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dining out

At The Merchant, excellence is elusive

Roasted pork loin with pork belly, turnips, and citrus.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Roasted pork loin with pork belly, turnips, and citrus at The Merchant.

The Merchant looks familiar. Spherical glass pendants cast light on maroon leather seats, a long bar, and floors of wood and tile mosaic. Staffers wear crisp white shirts, and specials are written on chalkboards. The site was previously London Harness, an old-school emporium of leather goods, and some of that spirit lingers in the walls. The restaurant brings to mind Eastern Standard. If the aim is to become the downtown version of Kenmore Square’s excellent all-purpose bistro, it certainly looks the part.

Executive chef Matt Foley, who has worked at the likes of Radius, Craigie on Main, and Sycamore, stocks his menu with straight-up classics and twists: raw bar and beet salad, steak and eggs, and pork two ways. The Merchant opens before noon and serves food late into the night. It has the potential to be that place one goes for a business lunch, an after-work drink, a dinner date, and a bit of nocturnal sustenance, all in the same week.

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But all-purpose isn’t such an easy thing to become. At dinnertime, the bar side of the room is full and boisterous. That after-work drink thing is really working out. The dining room, however, has plenty of empty seats.

The noise alone is reason to head elsewhere for dinner. At a table, two couples who haven’t seen each other in a long time conduct catch-up conversation in hollers. A server has to bend close to hear questions.

The noise doesn’t explain why he replies with all the certainty of a kid fudging answers on a pop quiz. Many servers here are charming, friendly, excited about the food and drink, forthcoming with information about breaking down animals and curing meat in house. Others seem clueless, about their own presentation as well as the dishes’. (Hint: Gesturing to one’s own body parts when explaining where on the cow the beef comes from is not appetizing.)

Such things feel less important when the food is just right. If you are eating a burger at The Merchant — a beaut served with aged cheddar, bacon, and black pepper aioli on brioche — you can tune out the peripherals (even if the fries could spend a bit more time in the fryer). That’s true, too, of earthy house-made farro pasta with a ragout of pork shoulder, rich and tender. The wedge salad isn’t a wedge at all, but leaves of tender Bibb lettuce with Stilton, tomato confit, and a crisp chip of pancetta. If risotto is gummy, it tastes good, the grains fortified with Fontina, honey, and plenty of mushrooms. These dishes are satisfying, simple with strong flavors.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Seared scallops entree with cauliflower, grapefruit, Swiss chard, and bacon.

But when things get more complicated, they also get shakier. There is a disconnect between The Merchant’s culinary ambition and its skill set. Much effort is put into the composition of the beet salad, the multicolored roots arrayed on a long plate with citrus segments, fennel shavings, and pistachios. But the beets are overcooked, mushy and muddy in flavor. It is a fine idea to pair hot and cold crab preparations in one appetizer, but a crab cake is bland, crab salad tastes fishy, and the lumpy homemade pretzel that comes on the plate looks like a nursery school baking project. Tastes like one as well, too tough to bite.

Mussels come in a pleasant green curry broth, but more than half of the tiny shells are still closed. It’s the rare instance when one hopes whoever sent this out of the kitchen isn’t paying attention to the food, the alternative being that he or she simply doesn’t care.

Scallops are nicely seared, combined with cauliflower, grapefruit, Swiss chard, and bacon. It is perhaps one flavor too many, but it hardly matters when the dish is so oversalted. A more successful composition includes pork loin, roasted just until rosy, plated with pork belly, turnips, and citrus. The hungry will grumble at the portion size.

Steak and eggs is just the sort of dish that ought to be a staple at a place like The Merchant — an uncomplicated, elemental pleasure. Overthinking mucks it up. The egg turns out to be just a yolk, breaded and fried past runny. As for “crispy bone marrow,” that is the weird white blobs (not crisp) dotting the plate. The steak itself is overcooked.

It is a pleasure to see a restaurant that has clear carnivore leanings offer a main course of bean curd. Fried tofu with avocado, slaw, pickled jalapeno, and ponzu sounds bright and lively. But vegetarians need more to sink their teeth into. A few small pieces of tofu are arrayed amid arty smears of sauce, with hardly any avocado in evidence. (“It looks like someone drove Matchbox cars all over the plate,” one diner observes.) It’s an appetizer’s worth of food for $19.

Sweets can feel overthought, too — for instance, a rhubarb dessert with smoked peanut brittle, lemongrass ice cream, and squishy olive oil cake that looks as though it has been flensed with nail scissors. There is a lot going on, just not much of it rhubarb.

And cocktails are inventive, but they often arrive weak or out of balance. The Merchant’s strength is beer, with more than 60 varieties, including local brews from the likes of Jack’s Abby and Slumbrew, as well as limited-release blackboard specials. The wine list is small but eclectic, with range — from traditional French grapes to tempranillo and albarino from Oregon. The glass list brings selections (muscadet, dolcetto) more commonly available only by the bottle, and there are several offerings on tap.

The crowded bar is a fine place for an after-work drink. But the half-empty dining room speaks volumes. This part of town is still waiting for that excellent all-purpose bistro.

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Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
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