45 Bond Street (Bowery)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 529-8600
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Entree Price: $10-15
Do you ever have those days (or weeks) when every little thing seems to go wrong and/or malfunction? Your cell phone craps out, you miss a train, you lose your wallet? These are not monumental events, nothing that will threaten your health or your family, but just a slew of little annoyances that continue to pile up until you're ready to throw in the towel, curl up into a ball and never get up. Well, I had one of those weeks last week. My MacBook, which is not even a year old, had a nervous breakdown. Read: it panicked, crashed, and died. Now, luckily I am one of those anal people who back up everything (I've had this happen before and I lost everything) so I didn't lose my stories or my music, but I lost my machine, and this was after spending about10 hours on the phone with Apple Support trying to get it back to life. At the end of the day they finally determined that my hard disk was fried and I had to send it back to be repaired. That was just wonderful considering I had a story to hand in to the Post that night. This was especially not ideal. When I took out my backup machine to use to send in the story, and was about to hit send on the email, that one crapped out too. Yeah. It was awful. So now I am working on a rental machine awaiting the return of my repaired MacBook. (I have to send a shout out to Digital Society, the most amazing local Mac shop. While my machine may be dead, they make getting stuff repaired stress-free. I feel like I am giving away one of my best kept secrets, but forget Tech Serve. Mike, Kevin and Jeffrey at Digital Society rule. They are on 10th Street off Broadway, 212-777-3093, http://www.digsoc.com/)
Okay, so my MacBook died, but that wasn't all. On top of the computer frying, let's see, my bank lost one of my deposits, a publication I write for lost all my receipts for my expenses, I got caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, and I left my wallet at home and discovered this upon arriving at a restaurant and had to take the cab all the way back home and then back to the restaurant. (I might as well have taken a Limo with what it cost me.) I really was ready to just kick it.
So when I met Julie and Kathy last week for dinner at Mercat, I was quite frankly ready to have a meltdown. With the way things had been going for me, I was amazed that I got there without getting hit by a bus, struck by a random bolt of lightening, or snatched up by a vacationing group of aliens. But I made it in one piece, ready for a glass of wine and some good friends. And that's just what I got. We started off with a few glasses of sparkling rose cava and a general bitching session about anything and everything. As I stared at the empty fluted glass where pink cava once bubbled, I realized I was feeling much better. Nothing like some venting and some bubbles to make everything fade away.
There are many other things about Mercat that also help relieve your daily stress. The restaurant itself is a playground for dining fun. The space is hip, in an industrial-chic sort of way. Its façade is a sheet of windows etched in wrought iron. Behind the wall of glass is a long marble bar serving beer and Spanish wines and cava, and a well-stocked cheese and jamon carving station (I want one of these in my house). Toward the back is a lively dining room with triple height ceilings stocked with hefty raw wood tables facing a partially open kitchen. A spiral staircase leads to an upper deck catwalk of wine storage. The spry young wine director sprints up and down the stairs with such agility I was almost expecting him to peel off his clothes and reveal a Spiderman suit underneath. This never happened. Bummer, man.
Mercat is the vision of Jamie Reixach, a native of Barcelona and who based his New York restaurant on his passion for Catalan cuisine and Barcelona-style dining. To tackle the region's vibrant flavors and indigenous ingredients, he hired a pair of talented young chefs, Ryan Lowder (Casa Mono, Jean Georges), and David Seigal (Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, and Jean Georges). They have created a menu that starts with jamon, cheese and bar snacks (pardons, bravas, baby squid) and moves onto two categories of larger plates-traditional cooking and more modern, seasonal chef-driven dishes.
Their efforts are mostly quite successful, but sometimes curiously, and disappointingly, off the mark. For instance, snails skewered with chorizo ($11) were flabby and flavorless. They actually taste almost watered down and washed free of seasoning and taste. A dish of fried artichokes was also a dreadful mess-a whole artichoke is quartered and fried so that the leaves are not crispy and tender, but sharp and spindly and almost shard-like. This vegetable bordered on food weaponry. A plate of sautéed mushrooms with crisped shoestring potatoes topped with a fried egg ($12) sounded like something that was tailor-made for me. Give me potatoes and eggs and I am pretty much a happy woman. But the egg was sadly overcooked so its yolk could not run. Rather, it was frozen and still-a coagulated orange mass that wanted to be a sauce but would never be one. And the seasoning of this dish was also strange. Some areas were way too salty and others bland, like someone was pushed off balance when salting the dish. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean-of those patches of cold and warm that you sometimes find.
