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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

Tomatill-Oh So Good

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Hola a todos!  So I’m still living the foodie thug life while on summer vacation here in South Korea, and it is still hotter than a mother-father gentleman.  However, that doesn’t mean that this heat is stopping me from enjoying my free time before second semester starts at the end of the month.  Today I visited a new Mexican restaurant called Tomatillo which is located in Itaewon.  To get there, come out of exit 1, and then make the left you see that doesn’t go into a parking lot.  Then turn right, and it will be there on your left hand side.  Here is their website.IMG_0636IMG_0637

Originally, I was planning on trying some Paraguayan food at Comedor in Itaewon, but since it is Korean Independence Day, not only are the Koreans celebrating their liberation from the Japanese but also their ability to close down their restaurants whenever they want.  Long story short, not many restaurants were open, so we ended up at Tomatillo.  That is not to say that it was a terrible experience.  Quite the opposite.  After scanning the menu, I saw that they served Tex-Mex standards like nachos, tortilla chips with salsa, tacos, burritos, and chimichangas.  I hate to break it to them, but they were calling a taco salad a “tostada”.  Tostadas being one of my favorite Mexican dishes, I was slightly perturbed by this.  At the same time, I realized we were in Korea where they refer to guacamole as “avocado sauce”, so I can’t really be annoyed with them.  I got a barbacoa (braised beef) burrito (9,000 W), a glass of horchata (5,000 W), and a side of chocolate churros  for dessert (4,500 W).IMG_0638

The wait wasn’t too long for my food to come up, and I was quite excited to see this banquet set out in front of me.  I started on the burrito, and it was pretty damn good for Mexican food in Korea.  I mean, I still think even Chipotle would beat it in terms of overall flavor diversity though.  They also asked me if I wanted it spicy, and I replied in the affirmative.  Yet when I bit into this substantially sized burrito, I didn’t taste one hint of spice.IMG_0641  I don’t know if they just don’t have the ingredients to make it really spicy, or are just giving into their natural assumptions that Western people can’t handle spice.  Lack of supposed spiciness aside, the ingredients in the burrito were well made.  The beef was definitely well seasoned and was not too juicy/too dry.  The tortilla was soft and pliable yet held together at the height of my feeding frenzy.  I really enjoyed the Mexican rice along with the beans that were nestled in every gentle fold of the white tapestry that brought this little bundle of food together.  I think if they actually used some sort of chili sauce and more chipotle, their burritos could really go to the next level in terms of tasting like Mexican food you can get in Chicago or L.A.  Moving on to my horchata, it was really refreshing since it was ice cold and creamy but slightly different to the horchata you can get at any taqueria in Chicago.  The Korean version still had the cinnamon-notes that reminded me of home, yet it seemed too thick to be the real deal.  Oh well, just another variant just like how the original horchata in Spain tastes different from the Mexican version.  Finally, there were the churros…best part of the meal. IMG_0640 Not only did I get a good amount for my money, but they were liberally doused in cinnamon and sugar.  The chocolate was lightly drizzled on them which was different than the Spanish churros I’d get down the block from my apartment in Barcelona, but these Korean ones were perfectly fried.  They were slightly crunchy, but not overly so, and had a soft, almost creamy dough center that was still warm.  Too good.  Overally, I liked it better than Taco Cielo since it seemed not as over the top and trying hard to adopt to develop syncretic cuisine to please the locals.  So if you don’t want to battle it out with the crowds at Vato’s Tacos down the street, check out Tomatillo!

Before I finish, I just want a quick Fell and Cole blurb about two new ice cream flavors I tried:  red wine/Sichuan chili pepper and Love Potion No. 6.  For other flavors, see Nosh Pit and Where Everyone Should Bee.

So hot yet so cold

So hot yet so cold

First off, the red wine/Sichuan chili pepper ice cream was very novel yet disappointing in certain aspects.  While it had a strange tartness that persisted after each spoonful, I was crestfallen that it didn’t fulfill its potential to be a really spicy ice cream.  The chili element seemed to have been neutralized and instead used for textural support as I could feel the crunchy chili flakes running over my tongue as I slowly savored the cold wave passing over my palate.  Perhaps the cold neutralized the signature Chinese heat.  As for the second flavor, Love Potion No. 6, it was made of black rice, black beans, black sesame, and kelp.IMG_0643  Why all the black stuff you ask?  Well, this ice cream is supposedly referring to a Korean belief that ingesting these foods can roll back the years.  Hence, your grey hairs will turn black again.  I’d personally prefer more hair on my head, but I was genuinely surprised by this flavor.  I was expecting it to taste like garbage, but instead, it had a sugary taste peppered with earthy notes.  I could only liken it to the conservative flavor of a sugar cone, but every so often I could detect the light caress of the salty kelp.  If I had to choose between the two flavors, it would be hard, but I’d go with the Love Potion because its flavor wasn’t as intense as the bold combo of alcohol and crunchy pepper flakes.

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