I presumed La Merce, the balls-out street fiesta held each September in Barcelona in honor of the city's patron saint, was the inspiration for the off-Park-Avenue Spanish joint of the same name, and I thought it doubly ironic.
For one, the festival sees a mass of revelers and celebrants, while the restaurant hosted a score of empty tables save ours. Further, the festival bids adios to summer and hola to the cooler days of fall and, well, we all know autumn barely registers here in Winter Park, Florida. Turns out I was only partially right. Yes, the restaurant honors Our Lady of Mercy (Mare de Déu de la Mercè) but, more so, it pays homage to Mercedes "La Merce" Hurtado, grandmother and recipe source to chef Carlos Hurtado.
Mercedes and Carlos's grandfather ran a restaurant in Malaga, Spain, so, naturally, many of La Merce's dishes veer toward seafood. Unfortunately, we didn't find espetos (barbecued sardines) listed anywhere on the menu, but seeing octopus carpaccio ($14) certainly roused our interest. Our friendly server's eyes lit up when we placed the order, and what was delivered – round, thinly shaved slivers of octopus simply dressed with olive oil, sea salt and light pesto and layered on a large plate – certainly warranted her excitement for us. The flavor of the octopus, however, was somewhat lost in that simple garnish.
Not so in a decidedly more complex starter of chopped artichoke hearts ($14) soaking in zippy, lemony sauce crowned with two meaty blossoms of prosciutto. Broad beans added a nice flavor pop to this intriguing shareable plate, but among a table of four, it was devoured fairly quickly. So we returned to nibbling bread and tapenade until our mains – our expensive mains, I should add – arrived.
Take the black seafood paella ($50), for example. Yes, it's advertised for two people, but compare it to the, oh, $38 and $39 seafood paellas served at Tapa Toro and Bulla Gastrobar respectively, and the dearth of patrons at La Merce starts to make sense. Rents aren't cheap on Morse Boulevard, I suppose. That said, we did relish the squid-ink rice and, even more so, the blue crab (served whole) – they were an utter delight to tear into. The clams were rich in the essence of paella, though the shrimp were a bit overdone and the curls of octopus too rubbery to fully enjoy.
A thorough swishing with a glass of sangria ($9) helped get the ink off our teeth before we tackled another house specialty – a $32 plate of grouper with clams. It was a nice piece of perfectly cooked fish, graced with asparagus and anointed with clam sauce, yet it didn't leave us swooning in our seats. Neither did desserts, but the dense flan ($8), lying in a darkened pool of caramel, got our happy faces on, and those in our party craving chocolate thoroughly indulged themselves in a hefty slab of chocolate chip brownie pie ($10) filled with dulce de leche.
Back to the restaurant's name: The "& Market" part was a bit of a baffler as we didn't see a market, at least not one in the traditional sense, but I found out later that La Merce, evidently, does sell wines, cheeses and olive oils.
It's no secret that businesses (Daya, Let's Eat!) have had a bit of a rough go in this space, so it might serve the restaurant well to make those market offerings known. While they're at it, the menu could certainly be edited down (are chicken piccata or a quarter-pound burger really necessary?), and it wouldn't hurt to lower those prices some – even Park Avenue perambulators can be frightened off by high-priced food. And if they still can't draw the fine and famished folks of Winter Park in, well then, they might want to call on Mare de Déu de la Mercè for a little intercessory assistance.