Airport to Mercat, no stops!

Our flight was slightly delayed this morning and when we arrived in Chicago, T and I both felt famished. In the cab, I called Mercat a la Planxa, a Jose Garces restaurant just a block from our hotel. As we looove Garces' restaurants in Philly (well, not Tinto, but Distrito and Amada are FAB), we headed straight to Mercat, bags and all. Though our waiter seemed to have left his brain somewhere, he was nice and the food was excellent. It's a Catalan place and one thing was more flavorful than the next. I started with the watermelon-tomato gazpacho which was accompanied by a goat cheese- and crab salad-topped toast. I rarely order soups at restaurants but was exceedingly glad to have chosen this one. The addition of watermelon offered a subtle yet intelligent and delicious twist on a standard (albeit top-shelf in this instance) gazpacho. The crab salad crostini was something I could eat and love every day, ten times over.

Tom began his meal with the spinach, serrano ham and fig salad which also included slivered and spiced almonds, a sherry vinaigrette and a crumbled Spanish blue. Delicious! I'm really finding the love for cured pork, and what I like about serrano is its texture and feel. It's not wet (you know how some sliced meats "weep"?), it maintains its structure well but isn't tough, and it's flavorful but doesn't steal the show. It's also yum with figs and sherry.

For our mains, I had the free-range chicken served with both romesco sauce and pickled guindilla aioli as well as a side of rosemary white beans, while T opted for the hanger steak sandwich with caramelized onions, tomato and la peral, an artisanal Spanish cheese. Both were quite good, though I do think T out-ordered me. My white beans were superbly done but I couldn't understand the pairing of them with the chicken and accompanying sauces. Weird. Separately both were quite good but even on the same plate, much less in tandem, the flavor profiles just didn't mesh.

I enjoyed a lovely glass of Albariño while T had a glass of Estrella Dam, a light Spanish beer that was fine but not memorable. Overall, Mercat was terrific, and I'd definitely return and suggest you go. As Garces is an Iron Chef, we'll rate him accordingly:

Taste: 9 (Em), 10 (T) Originality: 3.5 (Em), 4 (T) Plating: 4 (Em), 4 (T)

The waiter should definitely get back on track, however. He was super-nice, and as we're on vacation sans kids I feel super-relaxed, but he didn't place the order for Catalan spinach I'd requested, walked to our table with our tea and soda but then walked away with them, never to return, and served my first glass of wine in a dirty glass. We never got the spinach or drinks (and never mentioned either because we felt so darn zen), but I give the restaurant kudos for otherwise attentive service and a seemingly immediate change of wine and glass as well as a lovely apology. None needed. Great lunch!