45 Bond Street between Lafayette and Bowery
$120 for two, with 3 drinks, with tip
It was a Monday night and Mercat has only been open for three days, yet the decibel level made it seem like it was a Thursday night. The place is packed; the white tiles immediately reminded me of Cal Pep in Barcelona. One of the bartenders gave me a long-stemmed pink rose to alleviate my 25-minute wait for a seat at the bar in front of the restaurant. (I saw later that every woman in the house was holding the same rose. I wasn’t so special after all.) The sausage and cheese station was manned by one doing all the slicing and plating and was surrounded by the curious also waiting for the bathroom to free up. In the back, the open kitchen was being watched by the more important people who sat at the chef’s bar. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
We started with the crispy sweetbreads on a bed of fennel, orange and capers. It was a light and delicious appetizer to an unexpectedly heavy meal. The grilled sardines were great with salsa verde even though I was picking small, thin bones off my mouth the entire time. What made my night, however, was the braised pork belly served with crosnes, my latest favorite vegetable. Never mind that it also came with asparagus which seemed pretty boring compared to the sauce that made the dish special: a dollop of preserved cherries. No one should be afraid of eating their meals with fruit; I could have eaten this all night with my glass of cava.
The mushroom dish will mostly likely leave Mercat bankrupt. For only $12–and I can’t believe I’m saying “only” here–I think I tasted sautÃ©ed morels, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake and crimini mushrooms on my plate. The last time I stopped by a Whole Foods, morels were going for $60 for a pound. A very earthy and filling dish served with crunchy strings of potatoes and topped with a fried egg was hard to resist even if the egg was a little overdone. They ran out of razor clams by 10pm and I totally missed the blistered Padron peppers from the top of the menu, so we finished with the snails and chorizo skewers. It sounded promising but what happened to this dish? The snails tasted like they’ve been in the bottom of an aquarium for days. The chorizo-tomato salsa could not even cover the algae taste that we decided to leave the dish unfinished.
From my experience at Cal Pep, the meals got better as the night wiled away. At Mercat, the night started inspiringly, but after I ate the snails, all I wanted was to rewind my experience back to the pork belly and back to Spain.