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Whenever you see crossed chives you are in trouble
Never eat anything bigger than your head
We should all be eating less meat and better meat

The Merchant's Tavern

In November 2000 I breathed a sigh of relief as we published the third edition of the Rough Guide to London Restaurants. Over 350 restaurants and a page for each, a mission that involved endless hours hammering at the keyboard and several hundred meals some good and some bad. Old guide books make great reading, in 2000 the entry for the Cantaloupe starts “Property people keep saying that Shoreditch is the in place to live, but until you visit somewhere like Cantaloupe you may be forgiven for not believing them. It’s been trading happily since 1996 and is packed to the gunnels”. Crowded, trendy and noisy – pretty much the same indicators of success as prevail today.
In those far off times Cantaloupe was masterminded by Richard Bigg who successfully linked music venues to bars with food bring up the rear. Now he has a well-respected mini chain of authentic Spanish restaurants serving one of the best steaks in London - the Frisona ox steak which lurks on his menu as Chuletón con hueso.
After Richard Bigg relinquished the Cantaloupe site it spent a few fallow years when it was busy but not so busy. In essence the offer was a large bar with a small restaurant area, and yes, it was still too noisy for oldies. The latest incarnation is much more promising. The newly opened Merchant Tavern has reversed the priorities – there’s still a bar biffing out moody cocktails but now a large restaurant leads a small bar. The people are important too – Neil Borthwick is head chef and Thomas Blythe is General Manager – and hovering in the background (or rather working the lunch shift when we visited) is Angela Hartnett.
The menu is a good read, during the run up to Christmas there was a stonking set lunch – white onion and chestnut risotto followed by roast goose or “Sea bream, Orecchiette and pancetta ragout” finishing with vanilla tart with rum soaked prunes … two courses £22 and three for £25. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Hartnett and Borthwick’s menus so seductive – the dishes are sometimes Italian, but sometimes not. How would you classify “cod, ham hock, chicken broth leeks and salsify”? Or “Gloucester Old Spot belly, roast cauliflower and Savoy cabbage”? Or even “monkfish, mussel and chervil ragout”? Does a starter like “roast quail, hazelnut pesto, remoulade and foie gras” ring the bell? Service is friendly slick. The room is “cavernous-industrial” as befits a former warehouse that was once home to an Apothecary. The standard of cooking is high and there is no sign of that enemy of good eating – pretension, plus for the first time in a decade or so you will not need lip-reading skills to grasp what your companion is saying. The music has been tamed.
The Merchant flies the flag for careful cooking at a reasonable price – most starters are £9 while the mains range from £15.50 to £19.50. This restaurant has a good feel to it and you will eat well.
Merchants Tavern, 36 Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PG. (020 7060 5335)

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