Restaurant review: Angela Hartnett is at the helm of Shoreditch's latest high-ticket opening, the Merchants Tavern

Merchants Tavern, 36 Charlotte Road, London, EC2 (020-7060 5335)

Looking back at the reviews I've written from Shoreditch over the past 15 years, a certain theme emerges. It used to be edgy here, runs the story, but now this or that smart new restaurant has opened, the area has really started to change. Great Eastern Dining Room, Eyre Brothers, Cru, the Rivington, Boundary, Tramshed. Each new opening a bit posher, a bit more City-boy-friendly than the last. Each one signifying the end of the arty-boho Shoreditch scene.

Except they didn't. So even though this week's high-ticket opening is a grand and grown-up affair, I'm reluctant to once again sound the death knell for alt-Shoreditch. This is what urban renewal looks like: a first wave of pioneering bars and shebeens which are gradually forced out when the rates rise and the crowd changes.

Back in the mid-Nineties, Cantaloupe was THE place to drink – the first bar in the Hoxton area that non-scenester muggles could infiltrate without feeling too conspicuous. Now it has gone, and in the Victorian warehouse where it stood has risen the suave new Merchants Tavern. Where twitchy web designers once yelled at each other over bottled beers, now business lunchers murmur over braised pork cheeks. Today's lesson: gentrify not, lest ye also be gentrified.

There's a pedigree team behind this new arrival that makes it hard to resent. Angela Hartnett, Britain's pre-eminent female chef, and her partner Neil Borthwick may have worked mainly up West, but they're East End locals. With backing from the chaps behind Canteen, their Tavern confidently stakes a claim to be Shoreditch's smartest restaurant – the Wolseley or Ivy of EC2.

You enter through a roomy drinking area, an interior designer's spiffy dream of a spit-and-sawdust public bar. Beyond it, the wide-angle dining room is pure midtown Manhattan, dark, moody and rather delicious. With its schoolroom fittings, semi-circular booths and acres of leather as seductive as the seats of a vintage Jag, prosperity seeps from its manly contours like smoke from a Cuban cigar.

"Everywhere looks just like the Soho House now," observed my guest, Dan, who runs a group of gourmet Italian takeaways in the City and bid at a charity auction to accompany me on a review. The menu got us both excited; beautifully written, it promises heartiness and autumnal comfort. Hogget broth, pearl barley and Berkswell toast; mallard, mustard greens and Sarladaise potatoes; roast pork neck, forgotten carrots and girolle persillade. It's Modern British with a come-hither twist.

But head chef Neil Borthwick's food is much more complex and refined than the speak-as-I-find menu suggests. A starter of roast quail was fantastic, the leg and breast poised on a tangle of celeriac remoulade under a shimmering slice of seared foie gras and a rubble of toasted hazelnuts. Roasted loin of venison, a lardo-draped cube served with sprout leaves, red cabbage and spiced quince, was equally well composed, though a couple of roast potatoes would have been useful to mop up the cinnamon-scented jus.

Other dishes tipped towards the over-dainty. Salad of baked autumn vegetables promised rough edges and caramelised crunch rather than a polite assembly of turned carrots, squash and poached egg, shrink-wrapped in speck and bathed in a buttery emulsion. The mismatch between the manly, clubbable dining room and the dainty refinement of the food was at its starkest in a main course of monkfish in which meaty slices were served over slippery farfalle and mussels in a weeny, starter-sized dish. If they are hoping to attract male business lunchers, they may need to boost the carb-content and the portions.

Desserts are simpler: we enjoyed a velvety blackcurrant posset napped with an intense sharp-sweet syrup of fresh fruit, and a good, plain honey tart with malt whiskey ice-cream, the only dish of the meal that sat comfortably within the 'tavern' branding.

Service moves at a pace to suit the time-pressed City luncher, though my guest Dan did wonder whether they would travel this far – according to him most of them barely have time to grab a takeaway from the apparently very superior Coco di Mama group.

Angela Hartnett was standing beadily beside the pass for the whole lunchtime service. She needn't have worried. The food at the Merchants Tavern is very good. Maybe a bit TOO good; this room and its location are enough of a draw, and that designer-dingy bar promises every kind of fun. All things must pass, of course, but if it relaxes a bit, and makes the food a bit bigger or the prices a bit smaller, this Merchants Tavern seems like the nearest thing yet to a sure-fire survivor in Shoreditch.

Food ****
Ambience ****
Service ****

Merchants Tavern, 36 Charlotte Road, London, EC2 (020-7060 5335). Around £55 a head including glass of wine and service.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...