Merchant’s bone-in short rib yields to the fork.
There should be a name for the Pinckney/Doty/King block, something to give it a sense of unity. A minimally concerted effort has been made to co-opt “Tribeca” (“Triangle Behind the Capitol”) — amusing but imprecise, as there are eight triangles around the Square, and they can’t all be behind the Capitol. The P/D/K block deserves a name with identity.
Merchant already feels like an elder statesman on the block, even though it only opened in 2010. Part of that might be Merchant’s nearly continuous game of musical toques, as owners Patrick Sweeney and Joshua Berkson have cooked through no fewer than four executive chefs before landing Evan Dannells in early 2015. Rare is the restaurant that can turn over the kitchen lead that many times in just over six years and still be open, much less successful.
Isthmus reviewed Merchant in early 2011, giving it lukewarm praise. Merchant went on to earn a Chef of the Year award from Madison Magazine, six months before then-chef Anna Dickson left Madison altogether. Dannells came on as culinary director of both Merchant and the embryonic Lucille concept, and was quietly named executive chef later.
The cocktail list is still populated with complicated drinks with lots of ice. The amusing and tasty Jungleberg is a tiki drink for winter: rum, Fernet Branca and a mini-bottle of Underberg digestif upturned into the ice. Aggressively browned brussels sprouts, a favorite going all the way back to the beginning of Merchant, are still on the Snacks menu. They are amplified now not with lemon as before, but with apple cider and bacon.
Pasta has taken on a lower profile on Dannells’ menu, but it’s not gone altogether. A dramatic bowl of pappardelle is tossed with pork sausage and a sweetly acidic tomato sauce, an ideal presentation of comfort food. The pasta-adjacent gnudi, breaded and fried dumpling-ish discs of ricotta, are adorned with smoky potatoes and mushrooms, and no small amount of salt. They are rich and decadent.
Merchant’s current Classic Burger bears a striking resemblance to the West Side burger from a December 2011 Merchant menu, proving the current burger/cheese/pickle idiom isn’t so much a current trend as a, well, classic. The bibb lettuce had gone slightly wilty, but the overall package was a success, if a spendy one. Adding cheddar and bacon brought the price tag to $15.
The next tier of the tidy dinner menu lives just under the $30 mark, with the exception of the ribeye. A bone-in beef short rib gives way to nothing more than a fork and pairs nicely with kale and some pickled turnips, though the turnip purée underneath brings nothing to the dish. The salmon, equally well-suited for a wintry menu, doesn’t overdo the maple and apple cider glaze and spent just enough time over the heat. Crisp salmon skin is a beautiful thing, and it’s on glorious face-up display here.
Brunch highlights some of the Mexican border-straddling flair Dannells introduced to the Merchant menu. Ten bucks for a fragrant, steaming bowl of pork shoulder pozole complete with all the trimmings (radishes, lime, tortilla strips, lots of jalapeño) is a steal.
When I ordered the fried chicken sandwich with the hot sauce on the side, I got a knowingly respectful nod from the bartender. The same expression came when I subbed in roasted red potatoes for the standard greens. I suspected the kitchen that didn’t shy away from crisping the brussels sprouts would do the same with potatoes, and I was right.
As my sandwich arrived, I saw why the bartender smiled. Two pounded chicken breasts topped with cabbage slaw and stacked between halves of a brioche bun all said to me, “This could easily be an unholy mess.” We saw nearby diners fighting that very fight with the full buffalo versions. With the sauce on the side, though, this is an unexpectedly neat and highly satisfying sandwich. I’m sure it’s still good when sauced, but heaven help you if you get a text mid-bite.
Two desserts, a decent chocolate cherry custard and a paste-like lemon cake with lavender cream, arrived in mini-mason jars. A Scotch egg from the brunch menu was indeed two whole Scotch eggs, which while unexpectedly light and crunchy were an unnecessary bounty. And yes, it’s still quite loud when Merchant’s at fever pitch.
But Dannells is a chef on the rise in Madison, and he’s now the longest-tenured executive chef Merchant has had. A restaurant like this, in a neighborhood like its triangular hearty-partying block, could skate by on location and reputation. It was a pleasure to rediscover Merchant isn’t skating. It’s succeeding.
121 S. Pinckney St.; 608-259-9799; merchantmadison.com
3-10 pm Mon.-Fri. (dinner service begins at 5 pm); 9 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Sat.-Sun.;
bar open until 2 am daily; $4-$35