Merrill & Co. sneaks up on me.
The first time I eat at the South End restaurant, the latest from BiNA Family Hospitality (Bin 26, JM Curley, Lala Rokh), I am not impressed. The baked crab spread is heavy and bland. The uni French bread tastes like Stouffer’s at low tide. An egg cream fizzles; a cherry phosphate seems to have lost its cherry. The place is noisy and chaotic, the valet rounds up everyone’s parking fee from $17 to $20, and my party leaves spent and cross and hoarse from yelling.
Yet I return. And lo! There is tuna ceviche with sunchokes, grapefruit, yuzu, and coconut milk, fresh and light, bound up with a bit of richness. House-made pork rinds are thick and crisp and dusted with salt and espelette pepper. They shred the inside of the mouth a bit, but in a somehow pleasant way, reminiscent of childhood snack overconsumption. Grilled artichokes and meaty king trumpet mushrooms are served with queso fresco — piping hot, simple, and great. An octopus arm, scorched black in spots, reaches up from its dish, a snack straight out of a horror movie. The meat is tender and mild, and crisp bites of kimchi cut and complement the charring. Tiger shrimp are cloaked in XO sauce, deeply savory.
Sea bass is roasted whole, and if the fish itself is a bit dry, the cucumber dressing with which it is served is full of bright flavor. A server fumbles to remove the bones tableside, as if we have ordered Dover sole, white tablecloths spread before us. It’s amusingly formal in this space, a hipster’s version of Johnny Rockets, with chrome-trimmed counters and stools, vintage signs, and tin-style ceiling tiles. Some of the food falls flat — dry, too-chewy pork ribs, for instance. Dessert is an unsatisfying Nutella tart that tastes like too much chocolate, not enough hazelnut (although it is sweet that fudge made by the chef’s mom is also on offer). But there is more good than not, and there is a new addition to the cocktail list that is an instant summer classic: the Pimm’s cup slushie, flavored with ginger and mint.
By the next visit, I am actively craving the brain freeze it imparts, along with the particular Southeast Asian-Americana funk of chef Jason Cheek’s cooking. We praise food for feeling “clean,” but this is enjoyably dirty, with a heavy bass line of umami. It is not food to eat fresh out of the shower, in an elegant linen shift, with a freshly perfumed cheek. You ought to have bedhead, sunglasses, and a concert T-shirt you’ve been wearing since high school. Maybe this is why Merrill & Co. seems to be so polarizing. “I’d give the food at least three stars. Maybe four,” one diner tells me. “I absolutely hated it,” says another. If I remember right — and I haven’t had that many Pimm’s cup slushies — we all ate at the same table.
Maybe the hater needs to return. Then Merrill & Co. can sneak up on her, too. On a recent visit, deviled eggs are tangy and rich. Catfish croquettes are fist-size spheres fried dark brown; they look like gut bombs but turn out to be pleasantly light. Sugar snap peas take on a darker side in sweet soy sauce with bacon, an inspired combination of flavors, pert and jammy at once.
A vast skillet of mussels is four-star food — the mussels plump, briny, and juicy, the red curry broth heady and complex. Burgers come in a set of three, smaller than average but bigger than sliders, topped with raclette, bacon-onion jam, pickles, and a tangy blend of mayo, mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce. The patty is cooked properly, and the meat and the squishy bun adhere in harmonic backyard-burger convergence.
There is a solid rendition of fried chicken, with crisp, thick batter, improved greatly by a squeeze of the accompanying lemon wedges; the biscuits on the side taste off, like movie-popcorn “butter,” but the tangy, crunchy slaw is picnic perfect. The leftovers come home, and cold for breakfast the next day that solid chicken becomes stupendous.
Merrill & Co. (named for co-owner Andy Cartin’s grandfather Merrill Lieberman) has a fun, free-wheeling cocktail list that reflects the season. The Grafoni is summer’s negroni, with gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and the addition of orange shrub: refreshing. The Ocean Mist is a startling, beachy turquoise, with blue curacao, tequila, and apricot liqueur, egg white foam on top and a slight salty note in the background.
Beer lovers will be happy here: Draft offerings range from Narragansett Summer Ale to Hitachino Nest’s Anbai Plum Wheat to St. Ambroise oatmeal stout, with more variety still by the bottle (the smoky Freigeist Abraxxxas, the complex AleSmith Grand Cru). Wines by the glass might comprise a refreshing Colombard from Gascogne, a summery Monastrell rose from Spain, and a nicely structured Austrian Zweigelt, generally for about $9 a glass; the bottle list roams most widely in France (Muscadet for your oysters, a bevy of roses) and Italy (reds from Sicily, Tuscany, and Le Marche). But if Merrill has a mission, it is sherry. There are nearly 20 varieties to choose from.
Merrill & Co. veers between purist comfort food and world-traveling invention. Stick with just one mode and sameness can set in — another diner platter, another dish with Southeast Asian accents and a strong note of umami. The best dinners here involve code-switching, which can also feel disjointed, more like an assortment of dishes, less like a meal. Service is extremely friendly, but experience levels vary. Dessert is not a strength. And the room itself is loud, with too many discrete seating areas to feel unified.
But Merrill & Co. keeps calling me back. Its best offerings override its flaws.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.