Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch
If Shoreditch has become a foodie hub, it’s partly thanks to Angela Hartnett’s Merchants Tavern. Right on the other side of The City border set by Commercial Street, East London’s most popular destination offers room for less polished but more interesting ventures.
The wide dining room of Merchants Tavern is comfortable and trendy, featuring a massive skylight bringing in natural light. It’s trendy but classy: you won’t see the often over-used weathered wooden table but instead a very good balance between fad and classic finish.
Couches are more comfortable so it’s worth trying to get one, although those in the corner are less spacious – perhaps better for a date night.
It’s a weekday lunch and speed is more than a detail; the fast service is definitely appreciated. Our meal begins with two delicious courses: the vegetarian Wye Valley Asparagus, Crushed Egg Vinaigrette, Lovage and Quail, Hazelnut Pesto, Remoulade & Foie Gras. Although I tend not to favour vegetarian dishes, the sight of the asparagus on another table has convinced me that I have to try them. Big and fleshy, they fill your mouth with an authentic natural flavour. The eggs covering them make it a very rich course. However, it’s the quail that steals the show, and more precisely the marvellous piece of pan-seared foie gras that it is served with. A clean dish, the bird is tasty and the little leaves of bitter radicchio, covered with a Parmesan pesto, add complexity and character.
The wine selection by the glass is interesting; for our mains, we opt for a glass of Valpolicella Borgomarcellise 2011 by Marion from Veneto, Italy, and a White 2011 by Sequillo (Eben Sadie) from Swartland, South Africa. The white wine, a super-blend of five grapes, fruity, structured but unsurprisingly lacking definition, is what I choose for the Turbot, Borlotti Beans, Mousserons, Anchovy & Bread Sauce. It’s very clear when fish is cooked perfectly: the skin is crispy, the flesh is soft. The soup has a Japanese feel – although there’s too much parsley – and the borlotti beans give it substance. The Valpolicella doesn’t stand out for definition either but it’s definitely a glass of good wine, elevated by the extended maceration typical of this product. Its generosity matches the exquisiteness of the Lancashire Pork Belly, Helda Beans and Chipotle. If you love pork belly this is something you cannot miss; there is the tender/crusty contrast, it’s relatively light and its smokiness is quite unique. The only disappointing element is the portion of very plain fine beans.
Head chef Neil Borthwick is not showing us anything new with these dishes; there’s no attempt to explore new approaches or unorthodox trends. He is refining technique and nurturing quality.
The desserts selection is more than satisfactory, with many fruit-based options and a Dark Chocolate Tart with Salted Almond Ice Cream that is reminiscent of the chef’s Gordon Ramsay days. The chocolate is very intense and I doubt it would be possible to stop yourself eating the whole cake if it were on the table. The Coffee, Whiskey Burnt Cream and Shortbread is interesting, a must-try for those fond of the ingredients.
Merchants Tavern is one of the best restaurants you can find in East London, and its proximity to The City’s border makes it a viable option for business lunches too. Classy but relaxed, Angela Hartnett and life partner Neil Borthwick’s venture has brought to life something that was missing from the neighbourhood food scene.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Laura Denti