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Leading critic hails ‘seriously impressive food’ of Lancaster bar

A world renowned food critic has described a Lancaster bar as a ‘complete gem’ in a glowing review of their menu and head chef.

Writing in a national newspaper, Jay Rayner said Merchants 1688 had ‘seriously impressive food’, during a recent visit to the bar and restaurant on Castle Hill.

In the review, published in The Observer magazine over the weekend, Jay writes: ‘’The kitchen, led by chef Will Graham, is serving up seriously impressive food. It doesn’t just fall under the heading of “not bad” or “OK” or “somewhere to go if you’re hungry and you need to get out of the rain”. It’s cheek-slapping, belly-pleasing stuff from first to last, which cheerfully demonstrates lashings of professional technique while never losing sight of the imperative of appetite.''

Above: Jay Rayner (Photo: X)

The review continues: ‘’They don’t just write a good menu; they really can cook it, too. Among the starters is a generous puck of long-braised beef, in a friable tempura batter overcoat, which quickly breaks down into its luscious strands. It’s topped with grated fresh horseradish and surrounded by a deep well of proper sticky beef gravy, in which lie half-submerged enoki mushrooms. What makes the dish fly is a deep green dollop of a smooth, sharp and sweet gherkin ketchup floating through the beefiness. There are lots of elements to this dish, but they all come together, very smartly.

‘’The main courses include their “72 hour” lamb hotpot. It arrives in its own ceramic pot, the surface layered with bronzed and crisped petals of sliced, herb-flecked potato. Crunch your way through those and you come to a sticky, dark mess of outrageously rich lamb stew. It is a bowl of time and attention. Clearly not one of those 72 hours has been wasted.

‘’The most expensive dish is simply one of the best presentations of venison I’ve eaten in many years. Three generous slabs of haunch are crisply seared and an arterial red at the heart as they should be. There are cylinders of golden beetroot, treated like fondant potatoes, and with it a grainy venison “sausage” made with all the more diverse and offaly bits of the animals.

‘’What brings this together is a fabulous meaty jus, sweetened with elderberry and given the lightest lift by the addition of a certain smokiness. I announced to my companion, who is used to my grand speeches, that had I been served it on MasterChef: The Professionals, I would have proclaimed pompously that it was like being introduced to a major talent.

‘’The standard doesn’t slump at dessert. Here comes a pile of a foamy spiced pumpkin mousse hiding nuggets of candied pecan. Alongside is a maple and pecan financier. The sponge interior is soft and moist. The surface is sugared and crunchy. This kitchen can bake. Those dessert fireworks only mildly overshadow a palate-cleansing dome of an iced peach parfait with raspberry sorbet.’’

Will Graham (right), head chef at Merchants 1688

While Jay was impressed with the food, he was less impressed with other parts of the business.

He wrote: ‘’All that wonderful food is served in a space that feels like the kind of pub where the chips arrive in a mini chip-pan fryer and the gravy starts as a powder.

‘’It begins with an eye-achingly awful website. The site includes an earnest message apologising for the fact that you can’t come in wearing fancy dress, which meant I had to put away my Morticia Addams outfit. The gallery page has a “critical error” message, perhaps because the management haven’t bothered looking at their own website recently. The homepage carries a garish clip art advert for a New Year’s Eve event, which looks like it’s targeted at the cast of Towie.

‘’The real issue is that when you arrive, the brightly lit bar space matches the website. It feels like the kind of place you would visit for nothing more ambitious than a pint and a panini.’’

‘’There’s a musty smell in the arches, which they’ve probably been trying to banish for years, and weird images of Venice hung on the walls, as if bought by the yard.’’

The review ends with one final compliment.

‘’There’s just a strong sense that the management have no idea how good a restaurant they could have hidden away in these arches. Come here….you’ll be fed brilliantly.’’

A spokesperson for The Merchants said: ‘’We are so proud of the amazing review by world renowned food critic Jay Rayner in this weekend’s Observer magazine. A massive well done to Will and the team!

‘’And thanks for the hint Jay, a new web site is now on order.’’

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