Friday 4 October 2013

Merchant's Tavern

Living in the farthest reaches of what can reasonably be considered London, as we do, we miss out on quite a bit of Londony stuff. We don't tend to get to gallery openings or hot new bars and by the time we've decided to go to a pop-up, it's over. Twitter is changing that a bit. I'm now actually finding out about events in time to do something about them.

I'd seen reports that Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick were opening a restaurant. Then @thomasblythe tweeted the details of the soft launch, so I threw my hat in the ring for a booking and was rewarded with a 6pm table, with 50% off the food bill. Which was fine by me. Again, living in the farthest reaches of what can reasonably be considered London, an early dinner means not having to hurtle for the last train.
It's a lovely room. A Victorian warehouse, apparently, so it is open and airy, with a long skylight adding to the open feeling. The tables have a reasonable amount of elbow room around them, which is nice. I hate fearing that I am going to sit in someone's bread and butter when I squeeze between tables to get to the loo. It also meant that we weren't inadvertent participants in other people's conversations. One of the extremely friendly staff told us that all the banquettes etc are moveable, so the room can be reconfigured for different events. Very clever design.

The thing about a soft launch, of course, is that there may be bugs and hitches that are being ironed out. There was nothing too dramatic, the staff seemed more worried and anxious about them than we were: the room was quite smoky when we arrived due to the Big Green Egg, our first choice of wine was unavailable, and having told us that there were no changes to the menu the waiter had to confess that the halibut was going to be cod. Not exactly evening-ruining events, and in a lot of restaurants those things don't even get identified as hassles.

Paul had a pint of Camden Pale Ale and I had a glass of crémant de Loire while we ordered, then we shared a bottle of verdejo from the very reasonably-priced wine list. The wine was kept in an ice bucket at a station in the middle of the room, so we were at the mercy of the staff noticing when our glasses were empty, but fortunately they appreciated that a woman is not a camel and kept me well topped up.
Angela Hartnett and the other chefs in action
Paul ordered hogget broth with pearl barley and cheesey toast (Berkswell on the menu, introduced as Ogleshield when it was served) as a starter from the very appealing menu. He loves his mother's lamb and barley soup, so for him this was real comfort food. It was a substantial portion - this and dessert would make a very reasonable lunch. The taste I had was full of rich roast lamb flavours and the slightly gelatinous texture that pearl barley gives, warming and soothing.
I can't remember the last time I was tempted by quail on a menu. So many bones, so little meat, always so sticky with sugary sauces. And yet roast quail, remoulade, hazelnut pesto and foie gras called my name. The way it was presented, as a wee confit leg and a plump roasted breast meant few bones and a satisfying quantity of meat. The foie gras was the sweetest thing on the plate, everything else had a finely judged bitterness or robust savoury flavour. The very delicate slivers of celeriac remoulade bounced their nuttiness off the hazelnut pesto and smoothed out the bitter radicchio, then the radicchio cut through the jellied fatty sweetness of the foie gras. Such a lovely autumnal dish.
Our main courses were quite similar in presentation, but not in flavour. Paul had roast brill with coco beans, anchovies and bread sauce. I first tried coco beans at Le Manoir in 2007 and I'd thought they were beautiful, so it's lovely to see them becoming more popular. Their creamy blandness was the perfect accompaniment to the nutmeggy bread sauce, beautifully cooked fish, salty spears of samphire and heady rosemary and anchovy flavours.
The thing that drew me to the halibut (or, in fact, cod), ham hock, chicken broth, leeks and salsify was the salsify. I've cooked it a couple of times and found it delicious but a soul-destroying fiddle to prepare, so having it cooked for me seemed like a very good idea. It's known as the "oyster plant" but to me it tastes like the best bit of an artichoke heart. It complemented the moist, flaky fish, shreds of ham and leeks beautifully. The chicken broth was very intense and just faintly too salty. When I had a spoonful with some of the fish it was fine, but sipped by itself it was overwhelming. So I had to sop up the remaining broth with some of the excellent sourdough bread.

I think both mains would have benefitted from some vegetables on the side, but we weren't offered any and they didn't feature on the menu. I also have a suspicion that some punters might fret at the lack of spuds. Not that I would have wanted chips with this but you know how some people get with insufficient carbs.
The relatively light main courses meant that I had plenty of space for pudding. Which led to the revelation that my husband has a pathological hatred for the name "rum baba". He claims that there was something on TV where they talked about rum babas and they said it so often over so many weeks that he now can't hear the words without flying into a rage. Weird. But that didn't stop me from ordering it.

The rum baba itself was wonderful; light and totally sodden with powerfully alcoholic syrup. The accompanying apples and raisins were a bit less successful. The slices of raw green apple (thankfully not called a carpaccio) didn't really seem to belong, there wasn't really anything sweet or rich enough to need that extra sharp bite. The golden raisins had been plumped up in something with a bit of zingy citrus zest but weren't quite plump or tender enough and the caramelised apples were a bit meagre. I think swapping the raw apple for a couple more wedges of caramelised apple would be more successful. I am now considering making something similar as our Christmas dessert, although I won't be able to call it a rum baba.

1 comment:

grace said...

i've never had salsify! everything looks darn good to me, and let it be known that i always have room for dessert. :)


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