"This space screamed to be a restaurant," says Merchant co-owner Joshua Berkson. Previously office space, empty since Extra Bold Portfolio school folded, the spare, square, open room at 121 S. Pinckney is now a cafe/restaurant/cocktail bar/urban grocery.
Opening today, Merchant is designed to be different eateries at different times of the day, says Berkson. In the morning, from 7 a.m. on, it will be a place to get a cup of Kickapoo coffee and a pastry. At lunch it will be both a high-end to-go deli and a sit-down, full-service restaurant with the same sandwich and salad menu. And at dinner, it's a casual/fine dining restaurant with sandwiches, small plates and a handful of entrees.
It's likewise a craft cocktail bar, doing old favorites but making them with the best ingredients, says Berkson. He points to a container of Luxardo gourmet maraschino cherries as an example of the special touches that will make Merchant cocktails stand out. Manager Jamie Lund mentions Merchant's "top-of-the-line ice," coming from a special machine that eliminates air bubbles and makes the ice stay solid longer, delaying the dilution of the alcohol.
Merchant borrows some of its aims and intents from what's going on in food and bars in New York City right now, says Berkson, who is originally from Chicago but spent several years in New York before moving to Madison two years ago. Co-owner Patrick Sweeney is from Madison. The chef is Brian Hauke.
Berkson sees New Yorkers "dining at the bar, the casualization of fine dining," and this had a major impact on conceiving Merchant. Fine dining ingredients will be "accessible to people on a more casual basis."
The urban grocery arm is confined to one wall, showcasing select ingredients that are used in Merchant's dishes ("We're ingredient-driven," says Berkson), with a produce and dairy cooler area to come in the rear. Cans of San Marzano tomatoes, cornichons, Italian pasta, olive oil, and more are already stocked. Some of them are harder to find -- line-caught Ortiz tuna, for instance -- while others (Nutella, Sriracha hot sauce) would be easy to pick up at Woodman's, but convenience and "transparency" are the aims of the grocery, Berkson says: "It shows who we are."
Milk is from Sassy Cow, artisanal meats from Milwaukee's Bolzano, and cheeses come from all over. Madison Sourdough bakes special loaves just for Merchant, for instance a ciabatta used for sandwiches.
The lunch menu focuses on a couple cold sandwiches, seven pressed sandwiches and six salads. Most sandwiches highlight the Bolzano prosciutto, pancetta and cured meats.
Dinner retains some of the sandwiches and salads, adds a half-dozen small plates and "toasts" and seven entrees, ranging from an $8 carmelized fennel omelet to market price "steaks or chops" with chicken and dumplings, trout, fennel sausage with bucatini, farro risotto, and a burger ranging in between. Overall, prices range from $7-$10 for sandwiches and salads, to below $20 for entrees.
Cocktails (most $9) focus on "The Canon" -- traditional drinks like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans -- and those original to Merchant. The bar menu also lists forty-some bourbons, thirty-some bottled beers, five seasonal tap beers, wines, nine single malt Scotches, cordials and even three types of absinthe.
Merchant joins the list of recently opened eateries on or just off east side of the Capitol Square. Located within a block of the new 43 North, Graze and the relocated L'Etoile, King & Mane, and Francesca's Al Lago, and two blocks from Nostrano, it's also just down the block from the perennially popular Great Dane, across the street from Johnny Delmonico's and Marigold Kitchen, about a block from Opus Lounge and virtually next door to Tutto Pasta Cucina and Madison's.
Berkson seems enthused, rather than daunted, by the company. He points to all the openings: "There are opportunities in this economy."