The Social Life : “Merchants Tavern”

The Social Life : Merchants Tavern.

First off, before anything, allow me to wish everyone (anyone) reading this a happy new year, and thanks for taking the time to shuffle through the content of my latest review, of which I’m sure some is good, and some bits should never have seen the light of day.. Practice makes perfect though right?… Or if not perfect then maybe above average, I will happily settle for that at this moment in time, but who knows….. one day hopefully .

There are things in life I just don’t understand. Quantum physics, the Hadron Collider ( if that’s it’s proper name ), the TV programme The Big Bang Theory, to name but a few. Another one that always confuses the hell out of me is Shoreditch, East London. Don’t misunderstand me, The Light Bar in Shoreditch is where my brother met his future wife, though obviously he didn’t know it at the time. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the problem and its nothing to do with EC2.

Twenty, thirty years ago even ( showing my age ), I would travel down Commercial Street as a passenger in my fathers lorry watching the madness that consumed the area as people went about their daily business.
Quite often we would be delivering to a large textile company just opposite the old Spitalfields market. There was also a fruit and veg market. Maybe that’s what I’m thinking of. The thriving nature of the area was contagious. Everything was done at one hundred miles per hour. There were no parking restrictions, no red route or bus lanes. If there was restrictions, they were old school. A cheeky wink and a quid in the traffic wardens hand. The wardens, (mostly), understood a crust had to be earned. You did get the odd jobsworth, basically someone who actually couldn’t wait to give you a ticket, but the majority, seeing a twelve year old slogging his nuts off with his dad would be quite forgiving. Allow you an hour or so.

Now around the time I’m talking about we would duck in and out of Hoxton’s tiny streets to a multitude of small companies. That was Spoken like I was a main component, as opposed to a feeble but young and eager addition to Patrol Freight, which was my parents small, but highly regarded haulage company. Modern times dictate the word haulage has been knocked out of the baseball park like an unwanted orange, and has been replaced by logistics, or if you are a multi-national company like Eddie Stobart, you term it logistical solutions, but the bottom line is that it’s all just haulage No matter how much you dress it up with bells and whistles.

The old man would chuck his sixteen tonne lorry around those narrow terraces as easy as peeling a banana, ( I’ve got a fruit thing going on here. Three more and that’s my 5 a day! ). Even walking around some of them old roads nowadays is tight. I’ve no idea how he managed it. It was no big deal then, all just in a days work. Maybe I didn’t appreciate how good a driver the old “pot n pan” was, ( throw in a bit of Cockney rhyming slang for atmosphere ). I loved going out in his old Fords. KME 794P and before that NOG 187M affectionately known as “NOGGY”. Vehicles that will remain fondly with me forever. His customers would always look after me. A quid here, can of coke there. They were lovely people in the majority. I didn’t necessarily enjoy going into that area though. Back then, and I still don’t see that much difference now if I’m brutally honest, from Aldgate East onwards, the borough resembled a bit of a slum.

I don’t understand why the “Shoreditch” vicinity is all of a sudden a hotbed of cool. Maybe it always has been. There seems to be a restaurant opening everyday. How good it is doesn’t seem to be important. If it’s in this fashionable post code then “pot pourri”… How many of these places survive after the wind has blown we will see. One that caught my eye though was Merchants Tavern. Down a side road off of Commercial Street, it is a relatively new joint venture from Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick. My admiration for Angela Hartnett runs deep and is based on a visit to her own flagship restaurant many moons ago.

Our 7th wedding anniversary in 2009. GB (short for Gel-Belle , that’s her indoors in case you didn’t know), and myself made Murano the destination of choice for our romantic, Ramsay linked restaurant of that year. As is typical of our luck, on the particular night that we went, Angela was not on service. She was out on the tiles having a few sherbets after Murano was awarded its first Michelin star. Granted it was a long time ago but, I’m pretty sure that we both ( GB and moi ), spoke of how deserving the accolade was. I could be talking rubbish but green and white comes to mind decor wise. Very bright inside. Massive velvet curtain to get through to the dining room. I remember it being quite elegant..I could be talking cobblers though as according to the missus she seems to think it was quite dark. If you are able to provide answers, please do so on a postcard!

