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The Diaspora of Spanish Gastronomy: A Delectible Evening at Mercat a La Planxa

Spanish gastronomy goes beyond small bites of food. It is more than foamy shots of alchemy, savory rice dishes – generically called Paella, or egg based custards. Yet despite the perpetual misconception of what actually constitutes a typical meal in a local Spanish bar, innovative Spanish gastronomy is making gigantic waves across the North American landscape.

Last Thursday, I was generously invited to a Spanish wine and food pairing by Michael Grisley, co-owner of PR Grisley imports. Michael is a longtime friend of ours, in large part due to his undying passion for Iberian wine, but little did I know that he would be throwing down a gastronomic event of epic proportions at Iron Chef Jose Garces’  Mercat a la Planxa, located in vibrant center of downtown Chicago.

If you aren’t familiar with Chef Jose Garces, I would highly suggest doing a little gastronomic research. Born in Chicago in 1974 from Ecuadorian parents, Jose opened his first restaurant at the ripe young age of 29 in Philadelphia. Called Amada, meaning “the beloved or loved”, the restaurant is an homage to Spanish tapas, set in a sultry Andalusian styled and renown for its Lobster Paella, Tortilla Espanola and its signature cochinillo, or baby suckling pig.

Tinto, a wine bar and restaurant inspired by the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southern France was opened in 2006 and heralded for its vast array of mouth-watering pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. Located in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philly, this rustic wine bar, reminiscent of an ancient cellar, has gained its reputation from its expansive wine list of more than 100 Spanish and French varieties that complement the restaurant’s unique menu highlighting dishes such as: chorizo chips with lobster cream; lamb loin skewered and served in shot-glasses of onion cream and sherry jus; a morsel of duck comfit topped with a black cherry and served on blue cheese-smeared toasted bread.

Chef Garces’ fame was further acclaimed across the eastern seaboard with the opening of Distrito, an ode to the vibrant culture and cuisine of Mexico City;  Chifa, a Latin-Asian restaurant; and Village Whiskey, a classic spirit bar with over 80 whiskeys to pair with its gastropub style cuisine.

As for Mercat a la Planxa, this was this first Catalan styled restaurant I’ve visited in the USA, and though far from what I’d coin “authentic”, it provided an incredible presentation of food and wine pairings that did not fail to disappoint. Set in the elegant ballroom of the Blackstone Hotel, the meal gently unfolded over 3 hours as each Spanish wine pairing was explained by Michael Grisley, followed with an equally thorough course description by Chef J. Michael Fiorello, Chef de Cuisine at Mercat a la Planxa and Executive Chef of The Blackstone Hotel.

Admittedly, I was intimately familiar with all of the Spanish wines presented, most of which I am an avid fan of, but I’m always intrigued with how a Chef, for whom I believe was in Spain only once years ago, would craft a meal around each wine. When asked of Chef Fiorello how he went about crafting each dish, his answer was honest and direct, “When I tried each wine, I was inspired by its core characteristics. If the wine showed fresher, more vibrant, flavors, I paired it with an equally refreshing dish. Pretty straightforward.” I suppose you can’t fault our friend for being flamboyant.

The first course was a potted chicken liver mousse with a caraway-onion jam and foie gras served in a clear shot glass and paired with the 2008 Coto de Gomariz Blanco made with Treixadura and Godello from D.O. Riberio, Spain. For someone that isn’t particularly keen on organ meat, especially when it has a particularly gamey flavor and an equally unpleasant texture, I was blown away by this dish. In part, I give loads of credit to the caraway-onion jam that offered just enough spice to compliment the rich liver mousse. Add the slightly effervescent texture of the Coto de Gomariz with its light citrus notes, and you have the perfect pairing to rinse the palate clean before your second helping.

The second course, a glowing red Sous Vide Bluefin Tuna piled upon toasted bread and garnished with a Caper-Olive Oil Jam & Spicy Red Cabbage literally made my heart skip a beat. Granted, I did feel horribly guilty for savoring an overfished species, but one can legitimately understand why the bluefin has garnered a reputation for its meaty, yet sumptuous, texture. And when combined with the slightly crunchy texture of the spicy red cabbage and the gentle sweetness from the caper-olive oil jam, it was as close as heaven as I could have asked for. The wine pairing for this dish was spot on. The DOC Rioja, 2006 Bodegas Ondalan Crianza made with 80% Tempranillo and 20% Graciano bolstered the tuna without overpowering it.

