The Merchant Tavern
291 Water St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 722-5050
I remember having a conversation years ago with William D. (Bill) Mahoney, owner of the old Bank of Nova Scotia building on Water Street. The building now houses The Merchant Tavern. It was when the building was vacant. I asked him what he was going to do with it. He told me he was looking for a suitable tenant but so far had had no luck.
Then he told me he’d been in touch with Indigo Books in Toronto. He thought, not unreasonably, that the former bank would make a dandy Indigo bookstore. Indigo turned him down flat. Indigo’s response was, “We don’t think St. John’s has enough people who read books to justify putting an Indigo store there.” And so, we have The Merchant Tavern, a hall for eaters, drinkers, talkers, music lovers and, I dare say, a few people who read and maybe even write books.
It’s an imposing building, one of the most serious on our businesslike high-street. All slate grey stone, it looks like one big cornerstone at Water St. and Becks Cove. A monument to mercantilism. Not even the signage hints that some fun might be had inside. Just a single white M, encircled by white braid, against a navy background. More conservative than signs found on most funeral homes these days.
The first thing that hits you when entering is the sound. Think of Grand Central Terminal. Clearly, Merchant Tavern patrons aren’t bothered in the least by it. The place was, as they say, blocked. You get used to the sounds that bounce off every surface, populate every space from end to end, side to side, and floor to ceiling. You’ll hear your dining companion, but you may have to ask the server to speak up.
Under the near cathedral-height ceiling I saw people of every adult age group, unless you count chef Nick Walters’ baby. The affable Merchant chef happened to walk through the restaurant holding the cute tyke while we were there. I dare say some customers go for the vibe, the mildly charged atmosphere, while others stop-in for the food or drink, or both.
“God … Look at that,” I said to spouse. It was the stuffed head and neck of a great bull moose, with massive, many pointed rack of antlers, attached to the wood panel wall above the entrance. I’d dined at Merchant several times and never noticed the trophy mount. I fancied the redoubtable, shadowy head was gazing down at all of us revelers, disapprovingly, like an earthbound big game ghost.
Merchant’s taxidermized animal trophy was an anachronistic piece of décor, especially considering the generally smooth, modern interior of Merchant Tavern. Maybe that was the point, to fuse the thoroughly out-of-date with the up-to-date for some effect. It just seemed out-of-date and out-of-place to me. Handsome, contemporary photos of Newfoundland sea, sky and land did work nicely. A couple of giant images between the room’s tall windows, near the island bar, were sufficient to give a sense of place.
Merchant devotes a page of its beverage menu to beer and cider. I tried an American cider called, Angry Orchard Gluten Free Hard Cider. It was like drinking a cold, mildly effervescent Gala apple – refreshingly sweet – but one was enough. I was still working on it when my appetizer arrived. Angry Orchard paired badly. If only I’d ordered a glass of Champagne. Brut would have gone down well with my smoked octopus terrine.
It was a beautifully crafted appetizer with eye appeal. Cooked, smoked octopus tentacles had been tightly packed lengthwise on top of each other in a terrine and refrigerated. This allowed the natural gelatin in the tentacles to bind everything together as a single entity for slicing. A cobblestone effect was created with each slice. (It reminded me that the street outside Merchant’s front door is cobblestone underneath the pavement.) My plate had two slices, one lodged at an angle atop the other.
Area around the octopus terrine slices was occupied by thinly sliced radish, lashings of piquant shallot rich mignonette and a pour of oil. It was a lively dish with a balanced, effective flavour profile. I wasn’t sure smoked octopus would appeal, but each tempting bite brought joy. It was the day’s special starter and does not appear on the regular menu. Pity. This type of offering is so much more interesting than Merchant’s too familiar list of “Fried Chicken Wings,” “Cod Tacos,” “Fries,” and “Charcuterie.”
Spouse began with Merchant’s marinated, sushi-grade yellowfin tuna from the Raw Bar section of the menu. It too was a blissful starter, a dish that will have you wondering why anybody would bother eating cooked tuna. Crudo outshines. Matching pickled mushrooms – shiitake possibly – with slices of yellowfin was brilliant. Unctuous, mild flavoured, pristine tuna, pleasing textures, acidity, heat and slight bitterness helped achieve a remarkably enticing preparation. It was the kind of food that sings in your mouth.
Merchant’s duck breast was presented without much adornment. Slices were fanned out on a shimmer of jus beside arugula, cooked fennel and a few root vegetables. It was enough because the duck was so incredibly delicious that too much of anything else would have been an insult. Success here was due, in large part, to the chef. Even though the duck was of impeccable quality, it could easily have been ruined in the hands of a less skillful cook. Merchant’s pink slices were melt-in-the-mouth tender, juicy and flavourful.
My halibut entrée was impressive. A generous, thick piece of the spectacular flatfish had been given a golden exterior to enhance flavour. Under the golden surface was firm, moist, snow white flesh. Complementing the halibut were classic flavours, all contained within a creamy, buttery béchamel seeded with shelled mussels, fennel, bacon, tarragon and potato. Merchant’s satiny, mildly brackish sauce enriched the halibut and significantly improved the taste of the dish.
I smiled when I saw my dessert. It looked like something I’d have quickly slapped into a bowl to devour during the latest episode of Coronation Street. It was nothing like I expected. The menu said, “Newfoundland Black Forest Cake.” I assumed it would be an elegant wedge of tall, layered chocolate cake oozing cream and red fruit. The “Newfoundland” part, I thought, was in substituting cranberries for cherries. Was the rustic presentation part as well?
Motif aside, it was an excellent tasting dessert, with layers including small, sweetened cranberries, dark chocolate cake, crème chantilly, decadent chocolate mousse and sour cream ice cream. It may have been arranged differently but it tasted as good or better than most conventional Black Forest cakes. It made a fun ending to a night of seriously good cuisine. Cuisine worthy of four stars.
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price Dinner for two with cocktails, wine, tax and tip costs approximately $200.
Service Seamless, professional.
Atmosphere Casual, group oriented, boisterous.
Sound level High.
Open Lunch Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Dinner) Tuesday to Saturday: 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (Brunch) Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday: Closed.
Reservations Recommended for weekends. Walk-ins easily accommodated early in the week.
Credit cards Most major.
Parking Street, commercial lots or garages.
Beverages Merchant Tavern offers roughly a dozen wines by the 5oz glass or bottle, including one rosé and three sparkling wines. One of the sparklers is a Benjamin Bridge Private Brut crafted with the help of Raymonds and Merchant Tavern. Another 20 or so wines are available by the bottle with prices ranging mostly between $55 and $110. French wines are heavily represented on the list. Merchant’s beer list features 30 brews from small to large breweries in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, plus a modest number of American and European beers. Bourbon drinkers will be happy with the solid selection and friends of John Barleycorn even happier with a choice of 20 single malts ranging per pour from $13 to $250 (for The Macallan 25-Year-Old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, selling in Ontario at the LCBO for $2,199.95 per bottle.) Based on previous visits I believe Merchant Tavern makes some of the best cocktails in town.
Best bets Marinated tuna, smoked octopus terrine (if available,) duck, halibut and Newfoundland Black Forest cake.
Gluten-free options Yes and accomodations can be made
Vegetarian and vegan options Yes, and accommodations can be made.
Wheelchair access No. The entrance has a non-negotiable step.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website: www.karlwells.com
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells