Roast loin of venison with braised red cabbage and sprout tops. Photograph: Patricia Niven
Roast loin of venison with braised red cabbage and sprout tops. Photograph: Patricia Niven

This may be the first time I’ve been seduced by a restaurant’s furnishings before putting anything in my mouth. Like a boozy sojourn into Don Draper’s Mad Men, I loved the low slung leather seats, the discreet little booths and intimate lighting at Merchants Tavern.

It’s a joint venture between culinary power couple Neil Borthwick and Angela Hartnett, and needless to say it’s exceptionally good, knocking the ball out of the park at every single level.

The cocktails will blow your mind. We tried the Old Street Fashioned – a sleek tumbler mixed with ten-year old French brandy that hit an empty stomach with a glorious buzz, and the Jane Shores Sour, a pretty little glass of pale yellow with a delicate curl of lemon rind on top.

Gliding to the table after the fortifying sharpeners, we made short shrift of some deep fried oysters with a zingy garnish of ginger and chilli – the crust crisped to perfection and the meat inside beautifully soft. The raw version, which comes with pickled cucumber and buerre blanc sauce was also divine and dispatched rapidly.

Next up more cocktails, and this time we tried the Ezra St Runner, made with rum, mint and lime juice, sweetened with agave syrup and rinsed with absinthe. That’s right. Rinsed with absinthe.

The ham hock ravioli with buttered cabbage in chicken broth was out of this world. A delicate disk of pasta with beautifully flavoured and tender meat tucked inside – the simplicity was deceptive.

And the quail, so often proving a battle to extricate a mouthful from millions of tiny bones. Here the meat was so juicy and tender it must be cooked on the bone and then pan fried to crisp up the skin. There’s a square of fried fois grois to deepen the flavour, hazelnut pesto and a flick of salty reduction that is just perfectly judged.

On to mains and a beautiful piece of pollock with a crunchy sourdough breadcrumb crust. The fish came resting in a delicate emulsion made from sorrel and lettuce that’s feather-light and spring-like in its flavours without being in any way intrusive.

The Jacob’s Ladder – or short ribs – was also cooked to perfection. The tenderness of the meat went beautifully with the slight bite of the lentils, with capers and dill giving it a nice earthy flavour.

If the menu looks slightly out of range, there’s a lunch deal for £18 or three for £22 that are definitely worth checking out. The staff are incredibly lovely and know the menu backwards, the food is exquisite and the drinks will knock your socks off.

Merchants Tavern
36 Charlotte Road, EC2A 3PG


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