Yep, it’s that time of year again. Your umbrella’s blown inside out, there’s a small puddle forming in your shoe and suddenly it’s difficult to decide whether dinner in town is quite worth the miserable trudge to the bus stop. But if there’s one place that’ll convince you to don your finest winter boots and head out into the night, it has to be the East’s latest upscale apostrophe-shy eatery, Merchants Tavern. Smack bang in the heart of Shoreditch, you’ll find this former Victorian warehouse and apothecary (and, most recently, Cantaloupe bar) ready and waiting to welcome you in from the cold, with a cosy dim-lit dining room and plenty of rustic fare.
There’s been a lot of talk about this latest addition to the city’s gourmet scene, and with the big names behind it, it’s not difficult to see why. Founded by heavyweight chef Angela Hartnett, her talented boyfriend (and head chef) Neil Borthwick and the founders of the Canteen chain, the menu promises seasonal classics with a modern European edge. Arriving on a gloomy Friday evening, we couldn’t wait to get through the looming wooden doors and see if this contemporary take on classic tavern cooking really lived up to the hype.
Arriving a little earlier than expected, we sat ourselves down in the bar to kick the night off. From a selection of drinks including wines and British lagers, ales and stouts, we opted for a couple of cocktails. The highlight has to be the Ezra Street Runner (£8.50), a fragrant rum-based infusion with a naughty hint of absinthe. The Merchants Martini No.1 (£8.50) isn’t quite as inspiring, offering very little of the citrusy aromas promised by the menu, but it still hit the spot and set us up for the night ahead. For diners who don’t want to go the whole hog, there is a tempting array of bar food on offer including deep fried oysters with ginger and chili (£7), and smoky haddock potato cakes with a brown crab mayonnaise (£3.50).
Heading to our table, the intimate bar area opens up into an ever-so-slightly more modern dining room with high ceilings, open brickwork and a wine rack that’d make most grape lovers green with envy. The menu is a hearty affair offering British cuisine with a decidedly continental edge. To start, we go for a warming hogget broth with pearl barley and Berkswell toast (£9.50), and the beautifully prepared Isle of Orkney scallops with crushed pumpkin and wonderfully rich trompette de la mort (£14.50). Moving onto the main course, we try a rich, succulent mallard with mustard greens and salardaise potatoes (£19), but the triumph of the night is the Gloucester Old Spot Belly with roast cauliflower (£19) with a soft, tender meat and a crisp, crunchy crackling that we’ve been raving about ever since.
The food is faultless, a warm seasonal menu with an effortlessly stylist modern twist. The service, while pleasant, isn’t quite as polished and a little over-attentive at times. We were asked about the quality of our food and drinks on one too many occasions, which could be put down to first-week jitters.
It’s early days for the Merchants Tavern, and only time will tell whether it’s able to compete with the rest of the city’s stiff up-market competition. But, with an indulgent menu executed to a tee, combined with the area’s increasingly discerning clientele, it looks like this contemporary cuisine with an earthy, historic edge might just be here to stay.
By Emma Brooke
Merchants Tavern is on 36 Charlotte Road, EC2. For more information visit their website. Londonist reviews anonymously, not by invitation.