Hotel restaurants don’t usually have the best reputation. They’re often mediocre places serving mediocre food. They serve a purpose, fill a hole, but they’re not the kind of place you’d choose for a special occasion. Unless of course, you happen to be at Merchants in the Lace Market Hotel in Nottingham.
General manager Steve Cook and head chef Luke Holland are on a mission to make Merchants Restaurant a foodie destination for the city, and if their tasting menu is anything to go by, they’re firmly on the right track.
I was invited to a preview night, where I got to sample their “A Chef’s Life: 1987 – 2018” tasting menu, inspired by Luke’s life so far, before it made its official debut to the public, and I can safely say it was one of my most memorable meals to date.
The hotel itself is beautiful: situated on the picturesque High Pavement in Nottingham’s Lace Market area, the olde-worlde exterior is a contrast to the modern marble, mirrors and velvet found inside.
Our evening started with cocktails and canapes in Saint Bar, where the expert bartenders create everything from classics to their own concoctions, some even featuring olive oil to evoke a sense of place and time.
If I want to test a bartender’s skill, I tend to go for a classic, so I chose an Old Fashioned. The version at Saint Bar is smoked, creating a dramatic entrance and a very subtle hint of smokiness to the finished drink. So far, so good.
Before heading into the dining room, manager Steve gave us an introduction to the restaurant, the chef and the menu, and assured us that our experience on the night would be no different to any other guests enjoying the tasting menu, including the welcome cocktails in the bar.
Practically salivating with anticipation, I was one of the first into the dining room to find a seat and start dissecting the menu while tucking in to some of the restaurant’s delicious homemade bread.
Chefs are often described as magicians or alchemists, but Luke is a storyteller. The carefully crafted 5 course tasting menu is a literal snapshot of his life, and his inspiration, with a deeply personal connection to every plate of food. His grandfather Ivor is a clear inspiration that runs throughout the menu.
The first dish “Fishing for Mackerel” is inspired by trips on his grandad’s rowing boat, and features fresh mackerel, green tomato, radish and nasturtium leaves. The result is a refreshing starter which really brings out the best in the fish. The wine pairing was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a crispness that really added to the dish.
The second course, “Summer Barbecue with the Boys” was one of my favourites, made up of aged beef, mustard, shallot, apple and charcoal. The beef is raw but tastes exactly like its been barbecued. The sweet apple and tangy mustard provide pops of flavour, while the charcoal provides that unmistakable smokiness.
Course number three, “Home Sweet Home” is inspired by Melton Mowbray, where Luke lives, and includes spring lamb that Luke personally selects from the farm, served with broad beans, precision trimmed asparagus and morel mushrooms. This was undoubtedly the standout dish of the night, with every element cooked to absolute perfection, winning over even diners who said they had never liked lamb until now. The earthy morels, fresh asparagus and sweet, pink lamb made this dish not only beautiful to look at, but beautiful to eat.
Moving into the dessert courses, the first of which – “Picking Apples in the Orchard” – acted as both a dessert and palate cleanser. This liquorice and tarragon infused apple granita was all at once new and nostalgic. The combination of flavours felt modern and forward-thinking, but that inimitable liquorice took me back to my childhood days. I’m not a big fan of liquorice, but as strong as it was, I really enjoyed it.
Our final course was “Grandpa’s Greenhouse” taking us full circle, in a wonderful tribute to Luke’s grandfather Ivor. The use of garden peas in a dessert may seem strange, but the sweet freshness of the pea mousse, which hid a creamy coconut and white chocolate centre with a hint of refreshing water mint, made this a light, complex and delicious end to the meal.
I say end. The food may have been finished, but we were happily served some more wine and enjoyed chatting to the waiting staff about what we thought, what their favourite dishes were, and how excited they all are by the new menu, before heading back into Saint Bar for a nightcap.
By this point I’m almost certain I was being spoiled, as I was made the most spectacular Negroni to finish the night on. Filtered through coffee beans 3 times to get the flavour, but not the bitterness, then smoked, this drink looked exciting and tasted exceptional. They don’t just put on a good show behind this bar, the drinks truly are the star.
Maybe the most surprising part of the menu is the price. At just £45 per head for 5 courses, and an additional £22 for the drinks flight (which includes cocktails as well as wine) you’re getting treated to a stunning fine dining menu for a steal of a price.
For me, it was one of my most memorable evenings to date, with every element surpassing expectations and providing a little surprise. I don’t doubt there are big things ahead for Merchants Restaurant. If it’s not a destination right now, I can assure you it’s going to be.
I was invited as a guest of Merchants Restaurant & the Lace Market Hotel. My meal and drinks were complimentary, many thanks to Steve, Luke & the whole team there. My opinions are, as always, my own, and I was under no obligation to provide a positive review.