I recently had a chance to sit in on a menu tasting with Chefs Cory Morris and Jose Garces at Mercat a la Planxa. Garces said that he was particularly impressed with Morris' vegetarian dishes, as was I, so I knew I had to come back and try them all once they were on the official menu.
Mercat is a great place for vegetarians to dine because the expansive tapas menu has such a strong vegetable selection. Under "verduras," there are seven dishes that could easily comprise a filling and flavorful meal. Even the traditional tapas section of the menu has vegetarian bites sprinkles in, including a Truita de Patata ($10) Spanish omelette with spinach, potatoes and saffron aioli and Pimientos de Padrón ($7), flash-fried padrón peppers sprinkled with sea salt and served with salbitxada for dipping. The Catalan sauce is like romesco but with lots of sweet garlic. Add in some cheese for those who eat dairy, and dessert, and you have a full-blown feast.
Quinoa amb Calabaza ($12) is a new addition to the menu, consisting of red and white quinoa, roasted squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, raw brussels sprouts and crème fraîche served at room temperature and dressed with a sherry vinaigrette. The salad sounds simple, but is so good I'd be happy eating a big bowl of this for my meal. Unlike many tapas, which are meant to be nibbled at with a collection of other dishes, this quinoa has it all from a flavor and nutrition perspective. In his initial tasting with Garces, Morris presented a version of this dish with fried brussels sprout leaves, but decided to switch to raw leaves for a fresher and healthier appeal.
Coliflor amb Mostassa ($10) was one of my favorite dishes from the tasting and Garces loved it too, so it stayed pretty much the same, only with a liberal addition of paprika bread crumbs. Roasted cauliflower is tossed with pickled mustard seeds and golden raisins, then topped with bread crumbs and served over creamy goat cheese, which acts as a nice foil for the sweet raisins.
Desserts are strong here as well, and Morris doesn't have a pastry chef so they are all his own creation. A couple of my favorites include a saffron vanilla custard with white wine poached apricots, olive oil, and sea salt with its tasty savory notes and Xocolate y Avellana ($12). Chocolate and hazelnuts sound so pedestrian, but this is a surprisingly unique twist on the familiar flavor combination. The 70 percent dark chocolate cremeux tastes even better as the espresso granita and white chocolate sorbet melt into it, and I love the whole hazelnuts studding the paper thin croquant.
Pro Tip: There are no vegetarian paellas on the menu, but if you ask nicely when making your reservation, Morris is happy to cook one up for you with roasted red peppers, caramelized cipollini onions, and roasted tomato from his escalivada. After making a sofrito from those vegetables, he would add piquillo peppers, crispy eggplant and a fresh parsley salad with confit artichokes and cherry tomato.