Sunday, March 4, 2012

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 28

Top 10 signs that you are at a buzzed-about new restaurant in LA:

10. Lots of reclaimed wood, exposed brick and/or visible ceiling ducts
9. Chalkboards with the menu written on them, even though there are actual menus saying the exact same thing*
8. Brown butcher paper
7. The chef/owner has a cult following from his/her prior buzzed-about restaurant(s) in LA
6. "Artisan" sodas, often "house made", and cocktails with vegetables, especially peppers and cucumbers
5. Presumed customer familiarity with the names of organic ranchers
4. You are nowhere near the valley
3. At least one non-breakfast item comes with a perfectly fried egg
2. Glowing reviews circulating wildly online

And the number one sign that you are at a buzzed-about new restaurant in LA:

1. The Foodie Girls are there, and I have my camera.

Episode 28 - Bäco Mercat: Hard to pronounce**, easy to love
Let's work backwards through the list:

#1. Presence of FGs and camera.
Three of us met downtown (#4!) on Friday. And I had my camera.

#2. Glowing reviews circulating online. 
I'm not sure how much glowier a review you can get than having a signature dish named the best sandwich in Los Angeles:

" ... bäcos are wrapped in soft, pita-like bread and filled with intriguing flavor combinations...The Original, with crunchy yet tender chunks of fried pork belly and a garlicky, almondy salbitxada (a Catalan sauce), is the restaurant's namesake. But the best bäco is the Toron. A generous scoop of oxtail hash rests on a pancake of shredded potato that would make bubbe proud, topped with melted cheddar and a mess of tartly dressed sprouts and greens. It's the sandwich ne plus ultra: meaty, bready, melty and brilliant." - LA Weekly 

Naturally, I'd emailed the FGs immediately.

#3. Perfectly fried egg.  
The menu features a fried egg on flatbread at lunch, and with chicken and waffles at dinner. We didn't order it, but they had it.  Instead, we ordered the hamachi crudo with avocado and hash browns, and caesar brussels sprouts to start off.  The hamachi was FANTASTIC! Cubes of meltingly tender fish in a light vinaigrette with black sesame seeds met a spicy, textured avocado puree, and they hung out on top of a crispy disc of fried potatoes.  Not only was it gorgeous to look at, the combination of tastes and textures made each of us spontaneously gasp when we took our first bite.

#4. Not in the valley.
See #1. So I'll use this space to tell you about the caesar brussels sprouts. The first forkful is a surprise, as the salad is warm. The brussels sprouts are shaved into tender ribbons, tossed with crispy radishes, torn croutons, and a tangy, very light anchovy dressing. It's an unexpected, yet somehow successful combination. Another winner.

#5. Presumed familiarity with ranchers.
NA. However, it did presume familiarity with things like salbitxada and lebni. And even terms that sounded familiar, like "cream of mushroom", appeared in unfamiliar places. The "coca" (aka crispy flatbread pizza) section of the menu, for example. Brilliant. The crust was topped with a mushroom-sage pesto, then covered with more roasted oyster mushrooms, grated pecorino and a few scattered chives. Simple idea, but such complex, earthy flavors! We inhaled it.

#6. "Housemade" sodas and cocktails with veggies.
The longest discussion we had with our excellent waiter was about their sodas. Although the explanation was difficult to follow, it was earnest and helpful, and the upshot of it was that I had something made with vinegar, fresh lime and red pepper flakes that was unbelievably refreshing, and FG6's Tangerine Szechuan was excellent, too.

#7. Rock star chef.
Chef Josef Centeno also helms one of our other FG favorites, Lazy Ox Canteen. The story is that he made these inventive sandwiches for the staff at his prior gigs, but never put them on the menu. We were still on a bit of a hamachi/mushroom pizza high when our highly-anticipated bäcos arrived, but the Toron rose to the challenge. The rightfully famous pillowy, chewy bread was wrapped around rich, tender, deeply seasoned oxtail hash, a layer of potato pancake, briny pickles a peppery green and some melting cheddar cheese. The balance was impeccable, and the textures just worked wonderfully.

The crispy shrimp version was less successful.  All the components were good, but we felt this one would have been better as a real taco than a bäco.

#8. Butcher paper.

#9.  Chalkboards that say the same thing as the menu.
True for the beverages.

#10. Wood, brick, ducts.
Check, check and check. Although I forgot to take a photo to prove it. How about another one of that hamachi instead?

You may have that noted that having excellent food is not part this Top 10 list, an unfortunate fact of dining out in LA.  However, it's #1 for the FGs. Given how much we loved almost every bite of our lunch, there's not even a question.

FG final verdict? Bäco Mercat is ON the list!
Pricing Info:  Smaller plates $6-14, bäcos: $10-16, cocas: $11-18
FG value rating: Fair Deal, verging on Get Real
Our lunch was $29 apiece, including tax and tip.

* These menus will be made from distressed recycled paper, and will use an interesting font.  See photo for #8.
** Here's how: It rhymes with Taco Fur Tot, disturbing as that image may be.

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