A new canteen has arrived on the block in Islington and it’s set to shake up the status quo when it comes to food and drink.
Mercer and Co in Chapel Market is a salt beef bar and canteen serving up sandwiches packed with the finest cuts of meat at the same time as offering a first-rate cocktail menu.
And the best bit? You don’t feel like your life-savings have been pillaged when you place an order. Equally there is a relaxed vibe in the place – so far the customers are normal people looking for decent food or drink, be it a coffee or a blow-your-socks off alcoholic beverage.
There is always a danger that when a new concept cafe or bar pops up that it gets overrun by wannabe trendy types, who don’t actually buy anything but do sit there looking edgy, with their top button done up, drinking a kale and green tea smoothie. Anyway, I digress.
Explaining his idea for Mercer and Co, owner Alex Foley told me: “We’re not looking to attract a particular niche clientele because the place really works for everyone with the food and drink.
“London needs new concepts, not just the same thing produced over and over again by corporate chains. You can come in here and grab three cocktails and a sandwich for £22 – it’s a no-brainer.”
The idea for the establishment was borne out of a visit to New York city and being inspired by the famous Katz Delicatessen on the Lower East Side.
The ethos is not complicated: provide simple, delicious sandwiches using only the finest cuts of meat, meticulously prepared.
Foley has had a pub in the area for 22 years so he should have a good idea of what will appeal to the local crowd. However, judging by the ware on offer, he might find that there is an audience willing to travel. The salt beef bagels and unique cocktails are a cut above the norm.
Everything is done in-house, which means there will be slight differences in flavours and drinks. from day to day, depending on the curing process, different cuts of meat and how alcohol has fermented. Rather than mass-produced factory fodder, this stuff is handcrafted by people that care about their customer.
“The fact that we create everything is what makes it real,” Alex explained. “It’s not just off-the-shelf food, which is always the same.”
Aside from a commitment to bringing quality salt beef to Chapel Market’s lunchtime menu a major drive for the cafe is to offer something affordable. Quite the statement for a London eatery.
“I am sick of people in London being stung in the pocket,” he said. “This is good food and well-designed cocktails at prices that won’t break you. You can come in here, have a proper sandwich and a drink for fiver and we are still making a good margin.”
There is no arguing that this sentiment will be music to Londoner’s ears. Whatever demographic you fit into – worker, stay-at-home parent, pensioner – the prices one is usually expected to pay for not very much are exorbitant. Finding somewhere to satisfy your hunger without injuring your wallet is not an easy task.
So Mercer and Co certainly talks the talk about offering something different and serving up cafe-style food that beats the competition. But does it walk the walk?
First up, I sampled the mac and cheese with beef chilli. There was a real crunch to the dish with the pasta immersed in a deliciously creamy sauce. As a big fan of MnC I was intrigued to see if Mercer and Co is simply a safe pair of hands or a place with tricks up its sleeve . I was very pleased to find a real kick once the flavours settled down on my tongue. Not eye-watering but certainly something to get the tastebuds tingling. A winner.
After not much persuasion from the bartender I was handed a vanilla chai rum cocktail to wash down my first foray into the food. And it was clear that the drinks are not an afterthought when I was advised by the rather knowledgable mixologist to “drink through the chocolate sprinkles to bring out the unique taste”. Initially I thought there might be an element of pretentious nonsense going on but once I’d followed the instructions the advice rung true – a rather punchy and quite different flavour, much like a hot chocolate but of the very alcoholic variety.
Next on my agenda was what I considered the main event: the salt beef sandwich. In order to be successful, with posters up stating “Serious About Salt Beef”, the place really needed to to nail the signature dish. I went for the basic version – salt beef, hot mustard, gherkin – and I must say that it was superb. I’ve eaten my fair share of this combination over the years and this version sits up at the top. The months spent by Foley and his team perfecting the recipe have certainly paid dividends. The eateries in the vicinity might need to raise their game.
Then it was back to the booze.
All of the cocktails, priced at £6, are made using a method of cold brew infusion and glass ageing, and are products of a long experimentation period. The resident cocktail guru, Sorcha Power, rustled up a Consulate Martini for me, made up of lychee martini, lychee jam, gin, and vermouth. “Designing and developing this drink was like being pregnant,” added the Irish mixologist. “Nine months in the making and it was an absolute labour of love. These drinks don’t exist elsewhere, we’ve created them especially for here.
“There’s nothing worse than tasting something that’s almost good – we have to have it perfect!”
Again, there was no doubting the strength in the concoction, which wasn’t a surprise given that it had been fermenting for six months. Importantly though, it was sensationally smooth, sweet without being sickly and dangerously moreish. All in all, this one was a crowd pleaser.
So, the food was excellent and the cocktails were top drawer. Was it for a particular crowd? Not really. The food will appeal to anyone who wants to be filled up with reasonably priced excellent salt beef or well-though-out snacks and the alcoholic options are there if you desire them. If it’s a bit early for cocktails, then Union Coffee is served, which signals that this canteen is also serious about its caffeine customers.
On first impressions the concept of food and cocktails looks like it should work. London just needs to embrace it.
- Mercer & Co, 26A Chapel Market, London N1 9EN. For more information call 020 7683 0227 or visit www.mercerandco.co.uk