There’s something timeless about spending a balmy spring evening in a well-trodden corner of London, tucking into simple, homemade food.
Alex Foley has lived in the Chapel Market area for almost two decades; he’s steeped in the community and knows the locals. For that reason the addition of Mercer & Co’s Salt Beef Bar & Canteen to the historic market Road is a considered one, not a fad thrust upon unwitting residents. His aim, as he explains to his guests at the launch, is to provide a place that does good food without a hefty price tag; where you can nip in for one cocktail without having a big night out; where you can receive warm face-to-face service and easy, quality food.
The lynchpin of the menu is the salt beef: high quality brisket which is brined for seven days, then cooked for 28. Homemade in-house according to Alex’s special recipe and hand-carved into succulent chunks, it’s a winner. Thick, pleasingly pink hunks of beef – served warm – are layered with generous slices of gherkin and just the right amount of English mustard, then sandwiched between a golden-brown bagel. This is the main event: a substantial and unpretentious unit in which the smooth savouriness of the meat is balanced with the acidity of the gherkin, the kick of the mustard and the slight sweetness of the dough.
The salt beef is the unchanging factor, but the complementary dishes will evolve seasonally. At the moment there’s Extra Cheesy Macaroni & Cheese which pairs nicely with the richly saucy Mercer Beef Chilli. Vegetarians may like the Smokey Sweet Potato topped with Spicy Chickpea Chilli.
The menu promises other delights not present at the launch: things like Rueben with salt beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. It’s comfort food of the deeply flavourful and filling variety. Simple, likeable fare done well. Alex was inspired by Katz, the iconic New York deli established in 1888 which he knows well thanks to his trips to the States. Katz is focused on authentic, non-fussy food that makes for a filling lunch, breakfast or dinner, and places more importance on ingredients than on showy location.
Allied to the Mercer & Co menu is a host of specially designed cocktails. They’ve been lovingly crafted over the last nine months, ready for the launch. The final products are made of just a few, good ingredients, much like the bagels. The unique feature of most of the line-up is that they’re fermented cocktails, which means that the ingredients are added together and then left to merge, instead of being shaken or muddled. As well as a deeper flavour, this means a much quicker serving time.
The Chai Rum Latte is a cup of pure comfort. It’s in the unassuming guise of a regular latte, served in a cup on a saucer, foam-topped and dusted with cocoa, but a sip reveals its Demerara-sweet smoothness and subtle alcoholic kick. The rum has been specially infused with vanilla chai tea and orange peel. The Merceretti marries coffee-washed brandy and espresso with Amaretto, served cool, topped off with a peak of milk foam and crumbled Biscotti. It boasts a nutty flavour that isn’t too heavy on the sweetness.
One of the evening’s most popular drinks is the pleasingly tart The Liberator which comprises green whisky, vermouth and pastis, aged with pink grapefruit peel and thyme. The inventor Sorcha confesses she can’t choose her favourite: “they’re all my babies; I’ve watched them grow up!”.
For those not in the boozing mood (or indeed, for breakfast diners) there are healthy smoothies, milkshakes and organic coffee.
The small venue slots right onto a street corner on bustling Chapel Market. Much of the produce, including most of the beers, is sourced from the market or from local businesses; the bagels hail from Brick Lane. Summer’s coming, and the outdoor pavement area has all the charm of a European street café with the casual attitude of a pub beer garden. Those passing by will be able to avail themselves of the Grab-and-Go window, where everything from gluten-free polenta cake to breakfast rolls will be served.
A simple interior leaves the bar and counter the main event. Pegboard menus recall cinema signs, and clusters of glasses and cocktail garnishes share space with hot plates cradling sumptuous slabs of salt beef. It’s cosily small (the inside capacity is 20) and a little like a home kitchen thanks to its lived-in counter area, one long dining table and casual outside area. On this evening, guests squeeze past one another, overflowing the small space and spilling out into the warm evening. In so compact a space, it’s impossible not to become immersed in the friendly atmosphere, to chat to guests about the taste of the food and to compare cocktails.
Mercer & Co works as a stop off during market visits (Chapel Market is on Tuesdays through to Saturdays) but also makes for a proper night out, or as the start of a summer bar crawl along Islington’s Upper Street. There are countless pubs nearby, as well as a handful of theatres. And there’s more: a non-profit art gallery is soon to arrive in Mercer & Co’s basement space thanks to curatorial research space Kelder. A short stroll away is Alex’s other project, the stylish The Chapel Bar. Nestled into this happening hub, this urban eatery is a place to recharge, to celebrate and to revel in North London hospitality.
26A Chapel Market
London, N19 ENT
EatCookExplore was a guest of Mercer & Co