By Andrew ValenteTHERE have been big changes at the Mercat de l'Olivar restaurant since the end of last summer. This restaurant, which is a part of the Plaza Olivar market, has been in the hands of the same Majorcan family for decades. But last year they sold the business and the new owners started to run it last September. They have made some changes in the decor and the menu, and the restaurant is now much more ambitious and up-market than it has ever been. In the past this restaurant was bistro-like in decor and it served mainly Majorcan dishes cooked to a high standard. It was the kind of place where you could eat really well for a reasonable price. Their Majorcan dishes such as frito, sopas, snails, and tongue with a capers sauce were first-rate and highly popular with the lawyers, architects, advertising execs, doctors and other business people from the hundreds of nearby offices. The paellas at the Mercat d'Olivar were also highly appreciated by the regulars. I had several over the years and they were never less than very good. On three occasions I saw a paella being brought to an empty but reserved table for two at a specific time. Within a minute or so a couple entered, sat down, and immediately helped themselves to paella. When they finished their meal they paid and left. They obviously didn't have a long lunch break but nevertheless wanted to eat well so long as they didn't have to wait to be served. It was that kind of restaurant: the regulars were well looked after and were given what they wanted. In more than 40 years of eating at Mercat de l'Olivar I never once had a bad meal. Once in a while a dish wouldn't quite be up to the usual high standard, but it was never anything to complain about. So when I realised that the original owners had sold out, I wondered if the new people would be as conscientious of their obligations towards the regulars. Would the restaurant lose its considerable charm? Would standards drop? What first made me notice that the restaurant had changed hands was the new style menu. Gone were some of the Majorcan dishes and the dishes that had taken their place didn't really grab me. So I decided to wait a bit before giving the new owners a try. But on my way into the market (the restaurant door is right beside the main market entrance) I would stop to have another look at the menu. Then one day I noticed that there were more changes on the menu. And this time they grabbed me. There was an even bigger change: the restaurant now opened for dinner three nights a week. Over the past 40 years this restaurant had always been one of the very few places on the island that open only for lunch. It's easy to see why: their regulars came mainly from people working at the market and in the nearby offices. The former owners probably thought that no one would want to come to the Plaza Olivar area just to have dinner, so they never tried opening at night. But the fact is that although there are hundreds of offices in that area, there are also hundreds of residences. So a lot of people live in the Plaza Olivar vicinity and a percentage of them might want to have dinner at the Mercat de l'Olivar. Also, it's no big deal to go to the Plaza Olivar area to dine. People go much further afield than that when they know the food is going to be good. IT was a Saturday at lunchtime when I first discovered that the restaurant had started to open on three nights a week (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays) so I immediately went in and booked a table for that night. Several others had had the same idea, because the restaurant was eventually three-quarters full. They were mainly latecomers, most of them arriving well after 10pm, with one couple coming in at 10.50. The restaurant hasn't undergone any structural changes: the bar is where it has always been and the dimensions of the dining room are exactly the same as before. What has changed is the feel of the place. The restaurant used to be very much like the Spanish answer to the modest French bistro: no frills, but friendly service and good food. That feeling is still there, but the restaurant now reminds me of a Parisian bistro with a certain up-market cachet. There is an enormous blackboard on the market side of the dining room where the owners intended to display the menu and daily specials. But a friend who was helping with the decor decided to fill the blackboard with a chalk drawing of a plate of calamares a la romana. It will remain there until some artist feels like doing another drawing. There are white strips of cardboard stuck to the walls, each containing a word in thick black letters. The words are in Spanish and all refer to food and the pleasures of the table. There was one word I had never come across before. It was fruición, and it means relish. For the second time this month I came across tablecloths that are simply thinnish strips of linen covering part of the table. They look good and give the place an elegant but informal look.
WE shared three dishes, starting with raolas de jonqillo (7.50 euros). This is a Majorcan speciality in which tiny transparent goby (also known as chanquete) are mixed with beaten egg and then fried by the spoonful in shallow oil. The result is small fritters that came straight from the frying pan, so they were very hot. They were nicely crisp round the edges and the transparent goby gave them a delicious sea taste. Our next dish was one I had never come across and it was a great success. It was tiny profiteroles (called lionesas in this case) that were sliced open, stuffed with a gamba and served on a very tasty cheese-based sauce (8 euros). I like the choux pastry from which profiteroles are made but seldom eat it because profiteroles are always sweet and I prefer savoury food. So it was especially good to come across this unusual dish that worked really well. The cheese sauce and the choux pastry made a good combination and the sauce didn't overwhelm the flavour of the gambas. Our third dish was an old favourite, dorada a la espalda (10.50 euros). This is a gilt-head bream opened out butterfly style, grilled, and then anointed with what is known as a refrito: thin slices of garlic fried in hot oil and then doused with a small amount of vinegar. The dorada was immense, the biggest I have ever been served in a restaurant. When the waiter brought the dorada on a big platter, he offered to lift the fillets off the skin, leaving the head and bones behind. But we got him to cut it in two because we like to eat the skin and to pick off the little bits of flesh round the head. We had asked for the dorada to be underdone rather than overcooked and it came just right. So it was juicy and full of flavour.
EVEN good cooks often make the mistake of adding too much vinegar to the refrito, but the cook here was light-handed with it, so the flavour of the vinegar was very much in the background, which is exactly where I like it to be. On a separate dish were boiled potato halves that were lightly sprinkled with paprika. They had a beautiful soft texture which I haven't come across for a long time. These potatoes were so delicious that I got the waiter to ask the cook for the name of this particular variety. The cook didn't know the variety, but he said it was from Sa Pobla and he gave me the name of the market stall where he buys them.
A few days later I bought a couple of kilos and I also boiled them successfully. I even made good french fries with them.
This visit to Mercat de l'Olivar, then, was a big success. We had three dishes that were faultless, including one that was completely new, and the cook introduced us to a splendid potato variety. I already look forward to my next visit with great fruición.
WE had a very good meal here and there wasn't a single complaint from either of us. There are some interesting dishes you won't find in other restaurants, cooked by a man who is also a co-owner. The service was relaxed and friendly but attentive and we were made to feel really welcome and at home. The new Mercat de l'Olivar has started off on exactly the right note.
RESTAURANT Mercat de l'Olivar, Plaza del Olivar (to the right of the main market entrance on the corner of Calle José Tous Ferrer). Tel: 971-721162. Open for lunch from Monday to Saturday and for dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays. There is no menú del día, but every day they have daily specials.
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