Mercado on Kent: From Bilbao to Billyburg
Five years ago, news that a protégé of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià—the guru of molecular gastronomy—was coming to NYC would have turned out hordes of diners obsessed with foam, fog, and other fantastic transformations of familiar foods by color, shape, and texture.
Now, not so much. Mercado on Kent, the new venue of Adrià-apprenticed chef Peru Amandoz, opened on a rainy night in December, and almost nobody came. It lay in the shadow of the former Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg, a dark, forbidding waterfront quarter only now being populated by small rock clubs and quirky start-up businesses. Atypically, the restaurant was newly constructed, a striking corner building faced with gray metal, its roof rising from back to front like a ski jump. It might as well have been picked up by a tornado somewhere in Barcelona and set down here.
Downstairs was an ambitious bakery where exceptional bread and rolls were made; upstairs a vast, open space, with a bar featuring lots of standing room and an adjacent dining room with booths, tables, and counter seating that looked into a pair of wood-burning ovens in an admirable act of gustatory theater. Don't singe your eyebrows! The place described itself as a Basque tapas bar, but all the intimacy suggested by that designation was absent—and few things on the short menu were recognizably Basque. What's more, the place opened with no liquor license. Distressingly, molecular gastronaut Amandoz was out the door one month later—reportedly due to visa issues. Peru, we hardly knew ye!
In his place has appeared Mikel Treviño, who actually grew up in Bilbao, the largest city in Spain's Basque Country. He has 86'd his predecessor's big, sloppy sandwiches and the handful of dishes with molecular pretenses, including a little something called "omelet in glass," involving an egg yolk at the bottom of a tumbler of fine-grained potato foam and quite arresting in its own way. He has also added recipes from his homeland in what has become a lengthier menu but retained many of Amandoz's small plates, including a trio of amazing croquettes ($8) featuring Serrano ham, mushrooms, and clams, each nestled on a contrasting sautéed or creamed substance. Amandoz's brochetas de pulpo were a revelation, too: marshmallow-tender baby octopus tentacles dusted with paprika and paired with peanut-size potatoes.
The platters of charcuterie and cheese have been simplified somewhat by Treviño and a fatty, small-bore sausage called fuet eliminated from the menu. (Pronounced correctly, it sounds like a fart escaping, but the earthy taste and crumbly texture was unforgettable.) The new chef has added a salt-cod casserole served in a skillet ($6), do-it-yourself toasts featuring a crab amalgam, and a delicate fry-up of small sea creatures, including smelts and baby squid ($11). These all come with bread baked downstairs, the selection of which varied wildly on my visits. One night, there were savory rolls containing chocolate chips; another time, a walnut-raisin loaf. If the restaurant's menu confined itself to small dishes, it would be an unqualified triumph.
But inevitably, Mercado has strayed into entrée territory, where tapas bars should never tarry. Main courses are contrary to the spirit of the genre, which suggests convivial snacking with a glass or two of wine. And many entrées are unsatisfactory in less theoretical ways. With Dr. Atkins looking on approvingly, fideuà ($19)—a Basque recipe of seafood-topped noodles—is gutted of its pasta so that only a small quantity remains, locked in greasy gravy under two clams, two shrimp, and one giant octopus tentacle. So, too, chicken stew ($23) proves a hard-to-plow-through slurry of eggplant, baby vegetables, and poultry in tomato sauce. I don't care whose mother's recipe this is—it's not very good. Indeed, the best entrée is a chorizo burger ($14) served with homemade potato chips. But since when are burgers even remotely Basque?
After having heard employees promise the liquor license in "one or two weeks" at various times in January and February, in person and over the phone, I decided to go ahead with my review anyway. Actually, the BYOB policy made Mercado an amazing restaurant bargain, obscure location and uneven bill of fare notwithstanding. I found myself drinking a nice Nebbiolo one night and homemade sake brewed by a friend on another. The sake went particularly well with the bread-focused small plates, tradition be damned.
But maybe by the time you read this, Mercado on Kent will no longer be the city's only tapas bar that doesn't serve alcohol.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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