Mercatino is the new restaurant that is open underground at 201 Portage Avenue. It’s part of their renovation and creation of a conference center in the basement.
Over the years I’ve gone through the underground at Portage and Main, hundreds if not thousands of time. I’ve also eaten many times at the various restaurants and food courts. The food court at 201 Portage is the one I’ve visited the least, but I’ve still purchased a few meals there. My favourite food place in that food court would have been Deek’s chicken of 20 years ago. At the time they served a rather nice roast chicken dinner.
When I saw them close the area off and start to renovate I was curious as to what kind of food would be available once the renovations were finished. After the renovations were finished, I noticed that there was only one restaurant, Mercatino, and it looked a lot like Marcello’s. One of the things that also caught my eye was that it had a lot of tubs of candy and chips, etc. such as you would find at a convenience store.
Although I had been waiting to see what the restaurant choices might be, the first thing I noticed was the dining area.
The old area, had been lots of dark would and comfortable chairs, almost a Food Court meets Sir John’s kind of vibe. The new is all light, bright, and white. There are several long communal tables, many of which are equipped with plugs and USB ports. That strikes me a bit like it’s allowing people to say “I’m not eating lunch while working at my desk, I’m eating lunch while working in the lounge.” There are a couple of couches scattered around as well. On the whole the area is quite inviting and a definite upgrade on the previous surroundings.
All in all they’ve done a fantastic job with the renovations as far as the decor is concerned. As far as the food is concerned that’s a different story entirely. I will say starting off, that the one thing I didn’t try was the buffet. It’s $1.99/100g, so that’s pretty much the same as Marcello’s, but to get bang for your buck you can only order lightweight(literally) food.
Mercatino advertises itself as fresh, fast food. Technically, I guess, they can say that. However, fresh also implies getting the best flavour out of the food, and here, Mercatino falls well short. Before I get into that I’ll say some of the things I liked about Mercatino.
First off, if you are dining out and your main concern is quantity versus price, Mercatino delivers quite well on that. All the dishes I tried delivered a substantial portion and a more than reasonable price. Mercatino is a Calgary based restaurant, and for their coffee they have chose to go with a Calgary based roaster, Fratello. They serve a very tasty Americano and you get it in various sizes starting with an 8 oz. The coffee prices are in line with any of the other local specialty shops. The raisin bread with cinnamon butter was also quite good.
The staff are friendly and helpful. The place is also adequately staffed so there are always people around to take your order etc. Unfortunately, that’s where the good ends. The rest barely rises to the level of mediocrity.
On my first visit I decided to order the Udon noodle bowl special. One thing about the menu that seems a little odd is that there seems to be one dish from every major world cuisine, (taken in it’s broadest terms. When it comes to preparation, the Udon noodle bowl reminded me of something I would get from Bodegoes. As I watched it being prepared, it seemed to take a fair bit of time to put together, and when I went to eat it, it just seemed to be a mushy mess. Other than the fact that the noodles themselves were Udon, there was nothing about the dish that suggested any sort of Japanese heritage. This was one of the worst two or three meals that I’ve had dining out. It’s only because I don’t like to throw out food that I finished it.
Yesterday, I went back for a second visit. This time I chose two items. The first was a Lemon Vegetable Soup, and the second was the Truffle Bacon Mac and Cheese. Of all the dishes I ordered over my visits, the soup was the best after the raisin toast. The vegetables were not crunch, but not soft, and while the lemon didn’t come through all that strongly, the over all flavour and texture was quite pleasant.
I didn’t take a picture of the mac and cheese. It was less overcooked than the Udon Bowl was, but the macaroni was still very much on the soft side. The other thing about the dish was that it was very salty. When it comes to the overcooked nature of the dishes, it seems that they are precooked and then tossed into a saute pan when an order is place. This final process seemed to take quite a few minutes, which may be what causes the dishes to be overcooked.
I wasn’t particularly satisfied with either of my meals, but I decided to make a third trip and see if breakfast would be any different. It was, a little.
I ordered the Bacon Sandwich on an English Muffin. I could see when I place my order that the eggs and bacon were pre-cooked and sitting in a warming tray.
It’s good that they used real and not processed cheese for the sandwich. Unfortunately as everything is left in a warming tray, and then cold mayonnaise is added as a dressing, the overall effect was to serve a room temperature kind of sandwich. The feeling of biting into a hot sandwich with maybe a bit of egg yolk running is what makes an Breakfast Sandwich appealing. The ingredients here were all good, but they don’t quite work together as they should.
Finally, I ordered a Raisin Bread with Cinnamon Butter. This was actually quite nice. The cinnamon came through in the flavour, but was not overly strong.
One thing I noticed as I visited the Mercatino website is that this is the sixth restaurant that they’ve opened in the last five years. Perhaps they’ve overreached themselves in being able to monitor the quality of all the locations. Mercatino could be quite a good edition to the Portage and Main area. However, for now I’d say grab a coffee and enjoy the decor, but give it a pass on the food until they’ve had a chance to work on improving the quality.