With Mediterranean share plates, whole animal cookery and in-house curing, Mercado is the love child of owner Steve Anastasiou and head chef Jason Dean. They discuss how they work together to make it work. By Frank Leggett
Steve: From the outset, I wanted Mercado to be a Mediterranean set-up—a modern Spanish-style restaurant. When guests arrive, the first thing they notice is the beautiful interior. Mercado is in the heritage Dymocks Building at 350 George Street in Sydney’s CBD [though entry is through Ash Street.] The fit-out blends the old with the new perfectly—it really is a stunning space. Our head chef needs to be inventive, passionate and smart, and Jason Dean is the man for the job!
Jason: Mercado specialises in a modern version of Spanish tapas. We make all our own charcuterie and dry-age our own beef. Steve not only sources high-quality beef for the restaurant, he raises organic pigs and cattle on a farm in Oberon [in NSW]. He puts in a lot of time and effort into producing and procuring the meat we use for our charcuterie. The term ‘paddock to plate’ really means something at Mercado—we care where our produce originates and how it’s made. We’re more than happy to share that information with our guests if they’re interested.
Steve: We embrace the kitchen arts of bread baking, pickling, curing and preserving. Mercado is also renowned for its homemade salumi and embrace of whole animal cookery.
Jason: Curing meat is a long process. You don’t want to hang a piece of meat for two months only to discover it’s too salty or not cured enough. You really need to be confident that you’re doing it right. Whole animal cookery is great for the chefs. There’s not many restaurants that have the facilities to break down entire animals. The process creates so many options I’m constantly teaching and learning. There’s a bit of pressure when using the whole animal—you’re constantly thinking of ways to use absolutely everything. It’s a lot of fun.
Steve: Even though Mercado has a formal and beautiful setting, we’re a casual dining experience. Our style of service, price point and shared food concept makes us a welcoming and friendly venue.
Jason: Our menu changes fairly frequently. We utilise seasonal produce, and whole animal cookery leads to some exciting innovations. We do a lot of book-out events and wine dinners where we design bespoke menus for various groups. It’s important that we’re true to the name Mercado, which means ‘market’ in Spanish.
Steve: I was extremely pleased when Mercado won Best Speciality Restaurant at the 2019 National Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. While any accolades are important, it’s particularly worthy if it comes from an industry-driven organisation.
Jason: It was especially gratifying to win a national award as well as a regional one (Best Tapas Restaurant, 2019 NSW Awards for Excellence). It’s nice when the hard work of myself, the staff and the management is recognised. These awards do tend to bring more people into the restaurant, particularly in the CBD.
Steve: It’s so important for myself as owner to have a good relationship with the head chef. Jason and I liaise four or five times a week. We’re on the phone daily, mostly talking about produce—where we’re sourcing it, how we can get it and how we can do something better. But it’s not my job to micro-manage Jason; he has to have artistic licence to exercise his creativity and skills.
Jason: I value the fact that Steve trusts me to run his restaurant. He’s a busy man with other restaurants to manage, programs to build and pigs and cattle to raise. We communicate frequently and see eye to eye on the majority of things. We’re moving in the same direction with a common goal.
Steve: Make no mistake, running a restaurant is a difficult business. Hurdles can appear from anywhere. As we are located in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, for the past few years we’ve had the light rail construction all along George Street. That had a hugely negative impact on our business—people simply gave up coming into the city. It’s finished now and we’re getting back to where we need to be. However, whether it’s fires, floods, the coronavirus and drop in tourist numbers, there are always unexpected pressures to be overcome.
Jason: I’d love to see a little more awareness about Mercado because there’s still quite a few people who don’t know we’re here. Despite that, we’re getting better and busier with each passing year. I’d also love to open a Mercado butchery someday and tie it to the restaurant. It would be wonderful to sell our charcuterie as retail while helping increase awareness of our brand.
Steve: Over the next 12 months we’ll use a PR person to promote Mercado, particularly now the lock-out laws are finished and the city is coming back to life. We’ll get an action plan in place to create buzz and notoriety. All our online reviews have been consistently excellent; we just need to expand our branding. There are great days ahead for Mercado.