I used to love Shoreditch in the '90s. Edgy, indie, and effortlessly cool, I couldn’t get enough of the place.
Our main drinking joint back then was Cantaloupe – the area’s first ‘style bar’ (and how dated is that expression now) – and in our mind, the epicentre of cool Britannia. Forget Camden; if you wanted to be in the scene, the 'ditch was the place. But as we all grew up and got proper jobs, Shoreditch left its artistic roots behind and put on a suit and tie. (If you don’t believe me, check out Shoreditch House on a Friday night.)
Cantaloupe has also long gone, and the former warehouse is now the site of Merchants Tavern, brought to us by Chef Angela Hartnett, and backed by the guys behind Canteen. It’s a stunningly beautiful restaurant. The mood lighting, exposed brickwork and extensive sky-lighting takes you back to Manhattan in the '90s. The semi-circular booths and a 'field of cows’ worth of leather takes you back to Don Draper’s Manhattan. The ambience, crowd and service take you to the grown-up Shoreditch of today.
The menu is modern European with a smattering of British, so starters include squid ink taglionlini and crab, a pork salad with smoked mackerel cream, and gazpacho. We went for the quail with hazelnut pesto and foie gras, which was full of rich big flavours and (for me) surprisingly well-balanced dish, and the tuna ceviche with avocado, which was very good. I ignored my default preference of Lancashire pork belly with fagionlini beans and chipotle to try the saddle of new season lamb with confit shoulder and raisins, as recommended by the waiter – a good dish that was worth the £22 punt. However, the Northerner’s turbot with borlotti beans and mousserons (mushrooms) and anchovy and bread sauce was better. Perfectly cooked, and a great combination of flavours. The dark chocolate tart with salted almond ice cream was heavenly – the perfect mix of bitter and sweet.
If you asked the Northerner and me in our '90s Shoreditch days what sort of place would we be going to in 20 years, it would be somewhere with good food and wine, great ambiance, but still had elements of the hip factor. Somewhere like the Merchants Tavern in fact. Let’s face it – we all had to grow up sometime.
On a scale of * to *****
Wining and dining ****
Serving and Pouring ***
Hipster factor ****