But there were many other dishes at Mercat that were very far from disappointing. In fact, they bordered on perfection. Let's talk about the delicious whole sardines ($12), all plump and meaty inside silvery skin, dressed in a snappy salsa verde given a nice bite with preserved lemon. And the razor clams ($14), cooked on the plancha and then simply sauced in a warm bacon vinaigrette. And the pan con tomat ($4)-two glossy sheets of griddled bread swiped with pulpy tomato flesh, rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt, and finished with a shimmering pour of fruity olive oil. Bread is a wonderful food, indeed, but so are potatoes, especially when quartered, fried, then fried again, and doused with spicy mayonnaise, as they are here in the Patatas Bravas ($9). Bravo for those bravas, indeed.
To go with the bravas you should order a couple of dishes that will probably end up being the restaurant's signatures. The first is a guinea hen served with snap peas, wax beans, cranberries, and thyme ($16). The hen reminded me in taste and texture of a duck crossed with a chicken. The meat was tender and moist and rich and almost gamey, but not aggressively so. And I love the play of the cranberry with the saltiness from the meat. The second must-have is the crispy braised pork belly, served hacked into three squares, each one a pillow of impossibly soft meat secreted under a cap of crunchy skin, also served with snap peas and cranberries. ‘Tis the season. (Well, almost.)
Our favorite dish was a surprising one-a bowl of pea shoots (from Chinatown) sautéed with olive oil and tossed with toasted pine nuts and golden raisins ($8). The shoots resemble tiny spinach leaves and they are such a rich deep color that they actually taste green, if that's even possible. The toasty nuttiness of the pine nuts against the fruity sweetness of the raisins is a fierce yin-yang combination that has inspired me to cook every vegetable I can get my hands on-kale, asparagus, brussel sprouts, string beans-this way. Honestly, I would eat a bowl of these pea shoots every day, and possibly set my alarm to wake in the middle of night for another helping.
While we were having dinner, marveling about the hen, the pig and the pea shoots, the folks at the table next to us were passing around a Porron, which is sort of a glass wine pitcher with a long spout that kind of looks like a watering can but made of glass. You hold the pitcher above your mouth and tilt it downward so that the wine flows in a fast rush straight into your mouth (and hopefully not your lap). It's a challenge to keep up with it without spitting up and ending up sitting in a wine lake. (When I was in Barcelona I wore a bib while doing this.) It's a great festive party trick that brings everyone together in the dining room, and most probably when you're at Mercat, it will be passed to your table unless you are seated next to the table we happened to have the misfortune of being seated next to.
This foursome decided to spend the entire meal passing the Porron around their table (they were not good at sharing) while shouting, wailing, yelling, screaming and cackling, and pretty much disrupting the ability of anyone around them to have a conversation (or a turn at the Porron). I was not pleased with these people. I mean I don't consider myself a Scrooge, but there are limits. Julie and I turned around and shot them our best annoyed-New Yorker looks but to no avail. Kathy tried one too. Nothing. They just kept wailing and screaming at the top of their lungs every time another member of their clan held the Porron up and started pouring. We honestly could not hear a thing over their cackles. I am all for having fun, but there is a point when it stops being fun and starts to become quite irritating. We had reached irritating after our first courses were cleared. We were bordering on pummeling territory. Finally, when our waiter came over to take clear our plates, I asked him to do something about them. (It was either him or me. I thought it would be best if the suggestion to cease the cackling came from him.) He said he understood and would see what he could do. What they ended up doing was taking the porron away from them, and passed it around so other tables could give it a whirl. Finally, just in time for dessert, there was peace.
Now, speaking of dessert, I'd skip the churros ($6). While they golden on the outside, they are quite undercooked on the inside and tasted like batter. Instead, have a selection of excellent Spanish cheeses, served like a still life with membrillo, grapes, and sliced fruit on a wooden slab.
While there were some low points in the menu at Mercat, these were more like little kinks than major potholes. The kitchen has a lot of passion and is doing some wonderful traditional and modern Spanish cooking. They easily redeemed itself with the majority of the cooking and left me hard-pressed to even remember what I was unhappy about in the first place. If only they could've done something about my MacBook.
Review By: Andrea Strong