The food court that used to be the Capitol Square just keeps growing. In fact, the sheer number of new culinary players that have opened shop in the area, in the last year alone, can seem daunting, even to dedicated diners.
The big question is whether there is room, after the fairly recent launches of, take a deep breath, Graze, 43 North, Nostrano, Underground Kitchen, King & Mane, Francesca's al Lago and the expanded Old Fashioned, for one more restaurant. Clearly Merchant Madison thinks so, and it has invested a lot of style and energy in that faith.
All that vigor is obvious in the dining room itself. What is essentially a big blocky square room has been turned into a surprisingly intimate series of discrete spaces. There is the open kitchen in the back, a long bar running along the Doty Street side of the room serving an impressive list of designer cocktails and wines (which deserve their own review), and a wall of prettily packaged high-end groceries (Nutella, cornichons, roasted peppers; you know, just the daily basics). Sort of stranded in the middle of all this is the dining room itself, punctuated by dark wood tables and chairs.
The effect is a multitasking combination clubhouse, bar, bistro and gourmet emporium, so don't come expecting a hushed haven. Like every other recently launched downtown restaurant, Merchant Madison is acoustics-free and loud. But the noise, like the din at Underground Kitchen, is justified because these are as much hangouts as restaurants, and people are coming partly for that buzzy vitality.
Some of those people, of course, are also coming for the food. The Merchant menu, like most menus now, veers raucously, lightheaded and a little dizzy, all over the place - from small plates to entrees to pressed sandwiches to the inevitable charcuterie sampling. And while that makes for a lot of choice, you have to choose carefully, because the quality veers all over the place, too.
The kitchen's real bargains are the $3 "toasts," which feature a hearty slice of toasted (though in our case almost stone-cold and dry) bread crowned with various artful toppings. The truffled white bean and prosciutto toast is an affable appetizer, though the pepper relish, anchovy and pecorino toast would do better if it edited out at least one of those sharp ingredients. The more expensive ($7-$10) pressed sandwiches are fine (especially the prosciutto again, this time paired with arugula and fontina) and true to the simplicity of authentic Italian panini, though people looking for the explosive creativity of gourmet sandwiches, a growing genre unto itself, may find them underwhelming.
Among the small plates, there are a lot of little hits. The kitchen's best plate for the money is the $8 stack of perfect, tender, fatty pork belly, soft poached egg and al dente lentils. A massive serving of brussels and lemon is also good, though there is too much lemon juice overwhelming the sprouts; and a skate wing topped with lemon brown butter, while too salty, is still a generous, satisfying serving of very meaty fish.
Prices suddenly shoot up when you get to the formal entrees, but in the case of the seafood stew, the $17 is worth it. While the seafood itself changes nightly (our bowl was studded with lots of scallops), what elevates the dish is the pitch-perfect, complex tomato-based broth, flavored with fennel and a slightly peppery kick.
Other dishes don't fare so well. I like simple pastas that are the antidote to all the cloying and overdressed linguinis dished up everywhere now. But simplicity means locating the deep, compelling flavor that can carry a dish, and the very sad, brown plate of orecchiette seems to get most of that flavor from an almost fishy-tasting, off-putting, one-note blend of pancetta and onions.
The pork shoulder almost works, but the slices of pork served over shredded pork (a nice touch) are too fatty, and the plate needs some texture beyond a very weird shaved cauliflower risotta that's reminiscent of wood shavings. The king crab and frisee salad is mostly a big frizzle of frisee; for $10 you shouldn't have to go searching for the stray bits of watery crab, demoted from king to pleb.
Dessert, at too many of the restaurants circling the Square (kudos, though, to Nostrano's exceptional, beautifully composed finishes), tend to seem so thoughtlessly robotic they barely rate as afterthoughts. In this case that meant a pain perdu with smoked apple, which unfortunately translates as a plate of seriously burnt, Frenchified toast. The better alternative would be to grab a spoon and one of the Nutella jars off the wall of designer groceries.
But try to ignore that crisped finish. Like all the other equally ambitious sister kitchens popping up downtown, Merchant is really helping to update and energize a local dining scene, one that had turned soporific in recent years. And that mission is worth a lot more than some dishes that need tweaking.