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New York certainly doesn't lack good Spanish food—we can snack on Basque pintxos, feast on Valencian paella, or savor the ultra-expensive jamón iberico. But Catalan food, the cuisine of the region in northeast Mediterranean Spain, including Barcelona, is nearly absent. It's ancient, with roots in Roman times. At an archaeology-dig-turned-museum in Barcelona, you can see a Roman factory that made garum, one of the first fermented fish sauces. Surprisingly, Catalan food has not caught on much beyond its own boundaries, even though it's delicious—replete with fish stews, game, salt cod, fruit, peppers, eggplant, garlic, and allioli, the eggless emulsion of garlic and olive oil. And although tapas joints now jam Barcelona, traditional Catalan meals are more about main courses than small plates.
Oriol Sala Colomer, a chef from Barcelona, has recently been imported to Williamsburg for the opening of Mercat Negre, making it likely only the second New York restaurant with a menu written in Catalan. The first is Mercat, the Noho restaurant owned by Barcelonan Jaime Reixach, who is also behind Mercat Negre. You'll notice "arros" instead of "arroz," "truita" in place of "tortilla," and "pollastre" for "pollo." The food, while not traditional Catalan—for one thing, it's all tapas, and wasabi mayo makes an appearance—exhibits distinct Catalan proclivities, as in lots of seafood, particular rice dishes, a tendency to pair squid with meat, and an empanada filled with the white pork Catalan sausage, botifarra.
Perhaps the most unreconstructed dish on the menu is the arros de sepia, also called arros negre, or black rice, a specialty of the Costa Brava, which stretches blue and rocky along the Mediterranean, north of Barcelona. It's a paella-like dish of rice cooked with cuttlefish and its ink (or squid and its ink), simmered in a wide, flat pan so that the edges and bottom get crisp. It should possess an incredibly rich brininess. Mercat Negre's version doesn't quite make it there, as it doesn't contain enough ink to attain tar-black oceanic saturation, but it's still an enjoyable concoction.
Tentacled cephalopods also show up in a stew of meatballs and squid; the opposing proteins somehow work well together—tender and meaty versus chewy and mild. Perhaps it was inspired by a classic Catalan dish of squid stuffed with a seasoned pork mixture (essentially, a meatball inside a squid). Colomer garnishes the dish with a handful of straw fries, which could be crisper.
Actually, he garnishes almost everything with fries. A wobbly yolked, lacy-edged fried egg sits on a nest of them; the yolk dribbles down and saturates the tangle of potato to good effect. The truita, labeled "traditional Spanish omelet," is anything but—cooked in the flipped, runny French style instead of the cakey Spanish custom. Fork through the egg and find that it's filled with fries—strange and not unappealing, but also not quite right. Similarly, the patatas bravas are bizarre, composed of spongy, homemade potato chips instead of browned chunks.
What are quite right, though, are the croquettes—all of them fried with much more skill than is evident in the French fries or patatas bravas. Bunyols de bacallà sport a craggy golden crust that crunches into a goopy, parsley-flecked salt cod–potato mix. In his book Catalan Cuisine, Colman Andrews quotes Catalan chef-author Domènec Moli on the subject of salt cod: "Bacallà is, in our society, the only positive result of Lent," referring to the fact that many give up meat for those 40 days. It wouldn't be too much deprivation if you could eat salt-cod fritters with every meal. The bite-size fried nuggets also come filled with ham (wonderful); spinach, raisins, and pine nuts (even better); and shrimp or chicken (both skippable).
The menu is divided into very small bites, under which you'll find the croquettes and empanadas, and other diminutive plates like tartare and bombas, meatballs encased in a batter and fried. Prices range from $1 for one empanada to $7 for a generous pile of salt-cod fritters. "Plats" are where the dishes like meatballs and squid, Spanish omelet, and the fried egg are listed—they're smallish and sharable, priced between $6 and $10—certainly not a rip-off, but not exactly a bargain, either.
The rice dishes present the best value, and the better of the two is the arros caçador, or hunter's rice. The rice, cooked paella-style with bunny rabbit, peppery pork sausage, and a base of sofrito, tastes earthy and satisfying—$14 nets a small portion, or $28 a large one, which would be sufficient for two diners.
Although open for over two months, Mercat Negre is still finding its footing. If its excellent sister restaurant Mercat provides any example, it will only improve. Even over the course of my visits, the restaurant got noticeably better. One night, the squid and meatball dish was intolerably undersalted, while on a subsequent night, it was perfect. Other dishes also had seasoning problems, and it wasn't until my last visit that the rice in the rice dishes acquired those nice, crusty edges.
One night, we sat at the counter facing the open kitchen, drinking Cava from Penedes, Catalonia's most famous winemaking region, and watching the chefs work. Colomer was dreadlocked and loose—literally—his pants falling all the way off his ass, exposing black underwear. I tried to send him telepathic messages to pull them up and to remember the salt. Mercat Negre is the sort of place you root for.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road