For better or worse, the Midwest has long been considered a dead zone in the culinary world. Outside of places like Chicago, Denver and Kansas City, little to no attention is paid to those who toil away in the greasy spoons and dive bars that make up the majority of flyover country’s culinary delights. And, that’s a goddamn shame. Some of the most amazing food creations are coming out of small town kitchens. That’s a column for another time, though.
It’s this insistence on ignoring the states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. that means a blind spot arrives. Eyes are turned from some true gems simply because of their geography.
Sometimes, inspired bits of cocktail genius pop up on the lonely prairies.
Sometimes, a group comes along that proves that those of us in the mushy middle of this wonderful United States are just as talented, just as genius as those on the coasts.
Sometimes, Merchants Pub & Plate happens.
The newly opened gastropub in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, takes the place of former fine dining restaurant Teller’s. (Side note: Teller’s has a special place in our heart, and always will, as that’s where our founder Mark and our editor Jenn celebrated their engagement.) On the plus side, the prices definitely reflect this switch to “low-key.”
It’s also the site of the former Merchants National Bank (hence the name) from 1888 to 1930.
Merchants just opened at the end of September after a massive remodel project that saw the interior switched from a more fine dining aesthetic to one that reflects its more relaxed nature. It has become much, much brighter with a more rustic look the furniture, and a new open-air kitchen. Brighter colors splash the walls, and there is a much more informal vibe. That’s not to say that the digs are slapdash, haphazard, or otherwise shoddy.
But enough about the atmosphere. How was the bar?
The most promising thing you’ll notice when you sit down at Merchants is that along with the standard menu, they will bring you a second menu that includes an entire page of unique cocktails, recommend wines, and over 30 beers on tap.
Not only did they have a huge amount of beers ready to be quaffed, but because the gastropub has dedicated itself to food sourced from the Midwest, all of their spirits are domestic. Just a decade ago, this would have been an invitation to failure, but it’s a testament to the growth of micro-distilleries in the United States.
The cocktail menu itself had 13 original cocktails with a variety of ingredients ranging from Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin with cucumber to red wine and sumac. We leaned on Front of House Manager/Head Mixologist Anne Turner for her favorite cocktails.
We decided to kick off the evening with the Sir Barnum – a fascinating looking cocktail with scotch and sherry.
- 10 Year Single Malt Scotch (i.e. The Macallan)
- Cream sherry (such as Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry)
- Smoked salt rim
Nose: It has a very savory scent to it, leading you to believe that this is going to be a stronger, smokier drink.
Taste: Your nose is lying to you. It’s surprisingly sweet right up front. There’s a strong caramel flavor changing to chocolate. The taste of the sherry very delicate, however it adds some earthiness that grounds the flavor. If you sip from the a side with the smoked salt rim, it brings the scotch flavors up front, tempering some of the sweetness of the caramel. The sherry and caramel combine to create an almost chocolate flavor. Scotch is on the end, and doesn’t dominate the cocktail. It’s tough to mix scotch well, so color us impressed.
You could taste the spirits as well, which earns bonus points in our book.
After the Sir Barnum, we enjoyed our salad and then moved on to the Modern Love.
- 360 Vodka Sorrento Lemon vodka
- Strawberry purée
- Pink peppercorn simple syrup
- Balsamic reduction
Nose: Damn does that smell of balsamic. Which is good. If you like balsamic. Which we do! Strong scent follows with strawberry. No hint of citrus or lemon in the scent.
Taste: We love cocktails like this. While the first smell is of balsamic, the taste of strawberry on the front. The balsamic itself is pretty understated. A slight heat from the syrup comes midway through the drink, while the lemon vodka gives some citrus. There are some dregs of strawberry on the end.
Anne tells us that a small percentage of the cocktails on the menu came from her time as bar manager for Teller’s. Most the cocktails on the menu, however, are new inventions that were paired with the hyper-local menu. With an outstanding food menu, and amazing spirits and cocktail menu (and at $8 a pop you couldn’t ask for a better price), it looks like Merchants is well on its way to becoming another mainstay of this college town’s nightlife.
Probably our only complaint is that all of the speciality cocktails skew to the sweeter, dessert end of drinks. That’s something that Anne fully admits, as that’s her personal taste. However, we were so impressed with the bar jockeys – and the huge selection of liquor – that we had no doubt that if we wanted something more on the savory side, Merchants would be more than happy to acquiesce.
The food was amazing as well. They may have crafted one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever tasted. Plus, when a restaurant is willing to give you your burger bloody, that gives them bonus customer service points.
Verdict: If you’re in the area – spend the money to get on I-70 and haul your ass over to Lawrence. Outstanding, warm, welcoming staff. Great food. And, more important than any of that, great cocktails.
A very special thanks to Emily, Anne, and Chef TK Peterson for their hospitality during our visit at Merchants. We can’t wait to come back.