Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Merchant's Tavern, Shoreditch

After forgetting Rule No. 1 of Eating Out - "Always make sure the restaurant you like is open, before trying to eat there" (in this case a US joint called TuJacks, which I will certainly try again later) - I found myself stamping out the cold on Curtain Road, checking Twitter and desperately trying to find somewhere else in the area to fill my lunch hour. There were some excellent suggestions - there always are, on Twitter - and yet in my infinite wisdom I decided to ignore all of them and head round the corner to Merchant's Tavern, somewhere that had been vaguely on my radar since opening day all the way back in... well a long time ago, anyway.

I probably should have read something into the fact that none of my followers suggested it when given the opportunity, but then Twitter - and foodies in general... and alright yes, myself included - does have a habit of completely forgetting about anywhere that's been open for more than six months and I did genuinely want to go, given the connections with Angela Hartnett (it's her partner Neil Borthwick who runs the place) and how reliable her places have been in the past. So that was that. Surely it can't be that bad?

Well, no, it wasn't. This is one of those times when a restaurant blogger either needs a place to be more exciting and accomplished, or more of a complete disaster so make a better story to write up. But the sad (for me) fact is, Merchant's Tavern is neither bad restaurant nor a brilliant one; it's just a solid, mid-range, faintly dull way of spending your money on lunch in Shoreditch, certainly no worse than a lot of its neighbours but paling into complete transparency next to world-class joints such as the Clove Club, mere steps away.

Snacks were probably the best parts of the meal. Salt cod beignets were fluffy and fresh, with a lovely clean flavour and seasoned well.

...and although the "Crispy pork, Asian pickles" was a little strange in practical terms as a "snack" - were we supposed to use our hands? Wrap a bit of pickle around a morsel of pork? Scoop as much as we could up with our forks? - the flavours were in fact good, particularly the pickles which had a good balance of sharp and sweet.

But mains were best described as forgettable. My own rump steak was livery and lean, barely better than chain pub standard, with a mash that needed a lot more salt and dairy to be able to describe itself as "creamed" and an annoying clichéd clump of watercress on the side. The flower of Tête de Moine on top of it all was, in of itself, lovely, but only served to highlight the lack of flavour and excitement elsewhere on the plate.

Chicken with almond and herb pesto was better, but suffered from an almost complete lack of seasoning and a lack of some kind of sauce in which to dip the fries. It's strange, I've always thought, how anywhere that can season its food properly always has salt and pepper on the table (that you never need), and anywhere that seasoning is an issue you have to embarrass yourself - and them - asking for it. With a lot of salt the chicken - and my mash - was better, but only better. Still not good.

Possibly if more of what had come before had been more enjoyable we may have had the idea to stick around for desserts; instead we asked for bill with the intention of sneaking out and chalking it all up to experience. But then, quite unexpectedly, we were brought a really lovely dessert anyway, two madeleines by way of petits fours which were fresh and moist and a frustrating indication that someone in the kitchen was paying attention after all.

Looking back now over some of the early reviews from Merchant's Tavern, I wonder if something has been lost over the years. Where was the pig's head "kremeski" with tarragon mayonnaise? Where was the Ogleshield toastie, or the pork neck meal for two? At some point, did they make a conscious decision to roll back into a bog-standard London gastropub or did it happen by accident as the effort involved in being innovative and unique was too much to maintain? Or maybe the Merchant's Tavern was simply never my kind of thing in the first place. Still, I've done it now. Better late than never.


Merchants Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Alicia Foodycat said...

I haven't been there for a couple of years, and only for dinner, but I really liked it when I went.

Michael said...

The Merchant's Tavern is a bit of a 'Local' for me. I live in the area and I go 3 or 4 times a month. I visit the bar more frequently as they have a small and constantly changing list of cocktails that I enjoy very much. But the food is always decent and - I think - deserves better than a 5/10. For me, I would place the venue just into the second standard deviation from the mean, with a solid 7/10.

The wine list is extensive and takes some chances with regions that normally don't appear on a typical London wine list (Lebanon, Israel, Greece). But the wines compliment the food selections in some innovative ways you otherwise would not see at a similar establishment. Far too much space is devoted to wines from France, but this is a common failing of the British restaurant community. The point is that they have taken some chances and they should be congratulated for that decision.

The service is reliably good. In a London postcode renowned for 'hipster cool', the Merchant's Tavern takes a very helpful and polite approach which is incredibly flexible and forgiving. I have been treated much more poorly at restaurants with much better reputations. Service is friendly, convivial, intelligent and

But I must agree with some of your points regarding the food. There are pockets of innovation (the snacks you mentioned in your review), but the main menu relies too heavily on a past trend for 'traditional' English fare at the expense of the possibility that failure with an idea or two, might result in a door closing negative review..

As with many similar restaurant models, the goal seems to be to convert after work drinkers in the main bar, into after work diners once they become a little squiffy and comfortable with the low lights and the cool tunes and the confident, successful vibe of the place. It's a profitable model no doubt, but it seems obvious to me that the kitchen longs to do a bit more.

Service, pockets of innovation, combined with assured and confident execution are enough for me to put this one at 7/10. Some more well thought out innovation and considered risk taking with the menu would ensure the Merchant's Tavern achievement f a great deal more positive buzz.


Gavin said...

Haven't been for a few years but used to be a great standby in the area. Don't remember a bad meal there. Mind you, was back in the day when Thomas Blythe was GM. Coincidence?

Lars G. said...

That's so surprising. I lived in Shoreditch until recently, and the Merchant's Tavern has been one of my favourite restaurants in the area if not in the entirety of London. Excellent wine list, extremely nice staff, very good restaurant design and, above all, what I found to be excellent food. I would recommend you trying it once more (maybe for dinner?).