A CBD cafe with a "some other city" feel
Conversations about New Orleans lunch joints usually touch on where they get their po-boy bread, how they cook their roast beef and maybe their histories. Rarely, in my experience, does such talk get around to which architect was involved.
But in the case of Merchant, a new cafe in the CBD, a tip of the hat is in order to architect Ammar Eloueini. The strikingly modern look and feel he designed for Merchant is what many people talk about during their first visit. As sleek and white as an Apple device, though grounded with some rough-hewn planks of bargeboard, it seems like a cafe pulled from the future, or at least from Europe.
Co-owner Rosario Tortorice wanted to bring something different to New Orleans when he and his partners opened Merchant last fall in the ground floor of the revamped Maritime Building, and in this they've succeeded. Tortorice is a coffee distributor with an east Texas drawl, Italian family roots and a penchant for French street food. So Illy, the Trieste-based coffee brand he represents, is in Merchant's espresso machines for excellent and refreshingly affordable drinks that are prepared and presented with great reverence. Many items on the menu are hybrids of Italian meats and cheeses worked into baguette sandwiches, crepes and exuberantly fresh salads.
The entire operation is in plain view behind a gleaming diner counter. That means you can watch the enthusiastic staff ladle batter onto crepe irons and dispense bits of pancetta with basil and mozzarella, or thick slices of salami and egg. Diners pick their own combinations for the sweet crepes, and I recommend Nutella, the Italian chocolate and hazelnut wonder spread, with just about anything else.
The crepes are fine for a quick, light lunch, though the spare fillings stop short of actually filling them and the batter itself is too bland to carry the day. The pressed sandwiches, called croque batons, are more consistently satisfying. For one, the crusty, chewy baguette holds layers of prosciutto with a light touch of truffle butter, invisible but arrestingly aromatic. My favorite has dense, dark, olive oil-soaked tuna dressed with paper-thin sliced lemon and crackling-crisp arugula.
The breakfast menu is brief — pastries, quiche, toasted baguettes with butter and jam — but some of the more involved coffee preparations are better suited for a calm midday break than the morning race to the office. Merchant has potential as an after-hours spot, and extended evening hours are in the works. Plates of crostini do the same job as tapas, and Merchant offers an eclectic selection of bottled beer and wines poured into stubby juice glasses.
Some of Merchant's produce is from Hollygrove Market & Farm, which hosts a satellite market in the same building each Sunday. Lunch joints getting their goods from farmers markets may be a growing trend, but the futuristic Merchant still seems a step ahead with a farmers market that comes to it.