Merchant's Tavern has, for a wee while now, been the talk of the town. Angela Hartnett's put her name behind the place, and none other than the indomitable Thomas Blythe looks after the front of house. If ever there was a more snazzily dressed manager, I'm yet to meet them.
We visited on a Sunday afternoon, that awkward time in between lunch and dinner. I wouldn't describe the space as what one might traditionally call a tavern - that, for me, brings to mind a lot of gloomily lit room decorated in dark wood panelling, tankards of mead on offer - but instead an airy, banquette-lined spacious bar, opening to a dining room lit by skylights.
We perched on stools by the bar, facing a fridge full of cured meats, dangling tantalisingly. One of us sipped on an absinthe-laced cocktail, while the other nursed a 'Dr. Henderson the Younger', heady with Fernet Branca and gin. My eyes widened a touch at the pricing on the main menu, and instead we decided to graze on the bar menu.
Pigs head and veal kremeski (sic) - a well posh croquette yes? - were plump fingers of perfectly crisp, liberally seasoned slow-cooked meat dribbled with a tarragon mayonnaise. Served in a little copper pot, they were just the thing I can imagine were deceptively time-consuming to make.
We further tested the skills of the fryer with blisteringly hot cauliflower spheres, the cheese-stuffed middles eager to ooze from its carapace. They were how I'd like all my cauliflower cheese from now on - intense creamy brassica flavour. Haddock fish fingers came with a tartare sauce so deliciously tangy it was hard not to just eat it all up with your fingers... as you can see.
We took a well needed vegetable break, and the Little Gem lettuce, braised and dressed with brown shrimp and pickled cucumber was the ideal foil for all the richness we'd indulged in. The pickled cucumber took the thinly shaved ribbon form and was unexpectedly but pleasantly sweet. Fat, amber prawns (top pic) whiffed of freshly fried garlic, spiked through with chilli. Their bodies, de-shelled were eagerly swiped through the aioli, though the juices sucked from their heads were a little on the bitter side.
Then, the main show/heart stopper arrived. Ogleshield and ham toasted sandwich might, on paper, sound rather dull. But we knew that to charge £8 for a toasted sandwich it had to be something special, right? So we ordered it, and it was amazing. Thick, soft bread fried until crisp in what I suspect was butter was stuffed with cheese that surely must've been mixed with bechemel, it was so rich and luxurious. The ham was substantial; thickly cut, proper ham. The sweet-sour pickles were a palate-cleansing necessity, the Picpoul de Pinet helping it along a bit. It's the best toasted sandwich I've ever had. We rounded off our indulgence with a perfectly wobbly vanilla-flecked custard, topped with boozy prunes.
Avoiding the so-perceived costly dining room menu in favour of the bar turned out to be a vain attempt, as we faced a £50-a-head bill.
36 Charlotte Road
London EC2A 3PG
London EC2A 3PG