Why is it so difficult for people strolling Park Avenue in search of a restaurant to turn a corner?
Sure, there are plenty of restaurants with a bona fide Park Avenue address that are worth dining at. But there are other eateries every bit as worthy of attention just off the main thoroughfare. And I’m talking mere steps, not blocks away.
Consider the space at 155 E. Morse Blvd., the current home of La Merce, a cafe with a Spanish-leaning European menu. On a recent day at the height of the lunch hour while most of the Park Ave restaurants were brimming with diners, I walked into a La Merce so empty that my arrival seemed to startle someone who walked out of the kitchen while I waited at the front door.
I remained the sole diner the entire time I was there, the only one to listen to the mournful-sounding songs of a flamenco guitarist and singer, Diego el Cigala, that played over the sound system.
And I was the only one to enjoy the Panini La Merce, a sandwich worthy of the house name. It had cubes of grilled chicken and thick slices of grilled eggplant, which had a nice smoky note. Roasted peppers and fresh, cool mozzarella were dressed with pesto and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, all on a fresh ciabatta roll. Delicious and filling, especially with the accompanying fries.
A previous evening visit had been a little better attended. My dining companions and I shared a starter of Calamari, tender rings of squid with a delicate jacket of batter, perfectly fried.
For my entree I chose the Cachopo Filled, as it’s listed on the menu. Cachopo is a dish associated with Asturias, a province in the north of Spain. You might describe it as a mashup of Milanese and Parmigiana. Two steaks are “sandwiched” together with cheese and Serrano ham between the meat, which is then breaded and fried. As served at La Merce, it’s huge, enough to serve a table of four. The cheese goozed out when I cut into it, and if the meats had been just a bit more tender, it would have been wonderful. (I could have chosen a side dish a little more wisely, choosing mashed potatoes or grilled asparagus over the plain chips.)
All of the staff I had contact with were welcoming and helpful.
La Merce’s website says it is a restaurant and market, though I don’t know where the market part comes in. It might just be a holdover notion from one of the other more recent residents. This is where Daya, the vegan restaurant, was located and, before that, NOPA, whose very name was an acronym that either celebrated or lamented its location: Not On Park Avenue.
Perhaps the failure of those businesses can’t be fully blamed on the side street location. Nor can the emptiness I witnessed at noon at La Merce — the all-day menu has some prices that could scare people away at lunchtime (dinnertime, too).
But the pleasant surroundings, bright and cheery, and matching staff make La Merce worth a stroll.
La Merce is at 155 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 321-295-7611.