2.23.2008

Mercato Calgary

What could be better than a fabulous family run restaurant attached to an upscale gourmet grocery store with a café in the middle? Not much. Mercato is the hip and modern reinvention of Bridgeland's Italian Centre. Now located on "trendy" 4th Street, Mercato caters to a different type of client with an abnormally padded wallet. That being said, it doesn't mean that you can't pop in and pick up a couple grocery items to enjoy at home, or even just a very good espresso and a fantastic doughnut. And this I highly recommend you do. The concept of Mercato reminds me of a scaled down 'Gusto from Rome. Some of my favourites from Mercato's grocery store are the roasted red peppers, the suppli, the pear and gorgonzola pizza, and the selection of fresh mushrooms. The Uncle Luigi's olive oil they carry is good, but still not as good as olive oil we bought in Italy (and we weren't trying to find the really good stuff), and it is terribly expensive. It's better olive oil than most you can find here, and nice for salads. The desserts in the display are generally very good, but cannoli should never be sitting in display cases already filled with cream! They need to be filled to order, or the shell is too soft. I do love popping in to see what is new or for inspiration, and having an espresso with a doughnut. These doughnuts are not exactly something you think of as Italian. But they are wonderfully yeasty and soft and just darn great. If you see the pear and gorgonzola pizza come out of oven, then you better have a slice of that too. My favourite. Last night, four of us headed to Mercato for an 8pm dinner reservation (myself, Jeff, K, and L). Having eaten at the restaurant four times now, I am happy enough with the food and the service. I have never had a dish that wasn't at least good, and this was the same as last night. The best part is that in most dishes, the food is allowed to speak for itself. In an Italian style, fresh food is prepared simply. Like all Italian restaurants in Calgary, the food does not focus solely on one particular region of Italian food, but combines the best ingredients and ideas of many regions. Yes, there is an emphasis on Tuscan grilling for the secondi, but in Italy you would be hard-pressed to find risotto and gnocchi and on the same menu. When you arrive at Mercato for dinner, the restaurant is mostly full or packed and bustling with a chi-chi crowd. It is probably one of the only places in Calgary for good people watching. This is unless you are seated at the bar around the kitchen, in which case, you will be absorbed in watching the food! It wasn't really an evening I planned on writing about, so I didn't jot down all the specifics or take any photos. I'll give you the 'gist: The wine list is ample, and features mostly reds with many DOCG and DOC bottles. We started off with a bottle of Maculan Pinot Nero, 2006 ($60). It wasn't overwhelmingly full-bodied, and for this meal, it was just right for us. I started with gnocchi in a sauce of squash, littered with chili peppers, three fried sage leaves, and a nice dab of mascarpone on top. The sweetness of the squash worked really well with the firy chili flakes, and then the final cooling with the mascarpone. I really enjoyed this dish, but there was too much going on - I loved the fried sage leaves, in and of themselves, but they weren't really necessary. Yes, sage goes well with squash, but I wanted to think only about the chili pepper and squash and really enjoy that flavour because it was new to me. The sage leaves seemed to be there for colour, and certainly their crunchy texture. This seemed to detract from the flavour of the sauce to me. Overall however, when I order gnocchi, I want to taste the gnocchi and feel them melt in my mouth. Someone spent a great deal of time making these gnocchi by hand, and this is the love behind that is what I want to taste. With this dish, the gnocchi were down-played, merely an after thought, even though they were quite good. I think they could be lighter in texture, but they weren't too doughy or like lead either. A good dish, and pretty good gnocchi, but could be a little bit simpler in final presentation. Everyone else, including Jeff ordered the risotto made with carnaroli rice to start. Now the problem with ordering risotto in a restaurant is that usually it is not right...as was the case with this. Risotto takes too long to cook from beginning to end and wouldn't work for restaurant customer's demands for timeliness. Therefore the rice is parboiled or already partially cooked (as many dishes in restaurants have to be). This creates an enormous problem - the risotto ends up tasting like cooked rice with a sauce. Poor Jeff, this the case with his risotto. The rice was beyond al dente, but as we always tell ourselves - "This is Calgary, not Italy, and the majority of Calgarians would complain because they would say the rice is not cooked!" Sigh....restaurants can't win sometimes. Well, he ate it of course, and the flavour was fine. But not really risotto at all. Oh well. Lamb was the secondi for me. It was lamb chops with a pistachio pesto, and some reduced balsamic. The overall flavour was great, a nice amount of salt, and the meat was tender. The serving size was perfect, and the lamb was not overcooked. I was happy that the server did not ask how I want my lamb cooked, but brought it the way they think it should be. Personally, I would have liked it a little less cooked. By the time I got to the second piece, it had continued to cook on the plate, so there was nearly no pink left. The first piece was great though! K also had the lamb and enjoyed it. L had the tonno (tuna) and seemed to enjoy it, but we were all laughing and talking so much that I didn't really ask! Jeff had the bistecca alla fiorentina. He also really liked that there was no questioning about the done-ness of the meat. It arrived how the chef sees fit. Good! Jeff was happy with the amount of salt, but says his rib-eye is better. I believe him; he is the grill master. The weakest part of my meal was the semi-freddo with blood orange. The texture was nice, and the flavour of the general custard was great. However, the blood orange streaks made it taste like "tiger" ice cream. Not great. Next time, I'll stick with espresso and order an antipasti to start. Jeff said the same. K and L shared the chocolate-hazelnut torte, and were in heaven. I LOVE hazelnuts, what was I thinking ordering the semi-freddo??? But I was too full to even have a bite of theirs. Rats. Some of my previous meals at the restaurant have been better. When Mercato had been open for only a few weeks, I had lunch there with a friend. The salad I had was just great - the thinnest and tiniest French asparagus I had ever seen, with chunks of lobster and watercress. Dessert was over the top, a cobbler of some sort with a pool of an accompanying cream sauce. Again, neither dish was particularly "Italian", but was particularly good. I think the best value on the menu is the antipasto platter. It has everything you could ever want, and is the perfect accompaniment to a pasta and then you are done. If you were to buy all of the individual ingredients in the grocery side of Mercato, it would easily exceed the $17 on the menu. The service in the restaurant is usually good. Well...for Calgary. However, I am still insulted by the server who acts a little too much like they want to be my friend. This usually happens more often - the younger the server is. I am not looking for a friend, but for someone who provides good service, mostly by being unobtrusive. Bringing water and greeting us as soon as we sit down, but don't even think about asking if we would like wine after one minute of our arrival. Timing is everything, and I could care less about how long I have to wait for the food..... Last night, I was saddened by two lonely figs sitting on the plate of a neighboring table, uneaten. And this is the quandry of Calgary: I am pretty sure that if Mercato they made risotto and their pasta truly al dente, people would probably complain. A restaurant can only bring the horse to water, but can't force it to drink. So while, I believe that Mercato is doing some really great and original things for Calgary - I would still rather stay home and cook. "Mercato" literally means market in Italian, and this family-owned business certainly has extended the market concept to the table, and done it very well. I am sure I will eat at Mercato again, but still, as with nearly all restaurants in town... I would rather stay at home and cook and use ingredients from their store, not because the restaurant food isn't edible, but it isn't "right" yet. Mercato 2224 4th Street SW, Calgary, AB, (403) 263-5535. www.mercatogourment.com

