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Restaurant review - Merchants

A date in the reinvented Castle Street pile does all sorts of things to Neil McQuillian

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review - Merchants

SLATER Street, that 21st century gauntlet run, may be the most intimidating stretch of Tarmac in the city centre, but Castle Street has its ways and means of putting the frighteners on you. Plugged at either end by the glowering, wind-scarred Town Hall and the bulk of the Queen Victoria statue in her low-security cage, it has you feeling vaguely guilty. God knows what it would be like if the eponymous fortress was still here.

I swanned around, pondering the best spot for my snooker table, when I spotted the real lords of this manor – city boys chowing down on steaks like boarding school boys fearful of grub pilfering. I slunk back to my table to avoid being sent to warm their toilet seat

Fitting, then, that a restaurant on this stretch should have an exterior as inviting as the front door of a Transylvanian castle. The doorway of Merchants, portal-like, gapes inwards, affording a glimpse of black space beyond and dim figures lurking in the darkness.

Inside, thankfully, the space opens up beautifully, with dining areas raised up around a central bar area. I wanted to spin round on the polished floor like a love-struck boy in a musical. The ceiling, crawling with stucco, is kite-height and there are lots of other features with names like pilaster and swag. Above, a startlingly pretty cathedral-style dome of stained glass is hung with a modern sculpture of silver spheres cascading down like God’s own wrath.

We ordered bread (£2.95). Always a good idea to stodge up before a three-course meal. It was hot as a face towel at the end of a Chinese meal. Soft as brioche too, and nearly as sweet. It was more suited to butter (and maybe a glass of milk) than the accompanying dish of average olive oil and balsamic.

Our table was alongside huge windows covered by gauze-thin curtains with a second set, heavy and luxurious, tied open. I stood by them, stomach lined, Peroni in hand, feeling like the Queen at the window of Buckingham Palace waving to the loons outside.

At 6.30pm on a Wednesday the place was quiet, so it seemed a good time for a wander. I swanned around, pondering the best spot for my snooker table, when I spotted the real lords of this manor – city boys chowing down on steaks like boarding school boys fearful of grub pilfering. I slunk back to my table to avoid being sent to warm their toilet seat.

My soft shell crab tempura and crab coleslaw (£6.25) was excellent, nigh-on transparent batter, every leg joint and body cavity merrily crushed, guts and all. Pan-fried prawns (£6.95) had a moistness that showed they’d seen deep waters in living memory, not just the corner of a deep freeze. The eggs Benedict (£5.50), with muffin, streaky bacon and brown sauce dressing) was an enormous starter, the eggs poached plump and firm, evidence of freshness. The sauce was outrageously buttery, perhaps too much, even for my dining partner, a lady who tends to attach bread to her butter. All of this was wonderfully presented, down to the wisps of red cress sown around my plate.

I wanted a luxurious mane and glossy coat too, like those city boys, so went for a steak (£17.95). I often think it is an act of bravery even to put steak on a menu. Everyone has had their fair share over the years, a flank’s worth by the time we go our own kind of bleumost probably. Even vegetarians, factoring in past lives.

The enjoyment of this one dish can disproportionately affect one’s reckoning of the whole dining experience. It came defiantly unadorned on the plate but for a dish of the annoyingly named ‘chunky chips’ – doesn’t this sound like a school canteen menu? – and an air-dried tomato. What next? Wind-swept tomato? Hairdryered tomato? Tomato aura? A sliver of clothing stained during the Tomatina? It was delicious, taking on that singular flavour that these interfered-with tomatoes do, like a tomato flavour Jelly Belly Bean in its colourful sweetness.

The meat – rib-eye – looked as perfect and wanly glossy as a plastic version in a Japanese restaurant window. Even the medium-rareness was completely uniform, damp pink maroon throughout its mass. It was good. It isn’t in my Top Five ever. When I bit into the top of my bovine pops, into that piece of beef toast, my reaction was one of laughter. I couldn’t help it; it was the only response my nervous system could program at that moment. But that’s the Mersey out there, not Pampas plains, and this contender definitely kept me interested.

The Larger Plate Classics part of the menu (£7.95-£9.95) was in that evening’s two-for-one offer. It did not play the poorer relative to the “proper” mains.

The haddock, in its pizzazy interpretation of fish, chips ‘n’ mushy peas (£9.95) looked like a child’s amputated limb, and this nigh-on grotesque bubble of batter yielded oh-so-satisfyingly to the knife. Moreover it was good for its “beer-battered” claim with a good hit of J.W. Lees ale. Often I have found that ‘beer-battered’ fish is puritanically sobre.

The ‘Merchants fish pie (£9.95), with “creamy dill sauce, duchesse potatoes”, sold itself short by describing itself thus, for it was adorned with perfectly soft-boiled quail’s eggs, sporting that deep drenched yellow that only yolks can have.

The one dessert we tried was disappointing, a lightweight tiramisu, and though the Cheshire on the cheese board was very good, it was all too cold.

Cocktails run £5.50-£6.50 with an extensive wine list starting at £14.50 a bottle and £3.75 a glass.

My niece was asleep under the table. We all wanted to join her. When we asked our waiter – excellent throughout – to pass on our compliments to Scott, the chef, he hesitated. Apparently so many compliments have been coming Scott’s way that his head is threatening to take out one of the kitchen extractor fans.

On our way out we looked up again at the façade. Petrified in the wall are two huge, Neptune-like heads. I thought of Scott, of his tempura and his poached eggs, of his blossoming head. Then I remembered the cheese, and I wanted to remind him to get it out of the fridge before he serves it up, see if I couldn’t send that head of his, parping round the kitchen, out into the restaurant and past God’s wrath, a bob or two against the cathedral roof then a slow descent, coming to rest on my newly-installed snooker table.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousOctober 23rd 2009.

Surely Helen the only way to create atmosphere is for more people to go??

Helen POctober 23rd 2009.

Problem is it's still a bit dead in here. No atmosphere for me.

Phillipo McCrackenOctober 23rd 2009.

I think Merchants is fantastic in terms of food and value. I would definitely give it a 9/10. Service is impeccable too. I have been there a few times and will return -regularly

Mrs HewittOctober 23rd 2009.

Well I don't know much about Gordon Blow food but I just wanted to say I have seen a recent picture of Tom Jones today. He's let his hair go grey and looks so much better. .........erm..this looks like the type of place he would go in. All looks lovely......like Tom.

Mark Garner, the PublisherOctober 23rd 2009.

Neill, well done, good review and well scored. Scott, sort that cheese out, I suspect it cost you a point. A great cheeseboard will increase your covers by 7%, which will offset the wastage at the beginning.

jayOctober 23rd 2009.

Discovered this place the other night (Dec '09). Assumed it would be trendy, overpriced and with attitude, but was proved totally wrong.Service was best encountered in Liverpool - friendly yet very efficient. (actually, more correctly pitched than most other establishments I've visited lately in any part of the UK - a lot of places seem to think fawning is the same as good service...)As for the food - everything really was exceptional (the battered fish is as light as described in the review). My dessert - treacle pud with banana icecream - was rich without being cloying, and refreshingly light in texture also.Not sure why it is so quiet - though I did notice that the other diners and drinkers (of varying ages) were not the loudmouth type, so maybe it is just not brash enough... thank god.My only suggestion would be to turn the heat up slightly - an extra 2 degrees would have been appreciated. However, the whole experience was so pleasant that I would be willing to take a hot-water bottle if necessary...Thanks.

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