Chef Neil Borthwick isn't standing still with his constantly changing menu of strong British flavours at his new Shoreditch venture. Neil Gerrard reports
If you want to gauge just how much of an influence Michel Bras had on Neil Borthwick during the young Scottish chef's three years working for him, look no further than the sign above the Shoreditch restaurant he now runs.
Merchants Tavern, which opened in November 2013, takes its name from a line in a regular speech Bras and his son Sébastien gave to new recruits at their three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Laguiole, France, in which they reminded them that chefs are "merchants of good fortune".
It is something that has clearly stuck with 32-year-old Borthwick, who heads up the kitchen at the new venture, backed by Canteen founders Dominic Lake and Patrick Clayton Malone, and Michelin-starred restaurateur Angela Hartnett.
That said, Bras is by no means the only distinguished chef Borthwick has worked for, having also held posts at Gordon Ramsay's Amaryillis in Glasgow, Restaurant Tom Aikens, four years at Maison Pic in France, three years at Phil Howard's the Square, and a couple of stints working for Hartnett, his now girlfriend, at the Connaught.
Despite the restaurant's setting in a large Victorian warehouse in edgy Shoreditch, Borthwick's experience in classical French cuisine is plain to see, and although having only been writing menus for a few months, he already finds himself led strongly by seasonality and British produce, with dishes changing constantly.
A main of roast loin of venison, braised red cabbage, and sprout tops (£19.50), which proved one of the most popular dishes while it was on the menu, has already made way for new creations when Caterer speaks to Borthwick in mid-January.
"When you have a great product coming through the door, it changes your style of cooking. You respect the produce and look after it and then you have something delicious," he explains. "The most important thing for a chef is to understand and enjoy food himself. If you cook food that you would enjoy eating yourself then that is about two thirds of the battle."
A starter of scallops, crushed celeriac, black truffle vinaigrette (£15.50) has also proven a hit with diners, as has the roast quail, hazelnut pesto, remoulade and foie gras (£9.50).
In places though, Borthwick has allowed himself a return to his Scottish roots, with desserts including a heather honey tart with roast apricots and malt whisky creme fraiche ice cream. "The first time we did it, it was far too sweet but we adapted the recipe and added a bit more treacle and a bit less sugar and it was spot on," he says.
Although the kitchen in which Borthwick works sits at the back of the restaurant, it is still very open and clearly visible to diners, so it is probably just as well that he appears to have a very calm, friendly approach to his 12-strong brigade of chefs (eight of whom work on any given day). "In a closed kitchen ten years ago with the old-fashioned management style there was a lot more shouting and swearing. But Michel Bras' kitchen in France was very calm and the only time it would really kick off was when something wasn't up to standard," he says. It is good to work in a nice environment. People respond better when you speak to them like human beings."
It is fortunate that Borthwick does not appear to get stressed too easily, because alongside the strain of opening a restaurant that serves 1,200 covers a week, he is still recovering from a horrific cycling accident in November 2012, that left him with a serious head injury. Despite a good response to treatment, Borthwick last year underwent major cranioplastic surgery to put a plate in his skull, and has suffered weak motor skills in his left hand, from which he is still gradually recovering.
"It is still early days in terms of recovery from my brain injury," he says. "I think on a list of ten things not to do after an injury like mine, number one would definitely be not to open a central London restaurant."
Despite that, he has been able to rely on the help of others: "To have Angela's support - as a girlfriend and professionally as well - has been fantastic," he says, and he also praises his sous chef Colin McSherry for his help.
In any case, if it has been a challenging opening, he clearly considers it a small price to pay if it allows him to fulfil his role as a merchant of good fortune. "It is such a gruelling industry but if you enjoy it, it can be one of the most rewarding careers," he says.
Merchants Tavern, 36 Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3PG.
Telephone: 020 7060 5335
Sample dishes from the menu
Starters Butternut squash & crapaudine beetroot salad & Wensleydale cream £9
Ham hock ravioli, buttered cabbage, chicken broth £12
Smoked Cornish mackerel rillette, sourdough toast £10
Mains Roast loin of venison, lardo, beetroot puree, crushed parsley root and juniper crumb £21
Pollock with sourdough crust, sorrel & lettuce emulsion, Swiss chard £18
Jacob's ladder, root vegetables, lentils, capers and dill £21
Desserts Poached quince, almond sponge & vanilla custard £8
Muscavado tart, Bramley apple, black pepper sorbet £9
Blood orange oosset, chocolate sable £8.50