Over the two years that elapsed between an investment group purchasing The Cigar Factory and its maiden tenants’ fall move-in date, hype for the building’s first restaurant project swelled on the strength of just two words: food hall.
As Mercantile & Mash neared its September opening, it sounded less and less like the honeycomb arrangement of independent vendors that’s become the hottest thing since bone broth in cities such as Atlanta and Portland, and more like a straight-up gourmet shop for folks in a hurry. But corporate literature persisted in calling it a food hall; and restaurateur Steve Palmer of The Indigo Road (The Macintosh, Indaco) said he’d shopped for inspiration in food halls from San Francisco to Barcelona, so this writer went along with the claim, previewing its debut with a rundown of leading latter-day food courts.
News flash: Mercantile, a cafe with an extensive selection of retail goods, and Mash, the bourbon-happy bar downstairs, don’t add up to a food hall. Once Charlestonians got a glimpse of Mercantile, with its slim cooler of takeaway salads, sandwich counter, coffee bar, bakery case and shelves lined with wine bottles and edible fripperies, they recognized the format from venues such as Mixson Market and Caviar & Bananas. You can’t befriend a fiercely autonomous fishmonger here, or order dosas while your dining companion heads off in another direction to fetch bibimbap, but you can buy packaged pasta and get a shot of cardamint syrup in your latte.
Still, the emphasis on “hall” wasn’t entirely misplaced in this instance. Even though Mercantile doesn’t function like New York’s Hudson Eats or D.C.’s Union Market, the space is the enterprise’s greatest asset. Without upsetting any of the building’s 214-year-old charms, architect David Thompson has carved out a superlative gathering place. From its wooden planked floors to exposed beams above, the big room provides a comfortable backdrop for catch-up lunches and coffee-fueled planning sessions. Patrons who arrive alone will appreciate the roomy tabletops and strong wi-fi signal.
On my final visit to Mercantile, while seated at the chef’s counter, I asked for a glass of wine and was instead served a half bottle. Fortuitously, an acquaintance ambled by with a round of Charleston Artisan Cheesehouse brie, so we decamped to a tall workbench-style table and shared, surrounded by lots of other small parties engaged in energetic midday conversations. That felt like Mercantile at its best.
Oftentimes, though, the simple pleasures at Mercantile & Mash — a well-made cup of coffee and ginger cookie at Mercantile, fully-attentive bartenders at Mash — are threatened by the same grandiose inclinations that led to that self-proclaimed food hall business. Specifically, the food is too rich, too heavy and frequently too ambitious for a daytime spot.
The first time I visited Mercantile (where, it’s worth noting, I was identified by staffers from the start), I was after a to-go breakfast sandwich. For whatever reason, it’s hard to get a quality egg-and-cheese on the quick in Charleston, a situation that Mercantile hasn’t resolved. I sluggishly circled the retail area three or four times after selecting my meal from a menu that also features cheese grits, sausage on a croissant and fried boudin on a biscuit. Honestly, the enforced tour served me well, since it’s not immediately clear where you’re supposed to order what at Mercantile.
My order was presented boxed and bagged in a large brown paper sack with looped handles, which seemed like a lot of fuss for an egg on an English muffin, even with house-smoked ham and fontina cheese involved. But the culinary seriousness of the sandwich became clear when I picked it up. In haute fashion, the yolk and white around it weren’t set, so I ended up with liquid egg everywhere. It was all perfectly tasty, albeit creamier than necessary, but seemed better suited for a full-fledged brunch than before-work stop.
At lunchtime, Mercantile customers have two choices (three, if you count the ready-made wraps and salads in the sparsely-stocked cooler, but they tend to look rather pale). They can order off the standard menu or nab one of a dozen stools positioned at the chef’s counter. The perch facing the kitchen affords a view of staffers running saddle blanket-sized sheets of noodle dough through the pasta machine, but it’s also a front row seat for watching the Sysco guy deliver beef, pork, eggs and whatever else is needed to keep a 7,500-square-foot room of food humming.
Unlike the regular menu, which consists exclusively of salads and sandwiches, the chef’s counter menu lists restaurant-y dishes from Tim Morton, such as raw oysters with kimchi mignonette, seared scallops and broad ravioli. Stuffed with ricotta and butternut squash, dabbed with sweet date butter and barraged with pecorino cheese, the ravioli confirms the pasta-making isn’t just for show. There’s also usually one brawny meat on offer, such as rabbit leg, bundled in bacon and fried. While the rabbit tasted pink and inoffensive, and the pureed parsnips tasted mostly of cream, the roasted Brussels sprouts shedding their leaves were terrific.
Pricing at the chef’s counter runs from $9-$18 per item, while the main menu tops out at $13. That’s the fee assessed for the banh mi, which has the makings of an excellent small bite to distribute at a dine-around event. But the attractive sandwich, garnished with wisps of carrots, jalapeno rings and sliced radishes, is an endurance test when stretched to baguette dimensions. Hoisin-glazed pork belly that’s wonderful the first time around loses its allure by the fourth or fifth nugget. A thick layer of chicken liver mousse on the sandwich doesn’t help.
Saucy rotisserie chicken, tucked into a wishy-washy roll and permeated with pimento cheese, presents much the same problem. The best bets on the menu are surely the salads, including a handsome mix of shredded duck confit, beets and blue cheese strewn over greens.
So the food could stand some tweaking. The drinks, though, are on point. That’s true upstairs, where the thoughtful baristas have come up with a madly delicious nitrogen-treated Vietnamese iced coffee that tastes like a lush chocolate beer, and downstairs at Mash. Considering the talent and expertise of bartenders Jeremiah Schenzel and Teddy Nixon, the cocktail menu skews short, with just eight drinks. Still, what’s available is precise and sophisticated, and there are seven times as many entries on the whiskey list.
Mash is furnished with a bocce court, shuffleboard table and a jukebox that’s programmed to appeal to a demographic that cares deeply about improving its golf game. There’s nothing particularly trendy about Mash, but it already feels like a comfortable hangout, which is what really matters most.