Note: I was an invited guest of Mercantile & Mash for one of my visits in preparing this review. All opinions expressed in this post are solely mine. Thanks, Mercantile & Mash!
The first visit to Mercantile and Mash, The Indigo Road Restaurant Group’s newest venture located at the Cigar Factory on East Bay Street, feels a little bit like arriving into a new foreign country. The sights and sounds are interesting and enticing, but it’s a little confusing to try to figure out the rules on how things work. There are two exterior entrances to Mercantile, a home goods market/takeaway/dine-in restaurant and one separate exterior entrance to Bar Mash, and traffic appears to flow differently from each of the three entrances. For Mercantile, you’re either greeted by a cashier, if you enter from the eastern entrance and not the entrance facing East Bay Street or by a large display table featuring locally-sourced housewares and jarred foods, with a central coffee bar/cafe area just beyond. It might not be readily apparent to the first-time visitor, but Mercantile is an order-at-the-counter-and-browse kind of place. The Mash entrance is decidedly more straightforward. You’re headed into a really great bar space.
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But, unlike most new exotic experiences, navigating Mercantile doesn’t take too long to figure out. Both Mercantile and Bar Mash offer convivial gathering places for people to meet up, hang out and let their inner foodie fly. Mercantile’s atmosphere is rustic and bright, harkening back to the old drugstore days when a lunch counter near the back of the store served lunch and malteds. It helps that Mercantile is also the central handmade pasta production facility for Indaco, Indigo Road’s popular Italian joint. As soon as I heard this news, I was toast. I had to get my hands on some of that pasta.
Luckily, the housemade farfalle, swirled with butternut squash puree and sauteed oyster mushrooms and snowed on with freshly-grated Parmesan, didn’t disappoint. The farfalle was cooked to al dente perfection, with a pleasing chewiness in the center where each farfalle bow met. The salty, earthy flavor of the mushrooms, combined with the nuttiness of the Parmesan was a knockout.
As it turns out, the pasta wasn’t the only great dish at Mercantile. All of the dishes I sampled were confident and evolved, from the duck confit salad with thinly sliced beets, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), blue cheese and lightly dressed salad greens, to the beef carpaccio with crispy sweetbreads and dollops of whole grain mustard. The duck confit was nice and rich, but suitably tempered by the tartness in the vinaigrette coating the salad. The well-roasted, tender beets and pumpkin seeds also brought good texture to the dish. The sweetbreads were other-worldly — creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside. When eaten with a slightly translucent slice of carpaccio wrapped around its battered outside, the sweetbreads were heaven. I loved Mercantile’s sophisticated twist on food so much that I returned just two weeks later with my family for brunch, only to discover that their standout pasta dishes aren’t served on their brunch menu. As it turns out, the offerings on the brunch menu were more run-of-the-mill. I enjoyed the housemade corned beef and tots and the viscous yolk of the fried egg that it came with and my kids loved the housemade hot dog they shared, but I wished for more of the unique, interesting dishes I’d had during my first visit at dinnertime.
One of the other dishes I tried was the crispy rabbit confit, with dirty rice (cheekily appended with the word y’all at the end of its menu description). The rabbit was battered with a gritty cornmeal crust, which was a nice texture against the tenderness of the confit. The dirty rice was mild but flavorful. I’ll definitely be ordering this dish on my next visit.
As for happy hour, it doesn’t get much better than Bar Mash next door. Crafted cocktails and a list of whiskeys a mile long are the name of the game, and the moody interior stands in stark contrast to the brightly-light, bustling atmosphere of Mercantile. For those looking for a spot to enjoy a balmy Charleston evening, there’s also plenty of outdoor seating shared by both venues.
On the night I visited, I ordered a Crystal Ship, a pear syrup vodka cocktail mixed with rhubarb, honey syrup, lemon, tiki bitters and garnished with a rosemary sprig. It was a nice, refreshing cocktail, yet one that packed a fairly strong punch. Although we sat outside on a relatively cool evening, the cocktail was strong enough to leave me just north of flushed (but granted, I’m a total lightweight who usually checks out for the night at 9:30pm after a glass of red wine).
Of course, with the warm wooden walls and plush leather barstools inside at Bar Mash, a place where everyone will know your name in short order, it’s hard to imagine a reason to be outside. Everything good is happening inside, anyway.