It may be a bit sad but being run of the mill folk we didn’t, ( and still don’t ) get to go to fine dining restaurants often. So we used to get a keepsake of some kind. mostly wherever we found ourselves we would ask the waiter or sommelier to sign and date a copy of the menu. A little privileged at the luxury and a tad in awe of where we were. At Murano the chap in question was the sommelier Marc Andrea Levy. It was only a business card but as i said earlier, it was literally just something to remember the evening by. We still have the card now, tucked away with various menus signed by random strangers.

I’ve no idea what we ate but I think Murano would have been the first place to move me from my comfort zone into the world of Scallops. No big deal I know but for someone who didn’t even touch Scampi Fries WAHEY!… I certainly don’t think we had any complaints, and left determined to at some point to visit Cielo in Boca Raton, another of Mrs. Hartnett’s projects. Disappointingly we never made it but that’s the way life is.

Back to the present day and having once again booked through OpenTable. GB and I had arranged a Sunday lunch with two friends to discuss a forthcoming trip. I was quite excited at visiting Merchants Tavern. Even if it was in toe tickling trendy Shoreditch.

I had no idea what to expect. Plush or homely, fine dining or pub grub. I do like the name but is it just a trend thing to call places taverns at the mo? I’m just asking. Set in an old warehouse and former pharmacy ( or apothecary to give it its proper name, if there is a difference my apologies to you all ) I have to say from the outside it looks superb. It certainly does justice to its setting looking cooler than a cucumber that’s just done an ice bucket challenge. The bar is to the right as you go in with space to gather if a few friends were out for go-go juice. First impressions from me got a big thumbs up. Very cool.

We arrived in good time and the four of us were greeted by a smiling lady. coats were taken and we were shown to a table just inside the door where we were told someone would be with us shortly. Spiritland were just a month into a three month residency at Merchants and it seemed there were two chaps setting up the sound system for the day as we arrived. In no way did they interfere with our foursome. Loving my music as I do it was quite interesting for me to watch them. The background music was of my personal taste and was bloody awesome to be honest.

No point telling porkies. Before I had booked it and looked up Merchants properly I had never heard of Spiritland. They play an eclectic mix of music to the extreme. If you haven’t heard of it, there is a flipping good chance they play it.. More importantly for me being an old vinyl junkie, it was all ( or mostly ) original black stuff. On this particular day it was perfect seventies lounge music at a not to over bearing noise level.

My only real criticism of Merchants on our visit comes now. After being shown to the table, and it should be pointed out that it wasn’t what I would call a cauldron of bustleness ( a new word? ), we found ourselves fifteen minutes on, still chatting with throats dryer than ghandi’s flip – flop. There were a couple of people sitting at the bar and one couple eating within the bar area. I tried catching someone’s eye , and I’m not suggesting that someone had a disruptive glass pupil on the loose, more that I was trying to grab the attention of a staff member but it was all to no avail.

In the end having made a paper plane, a rabbit, and a cricket bat from beer mats I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and so took the horn by the bulls. I went to the bar. It was only lunchtime but having waited so long I felt in need of a cocktail. “Just what the doctor ordered “. That’s not what I thought, that was my choice of cocktail. A bourbon based drink which also includes Courvoisier, Mint and Lime Sherbet amongst others. A friend joined me in having “The Prescription”. Crystalhead Vodka, Dry Curaçao, and Lime are the main ingredients just in case you wanted to try and knock one up. Good luck with that!

I’d never really gone along with the whole mixologist thing. Then wifey and I spent new year with friends in Edinburgh. We stayed at a place called Ricks. That was my first real experience of what people are capable of conjuring up. The bloke behind the ramp in Ricks explained it ( while mixing up cocktails of course), with such passion. He took it to a whole new level for me. He was so determined to create the best cocktail. It was enlightening, engaging and enthralling.

