Beautiful restaurant with cooking to match – but understaffing stops it reaching its potential.
Review: Mercer restaurant, Hotel Mercer
Update, September 2015: Please note that head chef Xavier Lahuerta has now left Mercer restaurant. Click here for my review of the latest iteration of Mercer restaurant.
The Mercer is a gorgeous hotel. It’s built into an old Gothic Quarter house in the heart of Barcelona, with some of the walls dating back over 2,000 years. Layers of history can be seen in every nook, the crooked angles complemented by clean, minimalist modern design.
The hotel restaurant is, then, a special place to sit and eat: all billowing white curtains, light wood and wine bottles, with tables in a quiet courtyard that’s dappled by sunlight during the day and romantically lit at night.
When I stayed there in May, it was on a Monday and the restaurant was closed but, especially after visiting the hotel’s bistro, Le Bouchon, I wanted to try it. Chef Xavier Lahuerta, who took over from the late Jean Luc Figueras, had worked under people like Xavier Pellicer, Santi Santamaria, Carles Gaig, Carles Abellan and Jean Luc Figueras himself. It’s a confidence-inspiring CV.
The downside of the restaurant’s location is that it can’t be seen from the street. As a result, there’s almost no passing trade. Most people don’t even know the restaurant exists. It was quiet when we visited, with only a few hotel guests eating there.
There were also only two front-of-house staff – one of them a new trainee – doing double duty by manning the adjoining cocktail bar as well as serving the restaurant’s diners.
There are two tasting menus at the Mercer, priced €45 and €70; à la carte expect to pay €16-€25 for starters and €30-€40 for main courses. We sat in a table in the blessed breeze of the air conditioner and chose the long menu.
Steak tartare was, like its Le Bouchon equivalent, very good. A simple dish but often a barometer of a restaurant’s attention to detail.
Smoked mackerel and grapes in ajoblanco, a cold Andalucian almond soup. The ajoblanco was refreshingly rustic, and not (as is sometimes the case in fine dining restaurants) over-refined.
Recuit (fresh goats’ cheese) made at the restaurant was silky, cool and creamy, served with fresh anchovy and tomatoes from the hotel’s own vegetable garden up the coast in Alella.
Red mullet, a fish I love, was done justice, cooked perfectly and served with a rich, caramelized jus and baby vegetables.
A roasted hock of pork was presented whole then plated. Melt-in-the-mouth tender meat, a lip-smacking reduction, waxy and wonderful new potatoes, and a sweet, almost liquid-soft onion.
A minty mojito sorbet freshened us up for a second dessert; a quenelle of rich chocolate, cake, and tarragon “spaghetti”. It was very pleasant, and the chocolate was great, but a pinch of salt or a sprinkling of magic would have lifted it up a division.
Xavier Lahuerta is cooking very good, let-the-ingredients-do-the-talking food at the Mercer. It is clean, KM0, carefully presented fine dining that will appeal to a very wide range of customers. It’s much less show-offy than I expected for a five-star hotel, and that’s not a bad thing at all; the skill and technique here is at the service of the flavours. It’s the sort of restaurant that could easily be in contention for a Michelin star, but there is an obvious barrier in the way: it’s understaffed. There’s no sommelier, there aren’t enough experienced waiters (there aren’t enough staff in general for a luxury hotel – it was noticeable when I stayed there), and the cooks coming out of the sweltering kitchen look like they’re fighting a war in a jungle. As a result, there are long gaps between courses, glasses are left unfilled and wines are served with minimal explanation. These and other details detract from the excellent cooking and location. I strongly recommend the Mercer for its food, but its owners need to reinforce the staff if they want it to make a mark on the Barcelona restaurant scene.