The sous vide pork belly at Mercat a la Planxa —the restaurant in the newly renovated Blackstone Hotel—is like warm, pig-flavored ice cream, the meat and fat of it melting slowly and effortlessly in the mouth. It is, like most of the food here, not just fine, and not just good—it is very, very good. Being Catalan cuisine, which includes a lot of tapas, the menu isn’t terribly ambitious—rather, it’s simple by design. But for what it is, some of it is near perfect. The filet mignon, though merely grilled, is fantastic, served in soft, pink slices with a salty crust. A short-rib flatbread topped with bacon marmalade has only four or five ingredients, but it’s just as indulgent and delicious as it sounds. Traditional tapas are as good as they can possibly be: Croquetas are hot and crispy, with a creamy interior hiding savory bits of ham; the pimientos charred, sprinkled with big kernels of sea salt and sitting atop aioli; truita de patata can espinacas, the Spanish tortilla on the menu, is a big, satisfying chunk of savoriness; and pulpos con patatas gets the texture of both the octopus and potatoes exactly right. You can’t do too much with these things and maintain their integrity, but chef Jose Garces, who has garnered a reputation as a tapas master at his restaurants in Philadelphia, does just enough.
And yet, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Mercat for dinner anytime soon, mainly because there’s a serious lack of soul to the place. The experience is what I imagine having dinner with a supermodel must be like: a nice sensory experience, sure, but with little intellect or emotion beneath the surface. Unlike the acting chefs at David Burke’s Primehouse or DeLaCosta (both of which operate under a similar absent-chef model), chef de cuisine Michael Fiorello has yet to make this restaurant feel like his own. I yearned to see a list of nightly specials, something to make the restaurant feel more chef-driven and specific to Chicago. Because as it is, Mercat has the aura of a chain. And the money-hungry server I had at dinner didn’t help. When it came to ordering a cocktail, I didn’t ask for one so much as he ordered one for me: Eyes sweeping over the rest of the dining room, he maniacally rattled off his suggestion. “The De Loss Cort is really good it’s my favorite really balanced and it’s got cinnamon why don’t I bring you one of those.” And then he was off to fetch it.
The experience improved at lunch. The room, which overlooks Grant Park, softens in the daytime, when a lot of natural light shines through the oversized windows. The service is more relaxed, and the food is still on point. I couldn’t imagine how a small order of prawns could warrant their $12 price tag, but the three plump specimens that came to the table were just sweet enough to be worth it. Green onions, charred and soft, were a simple, satisfying side dish, and the hamachi had a spectacular texture—charred on only one side, it was firm yet sumptuous. A skirt steak sandwich wasn’t very inspired, but despite being the worst dish I had, it was nevertheless an enjoyable nosh. Still, I walked away from lunch unsatisfied. It’s hard, it turns out, to get full when the experience is so empty.