10 comments:

plate pusher said...
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plate pusher said...

A place called Enoteca Sileno in North Carlton opened during the massive Italian migration to Melbourne in the 1950's, beginning as an importer, and later expanding to include a retail outlet and a restaurant & wine bar.

The food store is fantastic; great selection & top quality produce. More disappointingly, the restaurant is incredibly average. Wine selection and service is good, but the execution of dishes like risotto (like rice soup, without enough Parmesan to hold it together), are lacking.

Desserts were nothing special, and the coffee was extremely poorly made. Service was hit and miss.

If you're ever in town there are many great restaurants, doing well executed and both traditional and modern Italian food (although not many in the "Italian" area of Carlton), but this one is strictly for supplies to DIY.

Zoey222 said...
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Zoey222 said...

THE MERCATO RESTAURANT IN CALGARY IS DISGUSTING.... NASTY FOOD, VERMIN PROBLEMS, INSANE OWNER, DO NOT EAT THERE!

The veal tasted like cold dog food (YUCK), the "Poulin's" pest control van drove up to the kitchen door right in front of us (PLACE MUST BE CRAWLING WITH VERMIN), the old owner guy in the parking lot is total psycho; screaming, swearing and lunging at potential patrons for alleged parking issues. (THE LUNATIC IS CLEARLY DRIVING AWAY BUSINESS) This place is a disgrace....

Anonymous said...

THE MERCATO RESTAURANT IN CALGARY IS DISGUSTING.... NASTY FOOD, VERMIN PROBLEMS, INSANE OWNER, DO NOT EAT THERE!

The veal tasted like cold dog food (YUCK), the "Poulin's" pest control van drove up to the kitchen door right in front of us (PLACE MUST BE CRAWLING WITH VERMIN), the old owner guy in the parking lot is total psycho; screaming, swearing and lunging at potential patrons for alleged parking issues. (THE LUNATIC IS CLEARLY DRIVING AWAY BUSINESS) This place is a disgrace....

gail said...

I haven't heard anything quite that dramatic... but nothing too ecstatic since... anyone can read about health issues anywhere at Calgary Health Region's website.

Anonymous said...

It is nice to see that good or bad, people in Calgary are developing an opinion- This will only improve quality across the board

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Anonymous said...

FYI the Uncle Luigi Olive Oil is directly imported from Italy - It is from a producer in Calabria.

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