Cheat Sheet: Downtown's The MerchantBy Scott Kearnan
March 6, 2014
The Gist: In a sea of sub shops and fast-casual chains, this just-opened "American brasserie" has a prime location near Downtown Crossing. It's already attracting throngs of Financial District types for post-work cocktails at a massive 40-ft. bar and baiting diners with fare by chef Matt Foley, former sous at Cambridge's acclaimed Craigie on Main.
The Vibe: Housed in a former leather goods shop, The Merchant features red leather banquettes, hardwood floors and oversized industrial lighting fixtures - including some cool, mesh covered glowing globes. Private dining rooms with flocked walls and oversized reproductions of old newsprint sales flyers complete the handsome shop-turned-American eatery look. A partition clearly divides the diners from the loud and cheery crowds of cocktail clinkers cheerfully recounting the day's conference calls by the bar. (Take a look inside here.)
Eat This: Chef Foley clearly packed an A-game for his move to The Merchant. Among the appetizers, you'll want to get your claws into the hot and cold crab ($15), a seared cake (pictured) paired with a chilled citrus-y salad. The succulent duo comes drizzled with a caper-studded tartar sauce and the result is absolutely fabulous. (A bread stick-style "homemade pretzel" is nice but unnecessary.) The starter pasta ($10) of house made faro with ragout of pork shoulder and red wine is also a standout, while an entree of crispy duck a l'orange ($23), a leg and breast served with sweet and sour (mostly the former) cabbage and farro verde, is as close to heaven as you're likely to find this side of Washington Street. The tidy dessert menu, a quartet of sweets that will be recited by your server, includes a deconstructed take on banana cream pie ($8) that is clever and satisfying.
Drink This: The main attraction is a big beer list that includes 36 varieties (including local craft brews like Fort Point-made Trillium) on draught, 17 bottles and 13 cans. But there's also an interesting cocktail program to start sampling your way through. We started out with some gin-based drinks, including the predictably floral, lavender-hued Violet Hour martini ($11) with fresh grapefruit and creme de violette, and the kickier Pegroni ($10), an on-the-rocks combo of orange-infused gin, Punt e Mes and Campari. Neither matched the heights of the food, but the Pegroni in particular was strong (in more ways than one) and suggests similar promise awaits on a deeper dive into the cocktails. (Yes, we'll be back.)
Skip This: No outright "skips" to suggest so far. One minor quibble: The raw bar, a four-seat oasis of chilled shellfish in the corner, currently features littleneck clams, jumbo shrimp, and two oyster varieties: South Bay Blonde and Powder Point. We'd love to see those oyster styles change frequently (here are a few suggestions). Turning it into a one-stop shop to consistently taste new varieties would give a stronger identity to a feature that feels like a bit of an aside.
The Verdict: Opening with less fanfare than a number of other new dining entries, The Merchant is likely to exceed expectations. The real test will come in sustaining them: stylistically, the spot is a perfect fit for a prime location (on our visit, days after opening, a 45-minute wait had developed as soon as offices started emptying), so it would be very easy, maybe tempting, for the restaurant to eventually lower its bar for the sake of turning over tables and sitting pretty on a vibrant bar scene. We hope that won't happen, because Foley is hawking some seriously good food here, and as long as that continues, we're buying what he's selling.
The Merchant, 60 Franklin St.; 617-482-6060