On the best nights, when the weather is fine and I can sleep well with my window open, I dream decadent dreams of things steamy and sensual, of things delectably tempting and titillating. I dream of fleshy mussels wood-oven roasted with garlic and Pernod from the Mercato Mediterraneo. Exquisite food. I'm a restaurant critic - what did you expect?
In that role I humbly confess I'm somewhat of a mussel connoisseur, having tried them all over the world, in countries such as New Zealand and Spain, where they take particular pride in their preparation of mollusks. But the way they do them at the Mercato in Park City is internationally outstanding. I'm not even particularly partial to the aniselike flavor of Pernod, but when used to tame the feral, briny meat of the mussel it's spectacular. They're listed on the menu as an appetizer, for $8.Of course, there are more reasons than mussels to dine at the Mercato Mediterraneo. There are exotic yet familiar dishes from all over the Mediterranean, from countries like Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain and Turkey. Owner/chef Eric Debonis travels these areas annually, looking for new dishes and flavors for his constantly changing menu. One of his latest and most unique discoveries is using lavender to season chicken. The fowl is both infused with lavender and basted with it, along with honey and thyme, to produce an unforgettably tender and delicious bird, unlike anything else you'll find on the Wasatch Front. It's one of their most interesting entrees, at $16.
It's not easy to come up with a fascinating and unique restaurant in Park City, which already features some of the best dining in the state. But the owners of the Olive Barrel in Deer Valley have done just that. The tiny Olive Barrel, somewhat buried up in Silver Lake Village, becomes an immediate favorite to those who dine there, but with fewer than seven tables on any given winter's night, it's rather difficult to access. The Mercato uses the same quality concepts of making pasta before your eyes, and roasting the majority of their offerings in large, wood-burning ovens, but they do it on a much larger scale.
Located in the former ski shop across from the Kimball Arts Center, the Mercato presents both casual and elite dining. Downstairs you can buy espresso, croissants, specialty breads, pizza, salad, or carry out anything else they make. It's a delilike atmosphere. Upstairs and out on the patio there's more of a fine-dining feel, with brilliant murals painted on the walls, and a merry fountain splashing outside. I spent one of the most raucous and wonderful evenings in recent memory near that fountain, a heady "Girls' Night Out," during which we sampled just about everything on the menu.
And we were never disappointed. The Porata, a tart made with apples, gorgonzola and leeks, for $6, was wonderful. So were the wood-roasted pizzas, upon which you can order exotic ingredients like squid and clams, goat cheese, wood-grilled vegetables and spinach, even pepperoni, if that's what you fancy. They run from $6.95 for a small to $18.95 for the most expensive large.
We tried a salad made of grilled fresh goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves and plenty of herbs, atop field greens and a vinaigrette, for $8. It as one of the most potent salads we'd ever tasted, and easily accommodated the three of us. We also tried the fettucine with shrimp, tomatoes and herbs of Corsica, for $17. The "Herbs de Marquis," were brisk and pungent, making the generous helping of shrimp taste remarkably sweet.
At the end, we couldn't resist sampling the tirimisu. I am just as discerning about that as I am about cheesecake. There are just too many establishments around these days claiming the authentic, and serving dismal bastardizations. But to our delight, this tiramisu was served the classic way: cake, coffee liqueur, and sweetened, macar-pone cheese, without any of those ridiculous frothy whipped ingredients so many pseudo-Italian restaurants are intent upon adding.
The Mercato Mediterraneo gets a high rating for the high time you'll undoubtably have there. Whether you just stop in for a loaf of their extraordinary bread, or want to sit down for an outstanding gourmet meal, it's a good idea to include the Mercato on your Park City agenda.
Rating: * * * * 1/2
Mercato Mediterraneo, 628 Park Avenue, Park City (801) 647-0030. The cafe is open Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. through 12 midnight, and Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. through 2 a.m. The market is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. through 8 p.m. Checks and major credit cards are accepted. Reservations for the cafe are recommended.