Sunday, February 27, 2011
This building at the corner of Fourth and Broadway downtown has seen its share of Nashville history. The former hotel was the occasional crash pad of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. It’s been a popular restaurant since 1988 and just last year Merchants had a reboot, thanks to Ben and Max Goldberg. The Goldberg’s are known for Paradise Park, a completely different tourist joint down the street, and the high-end cocktail bar Patterson House. What does this mean for you, the discerning diner? Cocktails, of course, at least on the bustling first floor. You’ll find suspendered bartenders shaking up all sorts of concoctions. We’re in favor of the cocktail trend, just as long as it stays reasonably priced and relatively unpretentious. Merchants walks the line carefully.
This is an important restaurant for downtown- as there’s little playing up to the tourists. Merchants focuses on food and libations and for the most part both are solid. This review will concentrate on downstairs bistro dining, since it fits with the price point of this blog, rather than the more expensive upstairs room.
The bar and dining room were packed on both of our visits. It’s a popular spot before Predators hockey games and concerts at the nearby Bridgestone Arena. The black and white themed dining room, the whimsical columns and historic brick add up to a cool dining décor.
Start off with a cocktail. They have a wide array of interesting liquor for sale and a full menu of cocktail possibilities. We took a look at the Smoky Mountains Moonshine on tap, but preferred to sample one of the many Corsair Artisan distillery liquor available. They also serve up Pritchard’s Tennessee products. We like our booze local these days and Merchants is ready to oblige.
The menu line-up is pretty straightforward: steaks, fish, and sandwiches. A roast beef sandwich with horseradish mayo comes piled high on a French roll. The thick slices of hearty beef get some spark from the zippy mayo. Coleslaw on the side is rather bland, with not enough acid or seasoning. Woodsy, silky roasted mushroom soup hits the spot. It’s whipped airy in texture and given some tang with crème fraiche. The big hit on our first visit was actually the spinach salad with balsamic and goat cheese. It’s really well dressed, with every leaf of spinach lightly coated. Pickled onions, cherry tomatoes and olives round out the plate. It’s a good thing the salads are given such attention, because there is not much here for the vegetarian. We counted one entrée, two appetizers and the salads. You’ll want to inquire about the soup stocks on any given day.
On our second visit, the house burger comes out medium, rather than the requested medium-rare. Not a huge deal, but it does take away from full burger potential. The brioche bun supports two big patties and the usual toppings. The rough cut fries are salty and hot, quite frankly bullying that burger for attention on the plate.
Veggie Eater: I opted for fried green tomatoes, and the beet and goat cheese crostini, on the first visit. The fried green tomatoes were well seasoned and large. They were served with a chunky pimento cheese and a spicy sweet pepper jam. The beet and goat cheese crostini was delightful. The ultra-crispy toasts are topped with warmed goat cheese and roasted beets, with arugula in a balsamic reduction on the side. On my next visit, I opted for the Brussels sprout and wild mushroom risotto. The Arborio rice was well cooked-it still had bite to it, which paired well with the lemony, creamy sauce. Now, beware, as I did not specifically ask about the liquid base used, for fear of the answer. Again, veggie options are limited, but I am generally happy with a well prepared app and a salad, which was provided here. Drawbacks: First, I believe that the worst of unpardonable sins was completed with the wedge salad-I think bottled blue cheese was used (I detected a Marie’s like taste and consistency) (she doesn’t know this for a fact, but either way it wasn’t very good-M.E.) and furthermore, I think they attempted to cover this up by adding lots of chunks of fresh blue cheese. Secondly, It looks like a lot of money was spent rehabbing the first floor bar area, but apparently they ran out of cash in the bathrooms-the walls have been patched and spackled and not repainted. The cracked tile floors have not been repaired.
Meat Eater: Pretty plating and attention to quality ingredients separate Merchants from most of the downtown pack. It’s a good alternative to bar food and a refreshing break from honky tonk madness. We paid $55 with tax, tips and drinks on one visit and $66 on another.