Order the sandwich. Sliced white has got it pretty good right now, whether it's the BLT made with crunchy fried chicken skin in place of the bacon at Bar Liberty in Melbourne, or the preposterous and far less kosher late-night sandwich at Bar Brosé, which combines glazed Christmas ham, 'nduja and Comté to steadying effect. But in terms of bounce per ounce (if not bang for buck), the smoked wagyu tongue sambo at Mercado might stand alone: smoked beef tongue layered with mustardy Gruyère béchamel, the addition of pickled green tomato lending a welcome note of acid. Bring a glass of lightly oxidative chardonnay from Jura producer Jean Bourdy into the mix and it's basically unstoppable. On the strength of this combination alone it's easy to see Mercado being a hit. But there's more. Much more.
This being a Nathan Sasi restaurant, the sliced white isn't exactly sliced white, but rather a brioche the chef makes, shortening it with pig fat. He and his team also smoke the tongue in-house, pickle the tomatoes and churn the butter. You get the impression that if they could make Gruyère as well as the good people of Switzerland, they would (they make other cheeses themselves). There's every chance that Team Sasi also wove the napkins, carved the toothpicks and broadcast the WiFi simply with the power of their minds.
It may not come as a total surprise to hear that the regular bread is also baked on the premises. Dense of crust and airy of crumb, it's served with a generous wodge of butter that has been cultured to the point that it's conversant with quantum computing and can articulate credible theories on the true identity of Elena Ferrante. (Or, to look at it another way, it's butter that's cheesy as all get-out.) The "everything" vinegar used to dress the impeccable salad of lettuces, radicchio, parsley and chives, meanwhile, comes from wine leftovers. (Whatever the hell leftover wine is.) It's household economy made chic.
This revival of craft, whether it's the care taken by Luke Powell with the cures and smoking over at LP's Quality Meats, the precision Lennox Hastie brings to the business of cooking over coals at Firedoor, or the remarkable loaves Mike McEnearney bakes at No 1 Bent Street, has much to commend it. Chefs who take the time and trouble to gut and fillet their own fish, or do their own butchery and charcuterie, as Sasi does, tend to be much more respectful of what they put on the plate, and fuss less over garnish, tizz and things that might distract the diner from the core quality of the ingredients. If you've gone to the trouble of making from scratch, you don't want to muck it up.
Smoked wagyu tongue in brioche with pickled green tomato.
I'm reminded here of the dictum that if you construct a dish around three things on a plate and it doesn't work, it's probably because one of those things wasn't good enough to begin with. Putting more things on the plate can mask the problem, but won't solve it.
Many of the smaller, more tightly composed dishes show Mercado at its best. A sliver of fine, crisp, flaky pastry slathered with bullhorn peppers roasted to the point of sweet and total surrender, and then topped with a fillet of Ortiz anchovy and rings of shallot is the tapa made elegant. Every element does its part nothing is extraneous, but there's plenty of interest in both flavour and texture. The broccolini, which Sasi cooks just enough to retain some bite, is tossed with butter, anchovy, chilli and toasted breadcrumbs to similar effect. The dry, dusty spice of smoked paprika comes through rich and resonant in his fresh chorizo, meanwhile, which he lays sliced and juicy across the plate and daubs with the bright green of mojo verde, a vibrant Spanish salsa.
The food at Mercado will be pleasantly familiar to anyone who enjoyed Sasi's cooking at Nomad in Surry Hills. The flavours of the Mediterranean still guide him, and the presence of piquillo peppers, romesco sauce and sobrasada signal his continued passion for Moorish flavours. That said, the chorizo and anchovies, and the likes of the salt-fish croquetas with lemon mayonnaise, and morcilla with smoked white beans are joined on the menu by influences from further around the Med: wood-fired prawns with bottarga and shellfish butter, for instance, or the lush plate of manti, triangular Turkish ravioli made with wisps of pasta stuffed with gooey wood-roasted pumpkin and dressed with yoghurt and isot pepper.
Tucked behind George Street on the corner between China Lane and Ash Street Cellar, the restaurant sits between footpath and basement level, a low, wide pair of rooms with windows set up at street level. The finishes are polished - the end-pieces of timber that form the unclothed tables resemble chopping blocks, the lighting is careful and the chairs are expensive. With the exception of a couple of stand-outs on the floor (wine waiter Nate Hatwell chief among them), the service I've encountered has too frequently been of the brusque sort where the smiles of the waiters never quite reach their eyes. They'reinformed, but not quite natural.
The playlists are brassy and not constructed with any evidence of real feeling or verve, and mostly just contribute to the din. It's not a room that you'd be moved to say is truly lovely, but it's more than serviceable, especially at lunch. There seems to be some kind of disconnect between the gutsy rigour in the kitchen and the atmosphere in the dining room.
It's also quite pricey. Labour costs being what they are, doing all this stuff by hand in a small restaurant rather than a specialised production facility is no doubt expensive, and the cost is there on the menu. The excellent sides, for instance, are $16; at The Bridge Room, where no less work goes into the food, they're $11.
But gosh the food is good. Sasi is evolving a voice that's clearly his own. The woody cores of some of the French radishes served with cured goose breast can't undermine the smarts of this pairing, and the livid, pastrami-like slices of the bird are quite unlike anything else you'll see in town. And then there's the quality of the warqa, the thin, fillo-like pastry, wrapped around greens and feta sweetened with sautéed onion, to make a half-moon of brik simply served with lemon. Technical aptitude yoked to sound ideas is a running theme.
Most of the main courses are big hunks of protein that come with a lick of smoke from the rôtisserie, the grill or the wood-fired oven: chickens, suckling pigs, lambs, Blackmore wagyu blade. Snapper fillet makes a great case for the kitchen's facility with flame, juicy and sweet against a backdrop of spiced eggplant and pomegranate. The chooks coming off the spit may be small, but the size of the birds makes for a result that's far from dry, but also has real flavour. A few other roasted lambs around town, meanwhile, often end up portioned as a lot of fat and bone and not a lot of fun. At Mercado, it's still served on the bone but the ratio of meat is more favourable to a wholesome-seeming meal, and there's still plenty of savour.
Sugar and pastry rather than fruit dominate dessert. Fat from Heaven is an apt name for a scallop-edged flan dressed in syrup and speckled richly with vanilla seeds. Preserved cherries provide scant respite from vanilla custard in a gâteaux Basque that's anything but the usual dry, pastry cream-filled teacake, while a shard of candied bacon makes for a salty, crunchy garnish sticking out of a scoop of dulce de leche ice-cream in a pool of butterscotch. Sweet and fun, but nothing remarkable. Better to investigate the cheese trolley instead, perhaps, where the well-chosen likes of Holy Goat La Luna and Papillon Roquefort join house-made ashed Valençay and queso Garroxta - styles of goat's cheese from France and Catalonia respectively.
With food that's marked by a hearty integrity, a strong wine list and a business-friendly façade, Mercado seems very well placed to make a killing as part of the new Martin Place push, opening ahead of new projects coming from such established players as Thai maestro David Thompson, Icebergs' Maurice Terzini, and Andrew Cibej, the restaurateur behind Vini, Ester and Berta. And that's just on the strength of the sandwich alone. Let's hear it for craft.