Mercat a la Planxa: the tapas restaurant Chicago's been waiting for | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

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Mercat a la Planxa: the tapas restaurant Chicago's been waiting for

Inspired by Catalanian cuisine, celeb chef Jose Garces's makes his Chicago debut


Jose Garces's splashy homecoming from Philadelphia—where the Chicago-bred celeb launched two successful tapas restaurants in as many years—marks him as a sort of Spanish imperialist. But the chef isn't stamping out his empire with a giant cookie cutter shaped like the Iberian Peninsula. His other restaurants have affinities for distinct Spanish regions (Andalusia and the Basque Country), and at this one, Mercat a la Planxa, signifiers of Catalan cuisine dot the menu: Spanish scallions (calçots), charred and served with romesco sauce (salbitxada); cured sausages like butifarra and fuet; and pa amb tomaquet, grilled tomato-garlic bread, to name a few.

The small bar and lavatories on the ground floor of the Blackstone Hotel serve as anteroom to this wide-open bi-level upstairs dining room, which somehow feels close in spite of its spaciousness. The menu is a bit intimidating in its depth and pricing, especially considering that these are small plates, but with the exception of a $14 grilled flatbread, most were pretty darn good. I can't get my mind off the inky black, superrich fideua negra—angel hair and baby squid topped with saffron aioli—and even an old standby like bacon-wrapped dates was distinguished by a tiny pitcher of blue cheese and skewered over a small bowl of frisee that helped cut the richness.

Ordering the kitchen's much-talked-about whole roasted suckling pig (cochinillo asado) is a bit like adopting a child, requiring a group of four, two days' advance notice, a faxed form, and a $75 deposit. The little guy's carved up at your table, the delectable crispy skin and the fatty cheek tissue separated from the rest of meat and, if you request, the tiny, creamy gray matter removed from the skull, grilled, and plated it with a rich sherry reduction. Given enough notice they'll brine the pig for up to three days, though ours was plenty juicy and flavorful. It includes sides of calçots, roasted fingerling potatoes, and two particularly fantastic dishes—sauteed spinach with raisins, pine nuts, and julienned apples, and a cassoulet-like crock of white beans with bacon. Even with a price hike (half a pig is now $220, a whole $40), this might be the best value in the restaurant, and it's well worth the effort. Though this town already has nearly two dozen entrenched Spanish tapas joints, this could be the one it's been waiting for. —Mike Sula

I defy anyone to walk past the pastry case at Shokolad Pastry & Cafewithout stopping to gaze longingly at the torte slices, tarts, and dainty cookies. But they're just the start—or, if you prefer, the close—of a delightful breakfast, lunch, or early dinner at the spiffy corner cafe that Ukrainian pastry chef Haluna Fedus opened with her family earlier this year. Marble tile floors and handsome black tables set a stylish tone for remarkably affordable meals that should begin with soup—especially warm Ukrainian borscht loaded with julienned beets and other root vegetables and enriched by sour cream. Often it has beef, but mine was vegetarian. Pierogi, plump with potato and cheese, meat, or cherries, come glossed with butter and accompanied by more sour cream; you also can request bacon and/or caramelized onions, something the friendly server failed to mention. I loved the savory crepe of the day—actually a trio of crepes, each folded over spinach and mushrooms with a hint of melted feta. Piquant grated-carrot salad made a perfect garnish. There are also sandwiches; the roast beef panini got a boost from caramelized onions, Gruyere, and horseradish cream but the meat was chewy. Four kinds of dessert crepes include banana-chocolate and sweet cheese with blueberry sauce; however, it's impossible to resist the multilayered opera cake and Fedus's impromptu creations, such as a light-as-air "chocolate fantasia" of sponge cake, snowy-white pastry cream, and dark chocolate. Finish with potent Umbria espresso or Russian black tea. —Anne Spiselman

This little Pilsen storefront is the spawn of the Albany Park Chinese-Korean restaurant Great Sea, home of the dangerously habit-forming chicken wings known as "hot and saucys." I've long believed these chicken lollipops—frenched, battered, deep-fried, and slathered with a sweet, dark, oily chile sauce—could make for a profitable franchise all by themselves. So, apparently, did daughter of the house Karen Lim, a former schoolteacher who opened Take Me Out in mid-March. Her spare menu offers basics like crab Rangoon, orange chicken, bulgogi-like "beef bowls," and the magnetizing "little hotties," as she calls them. But her wings aren't exact replicas of her parents' masterworks. For one, they aren't frenched, which makes them messier and more difficult to eat. For another, at Great Sea the radius and ulna segments of the wing are discarded, but not here. Lim admitted to me that these measures save her thousands of dollars in labor, and if that's what it takes for her to make it, I don't mind so much. Sauces are available in mild, medium, and hot, and I didn't like that the heat at the highest level is weaker than the default sauce at the mothership. Still, this is progress. —Mike Sula

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