In the short history of this food blog, we have a reputation for spitting fire at other Charleston food writers. While most local food criticism is timid and parochial, I’d like to thank Jeff Allen of the Charleston City Paper for his incisive review of Mercato, the new Hank Holliday Jacques Larson Italian venture on the market.
Though his writing can border on the absurd (“Spaghetti alla Carbonara threaten(s) the stomach with deliciousness”…makes me wonder if he’s competing for the worst English sentence award http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/), Allen shows a real knowledge of what interesting Italian food should be and consequently how Mercato mostly fails to meet expectations.
Having eaten there last night with a big group, I’m left with the same feeling Mr. Allen had, (but which apparently his editors wouldn’t let him lead with): blah. The food is well prepared on the whole, but the menu is just really fucking boring. I had the Osso bucco, marinara pizza, eggplant appetizer, fried ricotta balls, gnocchi, orrechiette with sausage and broccoli, gnocco, flourless chocolate cake and peach sorbet. The pizza was terrible. Though thin crust, good Italian or new york style pizza crust is not supposed to taste like a cracker. It’s supposed to be thin, crisp on the outside, and doughy at the same time (I’m resisting the urge to go on a pizza diatribe here…just google ‘new haven pizza’). Mercato’s pizza was thin but white on the bottom, without the charred spots that mark a good wood or coal oven pizza, and lacked that doughy flavor (Al Di La’s pizza is way better. Also more interesting). Found the eggplant appetizer to be great: crisp, thin slices of grilled eggplant wrapped around ricotta (if I remember correctly) with balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. Simple, fresh, not trying to do more than it should. The fried ricotta balls, who’s bullshit Italian name I forget right now, were too much like pizza bites for me (anyone who’s ever had the joy of having to subsist on college cafeteria fare will know what I’m talking about) The gnocchi was good—tender, creamy, rich and light at the same time, like good gnocchi should be—but I guess I really just don’t like gnocchi that much. The combination of gnocchi with a cream or cheese sauce is overkill to me. The similarity of both, the richness of gnocchi and cheese or cream, doesn’t provide a counterpoint, taking away from each. (This is why fresh pepper is so important in Carbonara..Also, what is this trend of ravioli in broth, and why do people enjoy this. I’ve yet to be satisfied by an in brodo pasta preparation, though I will concede that this is one of the few creative, inspired options on the menu). The orecchiette was good, not oversauced, but $16 is a lot for what’s basically a smallish bowl of pasta. I liked the osso bucco. The fregula (on the side with the osso bucco) was interesting, though I think I liked it more in theory than in practice. As for the osso bucco, the meat wasn’t fall off the bone tender as advertised. Definitely good, but I did use my knife.
On a more positive note, the service was great. Attentive without being oversolicitous. Had a youngish guy with long, slicked back blonde hair. Kinda looked like Bowie in the late 70s in his thin white duke phase. By the way, this Bowie video is great, though a little later in his evolution.
The desserts, though fairly run of the mill (gelato, sorbet, panna cotta), were another bright spot. The peach sorbet was really great, with an underplayed, natural sweetness. The same for the gelato.
But back to the concept of the restaurant itself. Honestly, what are they thinking with the menu? I’d like to believe that this caliber of restauranteurs would try to introduce the unexpected, unexplored areas of Italian cuisine, and show the connection to regional influences i.e. chickpeas throughout the Mediterranean: Africa, Middle East, and Euro as an example. But this isn’t the case. They really just play to base, common expectations. As Mr. Allen points out, spaghetti and meatballs at I think $16 and chicken parm at $22 dollars are a joke, which is only heightened by listing them under Italian names. This place isn’t trying to be a garlic/red sauce palace like you’d see in Providence, New York, or south Philly, where parm and other northern Italian/Italian American fare are de rigueur. They’re trying to be an upscale, noveau Italian restaurant, where regional cuisine is introduced, and at this they fail miserably. A place like Lupa, which I used to frequent when I lived in New York, wasn’t particularly expensive, but had interesting, authentic regional dishes: bavette cacio y pepe (pasta with cheese and black pepper), bucatini alla amatriciana, lamb shank with figs. The same for Osteria del Sole, which brought some Sardinian flare. And even Babbo, though certainly in a different class of restaurants, has unique dishes – fresh grilled sardines, beef cheek ravioli, whole fresh branzino with lemon-thyme jam, things that could be replicated, at least in spirit, at Mercato. These places have signature dishes, things that you remember eating for years. I’m not sure there’s anything unique and definitive at Mercato, that I’ll be telling people they must eat before they go, that I’ll remember in a year’s time.
This is all the more disappointing given the hype surrounding Mercato’s opening. Jacques Larson, the chef, used to be the head chef at Cintra, where they served interesting, unique Italian food: gnocci with lemon rind and pine nuts sticks in my memory. Even the Bolognese was bright and rich, not the leaden, heavy mess found at some places…ahem…Al Di La. For those who don’t know, Larson left Cintra under contentious circumstances. While he supposedly quit/got out of his contract at Cintra to cook the line at Lupa with Batali in New York, and to travel around Italy, I’ve heard that this was just a ruse to be part of Holliday’s new venture, and he only lasted about two weeks with Batali, for whatever reason. While I’m fine with this kind of Kitchen Confidential backstabbing, I wish he would bring some of the flair from Cintra and Lupa to Mercato.