Chicago is having something of a tapas renaissance, if you’re willing to consider two (Cafe Marbella, Mercat a la Planxa) a trend. For the sake of this post, we certainly are!
Cafe Marbella is a smallish, BYO classic tapas house in Albany Park, while Mercat a la Planxa is a flashy, Catalan tapas extravaganza south of the Loop. They both recently opened, and they’ve both been garnering the praise of Chicago’s foodie Brahmins. How have they fared among hoi polloi?
Very well, so far. We’ve gotten two reviews for each in the past week, and we’ll start with Cafe Marbella:
March 13th, entitled “Great local tapas”:
Had a great meal here recently. The look of the restaurant is uninspiring (inside and out), but the tapas ranged from good to excellent. Most tapas are under $10, and it is BYOB, making it very affordable. (We had 5 tapas, one dessert, brought our own win, and bill was still less than $50.) Skip the sausage/jamon platter, it was the most expensive item we ordered, tasted fine but rather boring. Potatos with chorizo were perfectly cooked, though I would have liked a more flavorful, spicy chorizo. Rest of the dishes were really great and well-prepared, obviously made with lots of care. Server was very warm and attentive, really some of the best service we’ve had in a while! I would say that most of the dishes were on par with what you get at other higher-profile tapas places but without the high-profile prices. We will most definitely go back.
March 15th, entitled “Great neighborhood place”:
Nice new addition to the neighborhood. The food was very good.The mussels in cream sauce was addictive and the figs wrapped in bacon were very rich and unusual. The BYOB made it even more attractive. The service was very good and very helpfull. We had seven tapas and the bill was under $50.00. We wish this new place a long and successful life. Try it you’ll like it if you like to try new things.
Yes, it’s possible these are both shills. Here’s why we think this is not the case:
1) Both reviews talk about bills under $50. It would be really weird to do that on purpose!
2) The first review creditably criticized the food
3) The second review evinces a substantial drop in literacy from the first
4) Bacon-wrapped figs are not unusual, but they are delicious. Note that you can also bacon-wrap dates!
Okay, the fourth reason was not on point, but nevertheless, these reviews are plausibly legit.
On to Mercat a la Planxa, with its exotic ‘x’ standing in for ‘ch’ so the Catalans can pretend they’re not Spanish like it matters. On the other hand, Catalans are known for their delicious cuisine (cf. El Bulli). Mercat opened for all three meals a week ago Saturday, where Chicago native chef Jose Garces dishes out all manner of Barcelonian specialties with broad-based Spanish cooking skills honed at the Andalusian tapas bar and Basque wine bar he ran in Philly. Expectations certainly run high with an opening of this size, and our users seem to think they were justified:
March 16th, entitled “OMG ITS SO SO GOOD!”:
The food is totally insane with goodness! and lots of variety to choose from. The Wine list just goes on and on. the wait was about 20 minutes but it was worth it!!! as a neighbor to the restaurant i know that i will keep going for more and more.. there is also a nice bar in the lower level that looks really cute. the restaurant is located in the upper level and it so big, and it looks over grand park, but once the food starts your all your senses go to your mouth! ummm so good.
March 17th, entitled “Delicious”:
Everything I tried was fabulous, especially the bacon wrapped dates (drizzled with cheese sauce tableside), the cadi urgelia cheese with truffled lavender and apple jam, and the pork belly that melted under the fork. I can’t wait to go back and try it for lunch.
See what we were saying about bacon-wrapped fruits? Everywhere.
Maybe these are shills, but we’d bet that the Mercat people would go for more sophisticated prose to match their ambitions. Besides, both of these restaurants have gotten great write-ups in the mainstream press, so none of the reviews come off as outlandish. Seems like these are 2008 winners, but of course, the jury is still out.
Cafe Marbella [MenuPages]
Mercat a la Planxa [MenuPages]
Mercat a la Planxa [Official Site]
[Photo: bacon-wrapped dates by stu_spivack/flickr]