa mainstay.  Next came the albondigas/meatballs ($12).  This plate was an homage to the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine as the meatballs were made of both beef and lamb and a variety of ingredients including smoked yogurt, tahini, pickled vegetables, and almonds.img_0693  It was a hearty Mediterranean/North African inspired tapa that was further enhanced with the slight spice provided from the North African harissa chili sauce.  If you love lamb or Middle Eastern food/flavors or don’t eat pork, this is the tapa for you!  With all of these delicious plates coming our way, we knew we had to sneak some greens in their somewhere to be healthy, so we got the broquil amb cansalada ($12).  img_0692It was good but not as great as it was described on the menu.  It just tasted like some charred broccoli with the occasional hammy pancetta note.  The desserts at the end of our meal were killer regardless of my sweet tooth.  The only problem is that the desserts are quite small.  The horchata bon bons ($4 each) were addictive with a crunchy chocolate shell coating horchata ice cream and topped with cinnamon puffed rice and almond brittle. img_0697 When popped in our mouths, it had a plethory of crunchy, smooth, and rough textures and a nuttiness more common to Spanish tiger nut-derived horchata which differs from Mexican rice-derived horchata.  We also tried the financer ($14).  This small, golden cake was named either due to its resemblance to a bar of gold or its supposed popularity in the financial district of Paris since it could be carried in the pocket of traders for long periods of time without being damaged.img_0700  I don’t know if this delicate treasure of culinary creation could have done the same because it melted under the weight of the cheesecake gelato, candied almonds, and tart cherry gastrique to create a mouth-watering Catalan creation.  Finally, there were the croquetes de xocolata ($10).  This dessert was like a Salvador Dali creation.  img_0702The milk chocolate croquettes were rich to begin with, but then things took a turn for the “interesting” as we found them floating in mini rafts of banana-infused marshmallow adrift in a sea of rosemary-infused caramel and Arbequina olive oil.  Our mastication-filled maritime adventure rode the flavor wave from the bittersweet chocolate, to the sweet caramel, to the surprising whitecaps of banana and oddly fruity (in a good way) olive oil.  If you want a dessert that challenges your senses in all the best, most decadent ways, this is the dessert for you.

In sum, Mercat a la Planxa left us thoroughly satisfied with our meal and the overall dining experience.

img_0687 While there are cheaper tapas restaurants in the City and Chicagoland area, you will find it hard to discover an eatery as unique as this “Market on the Grill”.
Mercat a la Planxa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Something Old, Something New, Something Fried, Something Brewed

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Ah what a summer this is turning out to be.  The weather is warming up, and the festival season is in full swing.  Not only that, but the World Cup has lit up Chicago like I’ve never seen before as futbol fever is sweeping over the city.  I’ve got a fever myself for not only the beautiful game but wonderful food.  Sorry, no cowbell here.  Today’s post on Mastication Monologues takes us to George Street Pub in Lakeview.

The exterior of the bar was quite average looking as it blended into the genteel surroundings common to the northside.  Upon stepping into the establishment, it was designed like any other sports bar sans memorabilia on the wall:  exposed brick, plenty of tvs showing World Cup matches and baseball games, leather booths, and dark wood furniture.  There is indoor and outdoor seating, and we opted for the latter option.  That proved to be our downfall as the temperature dropped it like it was hot as a chilly wind descended upon us on the exposed patio.  They had a few heat lamps but way too few to warm up such a large space.  Unless, it’s perfect weather out there, I’d recommend sitting inside.  Upon sitting down, we ordered some drinks, and I picked a Midas Touch Golden Elixir beer ($6).IMG_3484  I picked it since it was described as “spiced” on the menu which naturally piqued my interest as it was nestled among the porters, IPAs, and lagers.  After doing a bit of research, this “beer” is somewhat between wine and mead as it is derived from residue  found in clay vessels from 8th Century B.C. in the tomb of the legendary King Midas.  At the time I didn’t know this, but now I know that I sampled the beer of the king who turned everything he touched into gold made me feel like I was getting a bargain.  Once it came out, I was greatly intrigued to see what I actually looked like, and it was imbued with a rich, golden hue.

