Review: The Kitchen Counter at Neil Borthwick’s Merchants Tavern

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The Kitchen Counter at Hoxton’s Merchants’ Tavern is the ultimate experience for foodies: sitting in close proximity to chefs who have skills and knowledge you can only fantasise about while they cook delights that make your tastebuds think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Assuming tastebuds can think, of course!

And if that wasn’t enough, you can chat merrily away with the creators of your cuisine about ingredients, techniques and provenance at the same time as devouring said ingredients (just try not to talk with your mouth full!)

But this week, that experience was hoicked to a new level thanks to the warmth and welcome of Head Chef Neil Borthwick at the Merchants Tavern.

Now I’m rather in awe of Head Chefs.  I have them so high on a pedestal that I prefer to watch them from afar or on TV lest I become so overwhelmed with starry-eyedness that I leap over the counter and give them a great big housedad hug.

So when I was invited to lunch at the Merchants by my  dear friend Scott, I was actually apprehensive about sitting at the Kitchen Counter.

What if these chefs didn’t like me probing them while they were trying to work?

What if I asked a daft question to expose my lack of culinary awareness?

What – Heaven forbid – I was served something I didn’t actually like?  Would I spit it into my hankie or swallow it and force a rictus smile of approval while choking on the chefs’ endeavours?

Yes, fear and self-loathing has come to dominate quite a lot of my thinking just lately. I put it down to a middle-aged crisis.

But all fears were instantly dispelled with a handshake of greeting from Neil and an easy-going manner.

Which was a surprise – for this much I knew about Neil Borthwick: he is a protégé of the famously shouty Gordon Ramsay and the partner of one of the few female chefs to hold her own in the macho world of fine dining, Angela Hartnett.

However, there wasn’t a soupcon of celebness about Neil. In fact, chatting with him about food was as natural as talking with a pal down the pub.

Neil himself reckons his best trait is: “Getting on with people; you have to get on with everybody.”

Some of this ‘life’s too short’ perspective, he’s said in an interview, is down to what happened to him last August, while cycling – helmetless – with a friend.

Falling off his bike, he suffered a serious bang to his head and was kept in a coma for five days.

After major surgery, the 32-year-old is fine now, but he has said progress is ongoing and it’s a matter of learning how to pace himself to build up his stamina.

He said Angela nursed him through the dark days and: “Without her, I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing. She has a nurturing personality.”

We didn’t chat about all this personal stuff on the Pass, of course. I found out about Neil’s accident after we’d had dinner – which in itself is testament to the guy, because he was such a nice bloke I wanted to know more about him.

No, we chatted about food. And the thing about chat is you get to know things that others don’t, such as stuff that’s not on the menu, stuff the chefs have been experimenting with, modifying and refining.

Most of all, chat fosters trust, and the illustration of this trust went as follows:

Neil: ‘What would you guys like to eat today?’

Us: ‘Whatever you decide to give us.’

Neil (strokes chin): ‘Hmmm…let me have a think.’

While the Head Chef was cogitating, Scott and I treated ourselves to a couple of starters of roasted quail, hazelnut pesto, remoulade & foie gras, and crab tortello & lemongrass sauce.

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The quail was soft and sweet, enhanced by the nuttiness of the pesto and the vinegary tang of remoulade. A nugget of foie gras was rich, almost buttery, with a crisp exteror. The crab tortello was a visual surprise: a fist-sized tortello dyed black with squid ink, filled with a flaking, white, fish crab-meat, and dressed with an emulsion of egg whites, brought to aromatic life with a subtle hint of lemongrass.

Follow that! Right on cue, Neil returned, chin thoroughly stroked, to tell us about a Lake Distrct farmer called Eric Taylforth who had visited the Tavern the day before.

Eric breeds Herdwick sheep – renowned for its ‘gamely’ flavour – on Millbeck Farm in Great Langdale and had given Neil with some of his produce to do with what he would.

And what he would involved breaking the carcass down into an array of cuts that ranged from the quick-roasts to the slow cooked.

‘Fancy some?’ Neil asked.

Is the Pope a guy who dresses in white robes and lives in the Vatican?

You betcha.

The feast we were thus presented was a wonder of lambiness: braised lamb neck, crispy-skin belly, slow-cooked ‘fingers’ (short ribs) and roasted silverside, served on a bed of spelt and baby artichokes.

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But the star of the show was pan-roasted cannon – as tender as a ripe mango (excuse the bad analogy) – with a charred, smoky crust, served with delicate ‘wet’ garlic (the very first garlic of the season that hasn’t been hung up to dry).

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A fabulous experience made more amazing by an incredible chef. Unfortunately, he was wielding a very sharp knife as he started to prep a duck by the time I wanted to hug him!

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