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Inside Look at Menu Planning at Mercat a la Planxa

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Photo: Barry Brecheisen

"I think that we're all invigorated now by going there and experiencing the food," said Mercat a la Planxa executive chef Jose Garces about his culinary trip to Spain with chef de cuisine Cory Morris. Garces, who also runs restaurants in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Arizona and California, in addition to being one of Food Network's "Iron Chefs", was in town Monday night to sample new menu items by Morris and offer his opinions on them.

Before the food started arriving, Garces talked about returning to Mirabella, the Spanish restaurant where he learned to correctly make gazpacho fifteen years ago. He also extolled the greatness of the restaurant Etxebarri, which is situated between San Sebastian and Bilbao, where everything is cooked over wood. "I had this smoked milk ice cream, it was like the best thing I've ever had," he marveled.

For this inside look into the menu development, the table was presented with five dishes in total, along with accompaniments of olives and a variety of cheeses (each with its own individual jam or spread). The courses the restaurant served Garces were Salmorejo con Jamon (heirloom tomato soup with quail egg, Serrano Ham and Sherry), Quinoa con Los Gisasoles (quinoa salad with yogurt espuma, heirloom carrots, sunflower sprouts, sunflower seeds and tarragon vinaigrette), Hippigloso con Ajo blanco (Olive oil poached halibut with white almond gazpacho, black garlic, nasturtium leaves and celery root), Anec amb Higos (seared duck breast with red wine fig puree along with duck confit fennel escabeche slaw) and Conill Coca (braised rabbit, mascarpone béchamel, orange, marcona almonds and frisée).

He took a particular liking to the quinoa dish, asking Morris for another bowl of it once the meal was done. The only dish he had an issue with was the duck confit escabeche slaw.

"I'm going to comment (to Morris) on this dish a little bit," he said. "Just to up the flavor on it, give it something more dominant. The plating as well. I'm big on eat ability and how a guest would get to things. This almost feels like two separate dishes. There's a way to construct things so it all comes together. That's like my worst comment of the meal [laughs]."

At the end of the meal, executive sous chef Louis Goral was eager to discuss how the preparation for Mercat's olives has changed since returning from Spain. They now do a cold water marinade and, just before they are sent out to guests, the olives are drizzled with fresh Aburquina olive oil along with orange, garlic and rosemary.

"We learned that if you marinade it in the olive oil it will start to take on [that] flavor. If you hit it [with olive oil] at the end you still get the individuality of the olive," Goral said. Morris presented a big circle of queso cremoso, an unpasteurized sheep's milk cheese, meant as a "big dessert finisher for six" and served with lavender juice honey to be drizzled on top of the cheese and then spread on toasted bread.

During the presentation Garces talked about his desire for Mercat to host an annual paella cook-off. "Everyone brings their own recipes, we provide the grills, the paella pans," Garces said. "I thought it would be great for it to be a tented event in the park. We open it to chefs/cooks in the city."

The desire is to have the inaugural cook-off in the summer of 2014. He also mentioned how excited he was for Tuesday night's "Spain in Seven Plates" dinner, where he and Morris each cooked three dishes based on three distinct cities they visited in Spain. He also has hopes of bringing the coffee his father, Jorge Garces, roasts at Garces Trading Co. in Addison to all of his restaurants.

Near the end of the meal, Garces underlined how much Mercat a la Planxa means to him. "It's great for us to continue telling the story. I think the five year anniversary we had this year is a true testament to what the staff does. I'm really proud of this restaurant...when I come here and I look back on the line, I see these guys who opened the restaurant with us."
· All Mercat a la Planxa coverage [-ECHI-]
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Mercat a la Planxa

638 South Michigan Avenue, , IL 60605 (312) 765-0524 Visit Website