The employee at Dena Marino's Mercato was busy. He played on his iPhone, filled out his W-4 form, and stared diligently into open space. He did not want to be interrupted. So I left the Design District breakfast and lunch spot with a few unanswered questions.
Could you refill the napkin-holder next time? It was empty. Would you apologize to those customers? You know, the infuriated couple who paid for a red velvet cupcake that you completely forgot to pack? (Even though it was one of the two things they had ordered.) When they returned to the quiet café and demanded their cupcake, their irritated jabbering really put a damper on my meal.
Is food always packed automatically in to-go cartons? No one told me this was a takeaway café. When a refined restaurant, owned by the same folks, is located in the same space, why was my $35 lunch served in flimsy cartons and pesky plastics?
Sure, the Cubano sandwich ($12) -- stuffed with shaved porchetta, thin slices of prosciutto cotto, gooey Swiss cheese, sliced Brooklyn Brine pickles, and Dijon dressing ($12) -- was delectable. Smothered in a delicate orange-basil dressing, the chopped veggie salad had the potential to be one of my go-to lunches. Sprinkled with chickpeas, zucchini, celery, carrots, and red peppers, the salad felt like a steal with its $9 price tag.
Swimming with sliced kale, the ribollita ($6) soup comforted with its classic combination of white beans, vegetables, and olive oil. But where was the bread? Isn't Tuscan ribollita supposed to include torn bread?
The pastry fridge sparkled with an opulent display of all things baked and sweet. But the vanilla cake, doused in excess simple syrup and layered with strawberries and mascarpone, tasted like day-old bread -- the kind that should have been in my ribollita.
At Mercato, there are other things to sample: roast salmon, marinated tofu, jumbo asparagus salad with sliced fennel, more salads, and many more sandwiches. Perhaps future visits will yield better results.
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The café intended to proffer Dena Marino's cooking at affordable prices. Given that Marino is considered among the best chefs in town, this sounded like a sure-fire formula. With its Cubano sandwich and veggie salad, it succeeds. With its service and cake, though, Mercato resoundingly disappoints.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.