A drink fit for a king

A drink fit for a king

It wasn’t carbonated, and the taste was unlike anything I’ve ever had.  It had a sweet aroma due to the honey and a slightly herbal scent compliments of the extravagant saffron.  The beer was light and clean with dulcet tones of the muscat grapes that were tempered with the spices.  I’d highly recommend it, and the bartender there said it was his favorite beer out of the hundreds on the beer menu.  I now know why the Midas Touch was a hidden gem.  Since Janice and I were a pair of Hungry Hungry Hippos, we decided to get some of the chicken wings ($7) while waiting for her friends to finally arrive.  Diners have the option of mild, medium, or hot wings along with ranch and blue cheese for dipping.  We got mild ones with extra hot sauce and blue cheese on the side.  The different levels of spice depends only on how much of the sauce they put on the chicken pieces.  They came out, and they looked a bit underwhelming. IMG_3487 While we got plenty for the price, they were on the smaller end with semi-adequate amounts of meat on the bone.  I really liked the buffalo-style sauce on the skin that had a real hot punch that jived with the reinvented blue cheese sauce that had oregano and garlic in it.  Eventually, her friends arrived, and they picked the pesto bruschetta ($6.95).  When it came out, it would have made nonna say “Mama mia!”.  It was a much more simplified yet modified version on this Italian antipasto.  While the crispy bread was surprisingly warm and semi-soft, it was rubbed with a little bit of garlic and pesto.IMG_3489  The toppings were a departure from the typical minced tomato and basil mix, and instead it was like a caprese salad fusion complete with a slice of buffalo mozzarella and tomato.  It was a refreshing remix covered with a hefty helping of creamy and rich pesto.  I’d recommend this appetizer over the chicken wings.  When it came time to order, I got the George Street Pub burger ($10) along with a Smuttynose Robust Porter.  They both came out at the same time, and both complimented each other perfectly.  The Smuttynose doesn’t get it’s name from that creepy guy snooping around the dirty magazine section in the supermarket but rather the name of an island off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. IMG_3490 It was a smooth pour and taste with hints of chocolate and coffee that brought big flavors to match the gargantuan burger in front of me.

Excalibur got a new home

Excalibur got a new home

The George Street Pub burger was a half pound patty sandwiched between two pretzel bun halves and topped with a thick slab of smoked cheddar.IMG_3492IMG_3493  When I bit into the sandwich of kings, I was greeted with a patty bursting with flavor and bacon bits, caramelized onion, and chorizo within the bulging beef cocoon. IMG_3494 It was a ton of meat spiced up with the mish-mash of chorizo and the pungent onions.  By the time I finished the burger, I thought I wouldn’t be able to pass one waffle fry past my lips, but I was wrong.  These bad boys were delicious, but unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy all of them due to my struggling stomach.

Overall, George Street Pub is like many gastropubs that can be found around the Chicagoland area, but I’d recommend it if you’re just looking for a relaxed place to catch a game or stuff yourself silly with good food and great beers.

George Street Pub on Urbanspoon

London (Days 4 and 5)- When the Disco Hits Your Eye Like a Steak and Kidney Pie

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As if day three in London couldn’t get any wilder, day four was extra crazy as my friends and I went off to have dinner at an Italian eatery called Bunga Bunga.  It’s located in the Battersea area of London which is just south of the Thames nearby the posh Chelsea neighborhood.  It was a dining experience unlike any other I’ve had in my life, so I hope this installation of Mastication Monologues can adequately describe the madness that is Bunga Bunga.  I’ll also cover my pre-match meal before seeing Tottenham Hotspur play in north London later on in this post.

So, Bunga Bunga.  If you aren’t up on your geo-political happenings or history in general, politicians are known as getting things done, both good and bad.  In Italy, there is a man named Silvio Berlusconi (former prime minister of Italy) who is one part politician, one part business tycoon, and one part Lothario.  That last part is where the restaurant gets its name from because “Bunga Bunga” is a joke that became synonymous with sex parties he threw for his friends and cronies complete with hookers, drugs, and bribes to keep everything hush hush…until recently when all of these allegations came to the surface.

