It’s just turned two, but Mercat Barcelona Gastrobar is so firmly entrenched in the Bangsar dining scene that its gold-lit interior and chalk-look mural walls seem to have been around longer than that.
Those murals depict peculiarly Barcelonian sights, so expect to see some of Gaudi’s iconic architectural shapes, such as the famous tapering spires of the La Sagrada Familia church.
Since its opening, Mercat has imbued the bold flavours and often rustic sensibilities of Spanish cuisine with executive chef and co-owner David Caral’s progressive outlook and elegant style – from the croquetas with creamy, molten hearts studded with chicken (RM5 each) or Iberico ham (RM6 each), to the glossy, blue-black appeal of the Paella de Arroz Negro (RM88, for two to four pax) sprinkled with pearly cuttlefish and prawns – a monochromatic palette marvel for the palate.
And with its affordable prices, Mercat won a host of regulars in a relatively short time. Weekly specials (in limited portions) have kept things interesting, and Barca-born Caral showcases seasonal Spanish produce whenever he can, such as the super-juicy and very sweet deep sea carabineros, large red prawns which are simply grilled with salt.
Special mention must be given to the excellently-curated selection of gin and tonics, each enhanced by one or two garnishes designed to bring out the botanical elements in a particular gin. They’re double-shot cocktails, unless you ask for a single.
Mercat’s touches include a large, juicy grapefruit slice and a sprig of sage with the bold British Beefeater gin (RM38 for a double, RM23 for a single), and basil leaves plus an orange peel twist for the balanced, slightly savoury Gin Mare, from Spain (RM70 for a double shot, RM39 for a single).
There’s an off-menu selection of gin here too, which provides a great opportunity to learn about unusual gins (this is where I first encountered sweet, fruity sloe gin, which is made with blackthorn drupes). Check out the laden gin cart in the outer eating area.
There is also an impressive list of Spanish wines – specials appear here too – and classic cocktails.
A host of new dishes has debuted, some on the printed menu, others soon to be added.
Balance is a hallmark, and Caral plays delicate and bold tones together in every dish, adding earthy notes in the form of creamy, nut-based emulsions which work wonderfully – but differently – in almost every dish.
Dots of almond cream temper the sharp, vinegary bite of the Boquerone en Vinagre (RM22), Spanish anchovies cured in white vinegar, and slices of roasted red capsicum lend a smoky sweetness.
Tiny mounds of hazelnut cream add earthiness and depth to the Pollo al Ajillo (RM24). It’s a classic Catalan dish, but in Caral’s hands, a simple bowlful of chicken cooked with house-made stock, white wine and lots of garlic is a toothsome, swoonsome thing.
“We add hazelnuts and almonds when we stew the chicken, just to add flavour, then remove them just before serving,” he said.
The result is a deeply savoury, flavourful and complex dish – only a pristine white bowl was allowed to leave the table. The house-made bread made plate-cleaning terribly easy; the gravy for the chicken made it imperative.
Pork Sliders (RM22) are also new, small pork patties with a generous amount of fat and a tiny amount of potato incorporated for added juiciness. Sandwiched between soft bun halves, they find companions in slices of firm, slightly piquant Manchego cheese, roasted red capsicum and caramelised onion.
The Esqueixada de Bacalla (RM25) is a traditional Catalan salad, made with salt cod. Unlike much bacalla, the cod is cured in salt, but not dried. “We rinse it very carefully also, to remove much of the salt,” said Caral. He tops the circle of tender fish – just pleasantly savoury, very tasty and moist – with finely-chopped onion, red and green capsicums, and dots of black olive tapenade to form the base of the very pretty dish. It’s served with very thin, crisp slices of house-made bread. Definitely top shot material, all you Instagrammers.
One of the most stand-out dishes is an off-menu special which Caral will be putting on the regular menu soon. Caral renders Spanish blood sausage, or morcilla, into a creamy, unctuous topping for a potato terrine. The unapologetically meaty morcilla is intensely flavourful without being overwhelming, as so many blood sausages can be.
Caral then tops it with dots of tangy-sweet apple compote, almond cream, edamame and shards of crisp bread. The resulting dish (RM23) covers a whole spectrum of flavours and textures, balances out perfectly and embeds itself firmly into your gastronomic memory as a truly amazing taste experience.
If you wait patiently for the crust to form on the hot paella pan, the Arroz con Plancha (RM52) is the rice dish of your dreams (see top image). It’s made from the same Bomba rice used for paella, mixed with oyster and button mushrooms, and black truffle, and spiked with truffle oil. The creamy rice is then formed into cylinders and pan-fried till crisp on the outside. It’s served with roasted baby potatoes, bright emerald garlic parsley oil and red capsicum sauce.
For sweets, both the Espuma de Crema Catalana (RM23) and the Sandria (RM24) display Caral’s love for putting his own stamp on tradition – at once elegant and playful. The first captures all the flavours of the classic crema catalana, the classic Spanish burnt cream dessert, but in foam form. Flavoured with orange zest, it’s topped with slivers of tuile infused with Grand Marnier.
The Sandria meanwhile is large cubes of watermelon which have soaked up loads of Sangria!
“We vacuum-pack the watermelon with the Sangria, so it soaks up all the liquid,” said Caral. This results in the texture of the watermelon changing, as it becomes denser and less crunchy – and a very refreshing way to eat your cocktail.
In spite of the refinement to be found on its well-thought-out plates, Mercat has a very casual, convivial and welcoming atmosphere. This wide appeal means that it’s a home for everyone, from a couple on a first date to a family looking for a night out – anyone looking for the modern Spanish culinary experience.
Mercat Barcelona Gastrobar
51G Jalan Telawi 3
Tel: 03-2201 5288
Open Monday to Friday, 4pm till late; Saturday and Sunday, noon till late