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.