The Pork Belly with Charred Baby Octopus, Marcona Almonds & Smoked Green Olive Escabeche was my least favorite of all the dishes, and this may be in part due to the fact that I made it – or more accurately, prepared it. In the center of the grand ballroom stood a series of tables shaped into a square. In the center of the square housed a dozen or so chefs who graciously requested 1 volunteer from each table to help prepare the 3rd course. Recognizing my lack of culinary skills, I promptly volunteered myself knowing full-well that my table had no idea what they would be getting themselves into. To be fair, I merely added pre-prepared portions of the marcona almonds and smoked green olive escabeche into a bowl, stirred and then lightly seared the octopus. The issue wasn’t so much recipe as it was the octopus. Having lived in Iberia for half decade, I’ve been rather spoiled by incredibly soft, sumptuous and moist octopus – something most Americans have not had the privilege to experience. For me, the octopus was slightly tough and chewy, and though my table was overjoyed by the outcome, I for one was rather ho-hum. However, I was a huge fan of the DOC Rioja, 2006 Bodegas Miguel Angel Muro Bujanda Crianza made from 100% Tempranillo. Slightly smokey with bold dark cherry and cassis notes, it was a nice little wine to sip upon until my next course arrived.

The fourth course equally made me feel waves of guilt, but not because it is an endangered species, far from it, it’s because my husband would have killed to taste it. The Grilled Muscovy Duck Breast elegantly laid over Red Wine Seckel Pears and a Comfit leg Crêpe was absolutely delectable! As a preferred vegetarian, I tend to push off meat dishes for anything that sprouts from the ground, but the combination of the perfectly cooked duck with the slightly sweet, yet savory, red wine seckel pears was unreal. The 100% Graciano 2005 Bodegas Ondalan 100 Abades was an intriguing pairing, especially as Graciano is not my favored grape; however, this is one of the few wines that I’m a die-hard fan of. Showing glints of blackberry, cardamon and black spice on the nose, with vibrant acidity and soft, powdery tannins, it held up beautifully with the duck, and with any luck, I’ll still be married by the end of the article.

The 5th and last main course was the House Smoked Catalan Lamb Sausage with Ham Hock-Tomato Stew & Black Eyed Peas. For me, this was the closest I could relate to a traditional Catalan dish, and although the flavors married well together, I was seriously disappointed with the sausage. Butifarra, the typical sausage of Catalunya, is a thicker styled sausage that has a very unique texture and flavor. Unfortunately, in this case, the lamb sausage reminded of something I might find in Italy as opposed to Catalunya, and when paired with the traditional black-eyed peas, I was missing home. However, the I’m not a purist, and I loved the slightly spicy addition of the goat cheese, among the rich and savory tomato stew. The 2005 Bodegas Medrano Irazu Reserva was a nice addition, but I think I would have preferred a Garnacha from Priorat with this dish, which would have offered a bit more bold, dark fruit characteristics.

Last, but not least, was the Pumpkin-Brown Butter Cake with Hazelnut Escabeche and a Rosemary-Olive Oil Ice Cream. Let’s call a spade a spade, though the pumpkin butter cake was nice, the rosemary-olive oil was absolutely gorgeous. Offering just enough rosemary essence to complement the slightly sweet olive oil flavor, it literally floated on my palate as if I was sucking on a Mediterranean cloud. In this case, however, the wine scored both high and low with the food pairing. Quevedo’s N/V Special Reserve Tawny married perfectly with the pumpkin cake, but when paired with the ice cream, I felt it totally overpowered the subtle characteristics of the ice cream. Now, is it a deal-breaker? Not in the least, but I would have rather had it as an amuse-bouche, leaving the cake and tawny to communicate fluidly among themselves.

In short, it was an incredible evening and I am very appreciative of the very kind invitation from the PR Grisley family, not to mention the delicious meal that I gladly devoured. It also proved to be a wonderful reminder for me to always keep an open mind. Regardless if a restaurant calls itself “Catalan” there is no reason why flavors shouldn’t be expanded, contrasted and contorted to fashion an innovative dish that only hints at its regional roots. Like wine, playfulness is the key to passionate cooking.


Gabriella Opaz

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