In Merchants I believe they have a mixologist to stand alongside some of the best. The drinks ( when they finally arrived ) were sumptuous. The lack of service forgiven in an instant, or for an instant. They really were right out of the top rack of cocktail racks. I now know that I would love to be a mixologist and Make drinks from nettles, coco pops milk, and dehydrated guava. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as dehydrated guava but I’m sure it’s counting towards my 5 a day fruit intake!

After our drinks were finished we took ourselves over to the entrance of the restaurant. Amazing green banquettes surrounded the room with an open kitchen near to the back of a snugly lit area. A quality setting for a Sunday lunch. It was a very comfortable space. The four of us were placed in a banquette opposite the chefs at work. One of my fellow diners is also a chef. I was looking forward to his opinions. My good lady can cook a mean roast as well so comparisons were bound for inclusion.

Our starters arrived. A Swiss Chard Salad and Sardines for the ladies respectively. Slim ( neither Fatboy, shady, or my pals real name ), and myself both opted for the Pigs Trotters on Toast. We agreed that while not setting the world alight the PTOT hit enough high notes to be given the thumbs up. The ladies also complimented the first dishes as the plates went back to the kitchen devoid of leftover food.

The second course was much more straight forward. Four Sunday Roasts. I would in all honesty never compare my wife’s cooking to a professional chef. Not even as a joke. As much as I love her she knows her limitations in the kitchen, although I would probably make her look like the aforementioned Mrs. Hartnett. I wouldn’t go as far as to say she would be able to speak fluent Italian and cook Jerusalem Artichoke three ways on Masterchef but you get my point. I can hand on heart declare I struggle making anything other than fajitas.

I’ve eaten loads of Sunday lunches in my time. Some have been very good and some off the scale of bad. The Merchants Tavern roast dinner I will concede, when dining out is the finest I’ve come across. It was delicious. Chef Slim concurred and none of us diners left a morsel. We were in total agreeance , both there is no such word as agreeance , and that the quality of the mains were outstanding.

Desserts were always going to struggle after such a high point. The females deciding to go down the savoury route of a cheese board to share. Again Slim and I opted for the same choice. Vanilla Creme Brûlée, although I was seriously tempted to go for the Pear and Melon Ensemble. ( Ok I’m lying there was no pear and melon ensemble but it was the only way to get my last two fruits in ).

The shared plethora of cheeses were well received and were subsequently devoured. My nearest and dearest does love a cheese board. It’s her secret guilty pleasure ( or not so secret now ). The brûlée looked divine, the smell of vanilla arriving two minutes before it, and the taste was excellent. It was a great way to finish off the meal.

Between courses we split a bottle of Merchants house red which was lovely. I don’t know enough about wine to start detailing its depth of flavour or robust peppery notes, but it really suited the roast dinner. My sharer of said bottle openly admitted to knowing even less but she did declare it to taste ( and I quote ) “winey”. She was happy, and I was happy. We were the only two drinking and therefore we proclaimed both food and the “winey” wine a triumph. I should also add that the bill was very reasonable coming in at around two hundred shekels including the tip.

There you have it. My take on Merchants Tavern. Which just leaves the following.

Verdict:

Atmosphere: without a doubt 9.5. The decor and relaxed tone plus the background music was what Sunday’s should be about. The music alone might have smuggled a 7.5.

Service: Bar side – 4 restaurant side – 8.5 No complaints once seated in the dining room. Serious misgivings on arriving.

Food: Overall I’m going to go with an 8.8. It was a Sunday lunch, but a highly recommended one. The starter didn’t match the main or dessert but wasn’t far behind.

Overall: 26.8
Would I go back? Yes. Would I go back for Sunday lunch? Most definitely. I do need to work out what’s needed for a 10 though. Mrs. Hartnett has a winner on her rubber bands. Just a shame it’s in blinkin’ Shoreditch really, or maybe it’s time I gave in and embraced the “Artistry” of EC2a.

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