55 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL Tel: 0207 837 0009
FOOD Four Star
VALUE Two Star
ATMOSPHERE Three Star
Cost per person with wine: £35
I’m governed by my id, apparently. A friend and sometime colleague explained this over a bowl of borscht in Glasgow’s Café Cossachock (a great little place, well worth a visit, so long as you don’t mind having to dance to attract the attention of the waiting staff). “You’re all about immediate fulfilment,” he said. “You see a coffee shop and you have to have a latte. You pass an ice-cream parlour and you walk out with a Cornetto. You see someone smoking and you want a cigarette. You don’t even smoke, for God’s sake. You’re a slave to your desires. It’s classic Freud.”
This friend, it’s worth pointing out, is the perfect example of the superego: a man whose existence is manacled to some imagined societal rulebook. When I walked into an (empty) restaurant following a sudden craving for a bowl of soup (damn you, id), he complained that I was somehow “leading them on” by not ordering a main. He doesn’t touch alcohol, he’s vegetarian, he doesn’t even drink coffee. His id, if it is in there at all, is a shrivelled raisin, buried under decades of parental baggage. If you could roll us into one person, you would probably get a single functioning human being.
Restaurateur Ronnie Truss is a man after my own heart. He loves potatoes. He loves them so much he decided to open a potato restaurant, serving only things made with potato. That puts my whims to shame.
Potato Merchant joins the growing legion of “single dish” restaurants, alongside the likes of Burger & Lobster and Tramshed (which only serves chicken and steak). As a choice of single dish, though, potato is harder to pull off.
Truss, a former chef, is a real authority on the subject. Once you get him talking about potatoes, you’ll be there for a good 15 minutes. He’s got more stories about potatoes than you’ve eaten… potatoes. Or something.
His restaurant has an earthy, farmers’ market thing going on, which means it looks like every restaurant that has opened since 2010, with a colour scheme that seems to be designed to placate woodland animals.
The remarkably simple premise – it’s ALL got potato in it – didn’t stop our waiter from explaining it at great length. I’ve never heard the word potato used so many times in a single sentence. He knew which farm they came from, how many were grown that year, which school they went to, and which were suspected of having an illicit affair.
We ordered two small plates, one main and three sides of potato to share between two, which was just about right.
The asparagus and champ was a great start: fresh and tasty, ever so slightly crisped on the grill and glued to the plate with an endearingly nostalgic dollop of creamy mash. However, at £6.50 it doesn’t come cheap and a fourth spear of asparagus would have made sharing easier. The small chicken salad with deep-violet pink fir potatoes was equally good, and equally expensive at £7.50.
The main was a satisfyingly wholesome cut of pork cheek, served with fennel and green beans. What it lacked in size it made up for in flavour: a good old-fashioned slice of pig, like your grandma used to cook before they carted her off to the home.
In a restaurant called Potato Merchant, you can hardly call the potatoes a side: they are the main event. The Jersey Royals were your basic butter and mint affair, albeit of exceedingly good quality, while the dauphinoise was deliciously creamy, if a little on the small side. After all that, the beef dripping chips were overkill.
In a restaurant based around potato, dessert was always going to be the most interesting proposition. There were only two options, one of which was potato-bread and butter pudding, which kept things nice and simple: sweet and rich. The lemon drizzle cake was more adventurous, adding mashed potato into the mix (anyone with a gluten allergy may already know this trick). It tastes just as you’d expect: like a lemon drizzle cake with mashed potato in it. I wouldn’t order it again.
A meal consisting almost entirely of potato sounds like hard work; like you might need to hibernate for a few months afterwards. But Potato Merchant manages to keep things relatively airy. I was in for lunch and managed to make it through the afternoon without building myself a nest and bedding in until September.
Exmouth Market’s newest venture is a good quality, well-sourced one-stop potato shop, albeit not one for those on a tight budget. Next time your raging id demands carbs, it’s worth checking out.