Back in the Middle Ages, a disparate and diverse group of Muslim peoples migrated widely through northern Africa and western Europe, bringing traditionally Middle Eastern influences (saffron, almonds, spices) with them to the continent. It's an influence that continues today in the rich world of Moorish cooking, and this cross-cultural approach provides the template for chef Nathan Sasi's seasonal menu at Mercado.
Previously head chef at the acclaimed Nomad and co-creator of ice creamery Good Times, Sasi's approach blends fine dining finesse with a love of the rustic and a real hands-on approach. The restaurant does all their pickling, curing and smoking on-site and combines fresh produce with a modern, agreeably loose take on Moorish and Spanish food.
Turkish ravioli ($26) is light and fragrant, with soft pumpkin inside pasta draped with slightly tangy yoghurt, burnt butter and crisped sage leaves. Another small plate, the cuttlefish ($23), comes with micro herbs, flecks of house-cured pork cheek and the almost lemony spice of sumac. The pork cheek has some of the salty sweet appeal of a crispy piece of bacon and the cuttlefish is fresh and succulent, while you'll also want to get some slices of airy sourdough ($3 per person) to mop up the broth.
Like seemingly every new Sydney restaurant, the menu is described as made for sharing, which seems a stretch with the likes of steaks and crab rolls. Still, that is a minor complaint when said share plates feature the glorious likes of lamb ribs ($32), smoked to a pillowy softness and crusted with a peach molasses that tones down the sweetness for a dukkah-like savouriness. It's plated simply with a house-made hot sauce and yoghurt dip that elevates an already supreme dish.
You may also be tempted by the offerings from the rotisseries or the wood-fired oven on show in the semi-open kitchen, but if you've got room for dessert, you'll be rewarded with the likes of a chocolate sour cherry tart ($18), which comes as a silky slice of richness, with neatly piped stars of cream and a single cherry resting on top. It's dense and sweet, though the real star of the dessert list is a Pedro Ximénez bread pudding ($17) with vanilla sauce trickling over folds of golden, flaky pastry.
Tucked under a lane behind Angel Place, the space is dark and elegantly understated, with a marble staircase and a general tone of unobtrusive but upmarket style. There are a couple of flourishes, like an animal skull that rests ominously on the counter — a reminder that chef Nathan Sasi's nose-to-tail approach to cooking continues even in a genteel space like this. Service is polished, if languid at times. An extensive European wine list and clever cocktails — like a date cinnamon julep ($18) garnished with fresh mint — rounds out a classy tribute to one of the world's most fascinating and enduring food cultures.