Situated in Shoreditch, on the cusp of the City, Merchants Tavern marries hipster East London with an old-world charm. Housed within a former Victorian warehouse, the Tavern is cavernous, but the space is well-divided into an intimate bar area fitted out with art-deco furnishings; a smart dining room featuring wooden panelling, leather armchairs, a vast skylight, and exposed brick walls; and the Storeroom, a new private dining room available downstairs. Given its location, I was worried the restaurant would feel too “sceney”, and as if it were trying too hard, but this was not the case, and our fellow diners were a mixture of couples on dates, larger groups, and old and young. I was told that post-office suits are regulars during the week.
Our first port of call was the bar. As well as concocting the traditional cocktails that are currently so in vogue across London’s bar scene and made from heady alcohols such as vermouth, Armagnac, cynar and stout, the bartenders are also able to devise bespoke drinks. Indeed, this only seems fitting given the building’s former status as an apothecary’s studio.
To begin, my companion opted for the “Kir Imperials” (£10.00), made with prosecco, vodka, crème de cerise, and lime. I, meanwhile, chose the “Sharpener of the Day” (£9.50), made with almond liqueur and fresh strawberries. Served in a Victorian glass, I was delighted with my choice, a beautifully refreshing and light drink that was perfect for a summer’s evening. As well as offering an extensive cocktail menu, the bar also has a full list of wines and, this being a Tavern after all, British beers – as their stylish, brassy beer taps are testament to.
Keen to save plenty of room for the evening’s taster menu, my companion and I eschewed the bar snacks (Pigs’ Trotters on Sourdough anyone?!), but not before ordering another cocktail – this time tailor-made with the advice of our charming Irish bartender. Whilst I had the “Mexico 36”, a margarita of tequila, lychee and chilli syrup, fresh lime and citrus soda, my companion enjoyed their “Champs Elysees”, made with Courvoisier VSOP, Green Chartreuse, lemon juice and sugar. Both were excellent choices; my companion could certainly taste the cognac in her drink, and the chilli heat of mine gave it a warming kick.
This evening, we were lucky enough to sit at the ten-seater Kitchen Counter. As an alternative to the a la carte menu, diners here can sample a range of dishes from the chef’s special taster menus (£40 for 3 courses; £50 for 5 courses; or £65 for 7 courses), which vary daily according to seasonality and may be enjoyed alongside expert wine pairings. Sitting in front of the kitchen, our stools gave us the best view of the real action of the Tavern, from the artful display of copper saucepans, to the colourful and well-sourced produce neatly arranged under the low-faring copper pendant lights. We were totally immersed into the spectacle, able to identify the ingredients going into the foods as they were created in front of our eyes, from bowls of girolles and tubs of radishes, to piles of sliced courgette and quartered fennel.
Most impressive of all, however, was the way the chefs were able to juggle cooking for a full restaurant (it was a busy Saturday evening after all), with conversations with the counter’s patrons (not least our persistent and undoubtedly irritating questioning!). Head Chef Neil Borthwick, boyfriend of Angela Hartnett, who has collaborated with Neil on the restaurant, introduced himself and discussed the vegetarian dishes he could prepare for us. He, along with the other chefs, continued to engage with us throughout the evening. This is certainly the spot to nab to feel like you’re receiving special treatment: as every course arrived, both Neil and the sommelier explained the matching with expert knowledge.
Although taster menus can sometimes overwhelm, the dishes were well-paced and well-judged, with richer plates balanced against lighter ones. To begin, we enjoyed the Courgettes with Whipped Ricotta. Delicately seasoned with mint, this was a perfectly balanced summer starter. The freshness of the courgettes shone through and provided an ideal prequel to the dishes that followed.
Whilst my companion enjoyed the Gazpacho with Shaved Fennel, Orange and Yoghurt, I couldn’t help but resist the salad of English Heritage Tomatoes, Black Olives, Preserved Lemons and Rocket, having eyed up the colourful rainbow of tomatoes stacked up before my eyes.
For our final starters, my companion enjoyed the salad of Yellow Beans, Apricot, Green Almonds and Walnut Cream. The creamy dressing was not too overpowering and one of Neil’s strengths certainly seems to be the ability to allow the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves.
In a similar vein, I was struck by the beauty of the simplicity of my plate of Radishes, Aioli, and Black Olive Crumb. The earthy radishes and salty crumb provided a perfect counterpoint to the luxurious aioli. I know I’ll certainly be trying to recreate the olive crumb in my kitchen.
The highlight of the evening’s menu for both of us, however, was the Miso Glazed Aubergine, Spinach, Toasted Sesame and Barley. The dish was an ingenious symphony of flavours and textures: the toasted sesame provided an umami quality; the aubergine had been expertly sautéed and roasted; the miso offered a delicious sweetness; the barley lent a grainy bite; and the spinach gave the plate a green freshness.
This was a total contrast to the homemade Linguine with Peas, Broad beans, Mint and Pecorino which we sampled next. Indeed, what it so impressive about the menu is its wide-ranging influences, fusing modern takes on the continental techniques of French, Italian, Spanish, and of course British fare, with the traditions of the East.
For the finale, my companion selected the decadent Dark Chocolate Tart and Salted Almond Ice Cream, its intensity counterbalanced by the sweet chewiness of crumbled honeycomb. Persuaded by the (sometimes overly) attentive sommelier, she enjoyed this alongside a taster of the rich and syrupy Pedro Ximinez port. As my favourite summer desert, I was intrigued by the Strawberry Mess, Pistachio and Apple Granita and the Tavern’s take on this British classic didn’t disappoint. Having triumphed through 6 courses, we took our freshly baked madelines – the Tavern’s signature petit fours – to enjoy later, keen not to miss out on these treats, having admired the batches being prepared and whisked to diners’ tables throughout the evening.
The sign above the door of Merchants Tavern reads “Merchants of Good Fortune” and the merchants, from restaurant manager Tania Maria Davey to the head chef himself, are as charming as they get, the whole team unfailingly eager to please. The characterful setting and knockout food make this a discerning choice for a post-work meal near the City.
Merchants Tavern, 36 Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PG