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

With all of this info in the back of my head, I was wondering what sort of mischief Bunga Bunga had in store for its diners.  As soon as we walked in, I didn’t see any saucy vixens, but there was plenty of Italian kitsch adorning every square inch of the walls.IMG_2277  We knew it was a unique place when the servers would randomly break into a choreographed dance routine accompanied by pumping Italo-techo music in the middle of the restaurant (much to their annoyance).  I kind of felt bad for them since the novelty of it wore off after the first time.  Anyway, we started our meal off with three fancy mixed drinks (12 pounds each) that ended up being fantastic and hilarious since they sported names of famous Italians. IMG_2280 I got the  BungaBunga which was served in the head of a winking Berlusconi.  It consisted of gin, Martini Fierro, peppercorns, and grapefruit juice.  It was light and spicy with a bitter aftertaste, kind of like Berlusconi’s eventual fall from grace.  My friend Ravi got the SuperMario Monti (the prime minister of Italy post-Berlusconi) which was basically gin combined with muddled cucumbers which was cleaner and more refreshing than my cocktail.

My failed attempt at winking.

My failed attempt at winking.

As for my friend Bob, he’s a big footy fan, so he went for the Chellsi Balotelli (maverick soccer player who now plays for AC Milan) that had rhubarb vodka, rhubarb puree, cranberry juice, lime juice, and bitters all of which made a sour and strong drink.  Fitting for a man more known for his off the field antics and sulky personality.IMG_2283  For appetizers, we then got a side of cheesy garlic pizzicato (5.95 L) and cheese and spinach bruschetta (6 L).  The former was ok since it was starch combined with cheese, but I wouldn’t get it again since it was a bit too oily for my liking.IMG_2284  As for the latter, I liked the addition of spinach to modify the traditional bruschetta recipe, but once again it was extremely oily that kind of put a damper on the meal.IMG_2282  For the main course, we ordered three different pizzas (range: 9-13 pounds each).  I got the Ruby Loves (11 L); Bob ordered Chef Share-issimo’s Favorito (13 L); and Ravi’s a vegetarian, so he got The Naughty Napolitano (10 L) that had gorgonzola and pears on top.  Bob’s and my pizza were brought out on a long board like some sort of meaty centerpiece for a Roman feast.IMG_2285  My choice consisted  of N’duja soft sausage, salami, and cherry tomatoes.  It was tasty with the savory and salty meats but greasy once again (notice a trend?).  As for Bob’s side that contained rosemary seasoned lamb and chili, I liked it better because the lamb was expertly roasted and proved to be a lighter, less greasy topping compared to the pork products on my side.

So.much.grease.

So.much.grease.

I needed something to cut through the Mediterranean Sea of grease in my mouth, so I got their specialty, Ferrero Rocher gelato, for dessert. IMG_2287 It did the trick as my palate was coated in a molto delicioso wave of semi-dark chocolate ecstasy with interspersed crunchy Ferrero Rocher candy pieces.

Free wine and ice cream.  Winning!

Free wine and ice cream. Veni,vidi, vici!

As the night went on, the place filled up with plenty of party goers as the stage was filled with a variety of performers like a cabaret singer, a magician, and karaoke singers.

Abra-ca-blabra.  Make with the magic.

Abra-ca-blabra. Make with the magic.

NOTE:  If you want to go to the discoteca upstairs, make reservations for that in addition to your table.  We made that mistake and were confined just to the first floor.  Either way, it was a fun time aside from a brief upset stomach compliments of the greasy food.  I recommend Bunga Bunga to anyone if you’re looking for a crazy dining experience, but I don’t think I would make it one of my regular haunts.

Bunga Bunga on Urbanspoon

The following day was a bit rough given that we left Bunga Bunga, got crazy in the Clapham neighborhood, and didn’t make it home until 3 am.  Thankfully, it was laid back as Bob and I just spent most of it watching football or soccer in Amurikan.  Before watching the League Cup, Bob and I got lunch at a cafe nearby White Hart Lane.  While I was contemplating doing the English breakfast that had everything I loved like hash browns and bacon, I decided to go more for a footy classic with a steak and kidney pie with tea on the side.IMG_2300  I was disappointed with the pie and tea.  The crust was ok, and the insides were coated with a peppery white sauce.  However, they were missing a key ingredient:  brown gravy drizzled over the top, and the tea looked anemic.  As for the pea mash and chips on the side, they were passable.  Those were enhanced with the addition of this mysterious “brown sauce” that was in a squeeze bottle on the table that I could only liken to a sweet gravy with a hint of sour aftertaste and a lighter ketchup consistency.  This meal was as exciting at the Spurs vs. Cardiff match we saw, but maybe it just required a change of venue.  The only highlight was seeing Adam Richman of Man vs. Food fame on the field!  At least my last days in London would prove to be much more exciting.

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