The last time I was in Catalonia I was just out of school and broke, which meant a steady diet of day-old bread and oranges. Thank God for New York. Just a quick walk from my L.E.S. apartment is NoHoï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s Mercat, a readymade mini-vacation eager to fill me in on all the great food I missed.
Mercat means ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½marketï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ in Catalan, a theme thatï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ll check your urges toward pretense. The materials are solid: wood tables, white subway tiles, peach-colored brick. If youï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re looking for Gaudï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½, youï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re going to be disappointedï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½industrial metal arms holding up hand-blown glass lamps are about as ornate as things get. The space is lofty, with ceilings high enough for a second-floor wine terrace, its bottles strung on metal shelves like a musical scoreï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s notation.
Three stations jut out from the western wall, reflecting Mercatï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s triple focus. Up front is the bar, a slab of white marble with a crimson backing that not-so-subliminally implants the desire for Spanish wine. Cava (Catalonian for ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½cellar,ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ hence the cave echo in the word) is perfect for a crisp start, with sangria, sherry, and nice big reds also making the all-Spanish list. The bar passageway can get tight, in a rush hour subway car kind of way, though once you get back to the dining area, the close-quarters up front lard the sense of liveliness. The second station is a manned charcuterie and cheese booth, with sausages and classic Spanish manchegos, and in back is the full kitchen, a rollicking, well-lit square with front-row seats at a tile bar and a Catalonian flag as backdrop.
Flavors are set by top-quality ingredients, with spices and sauces working as accents. Those who arenï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t into olive oil need not apply, that much I remember from Spain. ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½Searedï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ and ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½savoryï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ are the operative words, as in the calamarcets, tender baby squid flash-fried in a gravelly breading. Tencat dï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ous is a hardcore take on eggs and potatoes, served on a bed of morels, chanterelles, and black trumpets, each mushroom taking off in its own earthy direction and creating a complex flavor array. Chorizo pops up often, as in the tortilla, which isnï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t congealed like a typical Spanish version, but closer to a crepe in texture. Chorizo and chorizo oil also perk up the cargols amb xoric, snail shish-kebab, which hides a pearl onion on the skewer to further the flavors along toward a sweet finish.
For me, the seared meats are the kitchen highlights. Barcelonans eat notoriously late, which seems odd for such hearty food, but the grub suits drinking, and itï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s served in small-plate form. Monkfish comes a la plancha, matched with ingredients suggested by the greenmarket, like the savory ramps currently in season. I really liked the way gamy guinea played off against the perfumy qualities of dried cranberries and thyme. Number one ranking belongs to the braised pork belly, the meat decadently singed under a cap of fat and augmented with cherries, asparagus, and crosnes, a little corkscrew of a tuber with an appealing crunch.
When you install an open kitchen, youï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re embracing transparency and showing confidence in your chefs (fortunately, rï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½sumï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s here boast stints at Jean Georges). Youï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re also assuming that your clientele is interested in your cuisine, and that theyï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re comfortable with bustle and heat. Early returns show Mercat attracting a well-heeled downtown crowd of refreshingly mixed ages. As the shift winds down, and chefs can be seen taking hits from the porrï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½n (a glass wine beaker that shoots a stream of wine into the gullet), itï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s hard to find a face not sporting a satisfied look.