Any parent knows it's taboo to pick favorites among your own children. But when it comes to other people's kids, there's no shame in admitting you like some better than others. I'll be the first to say I prefer Michael over Sonny, Phineas over Ferb, and Kevin over the rest of the Jonases.
When it comes to Strategic Hospitality's family of restaurants and clubs, which includes Patterson House, Paradise Park Trailer Resort, Ariel and the newly refurbished Merchants, it's hard to pick a favorite, because they're all so different. There's the sleek party girl Ariel, the smoldering sophisticate Patterson House, the bad boy Paradise Park and the downtown mogul Merchants — each a standout among its peers.
As the latest member of the Strategic Hospitality clan, Merchants may well be the best looking. Doused in a dramatic coat of warm white paint and accented with charcoal upholstery and black-and-white marble, the room represents a chic reincarnation of the historic space, while retaining quaint details of tiled floors and exposed brick.
With distinct personalities and menus upstairs and downstairs, Merchants offers two categories of dining. Downstairs is bustling and casual, with all items under $20 at lunch and dinner. Upstairs in the hushed wood-paneled room, the evening meal is an august and expensive endeavor, with several plates above $30 and an 8-ounce Kobe beef strip loin for $70.
On a recent Wednesday evening, the downstairs buzzed with what appeared to be a combination of tourists, after-work cocktailers and pre-performance diners on their way to the Ryman. The no-fuss menu — a bundle of long strips fastened with a metal clamp — included chef Clayton Rollison's concise two-page roster of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrées and desserts, followed by five pages of wines, spirits and $10 cocktails.
Starters ranged from exquisite (two large seared scallops over a succotash of mixed beans, grape tomatoes, plump corn and chewy lardons of bacon, with a creamy spiced corn sauce) to ordinary (standard-issue tater tots deep-fried in duck fat) to altogether absent (fried, pickled vegetables that remain on the menu despite being out of season). Along the way, there were smoked chicken wings, whose delicate melt-in-your-mouth fried skins desperately needed salt and were nearly lost in the bland mustard-based sauce.
A pretty platter of house-made ricotta crostini bordered on milquetoast, with a subtle schmear of lemony cream cheese on surprisingly soft fingers of warm bread. The highlight of the appetizer was the nest of arugula tossed with thinly shaved coins of summer squash.
From the half-dozen salads, we chose a wedge, which elevated the simple recipe through sheer volume of toppings. The quarter-head of iceberg leaned under the decadent weight of enough blue cheese dressing, chopped tomatoes, hunks of blue cheese and shards of bacon to feed two people.
The surprising supper superlative was the pork pot roast, which resembled an elegant oversized dessert. A square of fork-tender meat lounged on a thick bed of whipped potatoes pooled with a silken savory sauce, like a giant brownie with ice cream and hot fudge.
Fish tacos were an admirable version of the ubiquitous wraps, with two grilled flour tortillas laden with crisp fried catfish, shaved radishes, shredded lettuce, cilantro and spiced sour cream. But for the same $12 price tag, it was the sandwich with confit turkey leg that stole the limelight. Lightly toasted slices of wheat bread bulged with warm, juicy shreds of turkey, counterbalanced by tangy cranberry mustard, crisp frisée fronds and fried onion rings — like a Thanksgiving Dagwood.
While our table unanimously enjoyed the seafood stew — presented in a buttery tomato base, tinged with fennel and saffron, and served over creamy rice grits — there were complaints that the restrained medley of mussels, clams, octopus, squid and fish was simply not enough food for $19.
Meanwhile, in the busy establishment, our table seemed to get lost in the shuffle a few times, as we thirsted for drink refills and, at one point, began stacking emptied plates and glasses on the back of our booth because we had no room on our table.
Now, I know it's not motherly to compare siblings, but Patterson House and Merchants are, after all, Other People's Kids, so here goes:
Patterson House, with it's high-touch service and surprisingly low-dollar menu, consistently leaves me with the feeling that I get more than I pay for in terms of food and service. By contrast, over two visits to the downstairs dining room, Merchants made me feel like I was paying up for the experience of dining downtown, without the level of polish among cuisine and customer care I'm accustomed to at the sibling establishment.
That said, the reinvention of the restaurant is indeed a vast improvement over the former operation, already catapulting Merchants into the ranks of downtown's top dining options in its first two months under new ownership. Furthermore, given the gene pool from which the new Merchants springs, it's reasonable to expect the equation of value, cuisine and service to improve over time. The restaurant does, after all, come from an excellent family.
Merchants serves lunch and dinner daily downstairs and dinner daily upstairs.