There is a person that I'm sure you've all met. This person doesn't take initiative, but waits for you to introduce yourself, and then greets you back with a weak handshake and a name too softly spoken for you to quite catch. This person often stands half-hidden behind someone else, smiling politely but never speaking. Later you have a hard time recalling any details, but you have a vague feeling that this person was ”well, nice, I guess...”
Restaurant/café Mercato is exactly this person. Mercato has absolutely nothing to be insecure about, and it has all the potential in the world, but it seems too shy to stand up, command the room and with a loud, clear voice say ”I'm here, I'm now, I'm proud, deal with it!”
”riga isn't exactly veggie-friendly”
But first, a few steps back. Mercato (or ”Merkato”, as the large sign says above the front door) is a relatively new place on Stabu iela. What makes this place interesting to me is the fact that they lean heavily towards the vegetarian side of the food spectrum. Since Riga isn't exactly veggie-friendly, this fact alone makes Mercato a bit unique. Apart from the menu, they have also managed to make the restaurant a beautiful place to be. Inside it's a raw, naked stone structure, reminiscent of a miniature factory or a car park building, lit up by industrial lamps and naked light bulbs. This artsy, but inhospitable setting comes alive with the addition of a human touch in the form of various decorations and a mixture of modern and retro furniture, which might sound weird, but comes together as a harmonious whole. Especially in the evening, when live candles help light up the rooms, the successful interior design provides a really cosy atmosphere, just like snuggling yourself into the ample bosom of your favorite grandma (if you have an appetite for this, here's a word of caution: the grandma should be your own and you shouldn't be over 40. Otherwise it might look weird).
”be aware that they don't handle large crowds very well”
When putting together their menu, Mercato seems to have gathered inspiration from all over the place – they serve the type of food that can lazily be described as ”European”. However, despite not being an expert on this type of cuisine, I'd say that the heart of the menu is Italian, or at least Italian-inspired. You'll find the usual suspects here: salads, pasta, risotto, meat and fish dishes, and of course quite a few vegetarian selections. Prices range from about €5 to €17, which makes this a mid-priced restaurant by Riga standards.
Service is good (especially one waitress is super sweet) and communicating in English is no problem. However, you should be aware that they don't handle large crowds very well. The other night the place was packed, and although I'm prepared to wait a bit under such circumstances, having to wait for over an hour for our starters would put anyone's patience to the test.
”mercato could have a bright future”
So, is the food at least worth waiting for? Well, I've now tried some five different dishes. They have all been very well prepared, beautifully presented and all that, but they all suffer from the same problem: there is just no punch to them. Remember the quiet, semi-transparent person with the limp handshake? That is exactly what you get on your plate. I desperately wish that Mercato's chefs would start throwing some bombs in the kitchen. When every dish is somewhere between timid and tasteless, they need to start doing something.
I truly believe that Mercato could have a bright future. They have a menu that many other restaurants don't have, it's an enjoyable place to dine, the prices are reasonable etc. The few problems that I see can be easily fixed by showing more guts in the kitchen (not sure if ”guts” and ”vegetarian” go together, but you get my point). I hope Mercato will take my words under consideration and I look forward to paying them another visit in a few months.