Every now and then you have a date night where nothing goes wrong. The whole thing – from venue to food to service to company – is just right, and writing a review becomes quite dreamy. This is how last night’s dinner at Merchants Tavern went. It was quite impeccable.
We arrived at the Victorian warehouse and former apothecary at 7:30pm, and it was already pleasantly full – the bar full of crowds who’d rolled out of the adjacent offices, the restaurant with groups of two to four. Everyone knows a busy restaurant is a good sign.
The interior is fab. Designed by Hackney design studio Very Good & Proper, it references the fifties and early sixties in a simple, kind of Mad Men / Victoriana way. There’s a high, part-glass ceiling, dark green leather booths and plush red and grey chairs, obscured glass and mid-century furniture pieces, and the odd bit of red neon lighting to jazz things up. Even the bathrooms are just so (I always judge a place on its toilets!).
The dining room has a feature wall of wine bottles, and an open kitchen surrounded by the Kitchen Counter, where guests can sit up on high stools for a special five course tasting menu, served by the chefs (£50; seven courses for £60).
Staff are engaged and knowledgeable – our waiter Rhys was a dream, choosing my wine, recommending cocktails (classics with innovative riffs – Richard’s Paloma was perfect) and providing plenty of detail and suggestions from the menu.
We started with an item from the small plates menu – something to nibble on alongside our cocktails while we decided what to order next from the modern and seasonal European menu. Deep fried oysters are just £3 a pop, and our minds were made up. Despite first thinking that it was a sacrilege to deep fry such fine food, I must admit I much prefer this version to the cold and slimy norm! The oysters arrived on their shells, topped with microherbs and chili, and were totally delicious.
Next, two starters recommended by Rhys. My quail (a house dish, and rightly so) featured a roasted breast, confit leg and pan fried foie gras, with hazelnut pesto and remoulade. As usual, Richard’s plate was clean before I had a chance to have a taste of his sea bream carpaccio! He blamed it on the carpaccio’s deliciousness…
My plantation pork belly main was quite divine. Perfectly cuboid in shape, with a hard-to-break layer of crackling topping the juicy meat below, it was served with apple and date puree, January King cabbage, and a fantastically prepared carrot (it had clearly been slow cooked for an eternity and was super sweet). Richard had gone for ox cheek, with creamed potato and pickled onions. Although more like a dessert in appearance, it was another hit, and my impossible-to-please boyfriend was thrilled (which happens very rarely!).
Dessert came in the form of a sweet rhubarb and cream topped meringue, and a super bitter Seville orange tart, balanced with chocolate ice cream. Both highly unusual and tasty, though perhaps not as stunning as the previous courses.
A pair of warm-from-the-oven Madeleines were delivered right at the end, on the house – lemon-scented and totally delightful, they were the cherry on the top of an already-impeccable cake.
Merchants Tavern is onto a seriously good thing, with its perfectly designed interior, relaxing service, buzzing ambience and spot-on food and drink. It’s the ideal high-end date spot – start with drinks, move to dinner, and you’ll be sure to impress.
If you’re after a private dining room, you’ve come to the right place too: The Storeroom is a hidden basement space for up to 22. I’m earmarking this one for future events, for sure.
Meal for two, with drinks and service, about £120.
36 Charlotte Road, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PD