Mercy's restaurant reviewed.
by M.B. Lewis
Visits at various times result in vastly different dining experiences at many restaurants, and that's certainly the case with the new Mercy's at the Bell Tower Hotel. Thanks to its prime spot across from Hill Auditorium, your neighbors at dinner may include visiting symphony conductors and university deans buttering up millionaire donor prospects. The menu shortens and a few prices spike during the hectic preshow rush, and the place can empty out to a ghostly quiet by eight o'clock on a Saturday night. Right after work, by contrast, you can join revelers two deep at the bar guzzling bargain martinis (including a refreshing ginger-lime variation), digging into discounted stacks of happy hour egg rolls, and gesturing boisterously with skewers of glazed meat.
I experienced all this in a week of spring visits--and also settled at a quiet booth for a three-hour feast exploring Mercy's French-Asian fusion menu. Co-owner Mercy Kasle draws from the food of her childhood in Burma, while formally trained chef James Jilek provides Parisian flair. Low ceilings, white linen, and white walls brightened by art posters, prints, and a few original canvases create a modern contrast to the hotel's country manor lobby.
Appetizers range from those broiled skewers of beef and chicken and other Asian street food to the chef's choice charcuterie platter. A scallop crepe containts goat cheese laced into a coconut bechamel sauce, which is creamy but ever-so-slightly grainy, like a rich aged cheese. Consider a few good-value appetizers (starting at $5) for the table to share. Cashew chicken with wonton timbales will get the conversation going, as you all guess how they get the tiny nut and poultry cubes to match in size and flavor. Piahjaw (pea patties) are deep-fried into green-tinted falafel-like spheres. If you order the steamed turkey dumplings (and you should!), a bamboo steamer arrives like an unexpected present. Your server sets it ceremoniously at the table center, takes off the lid with a flourish, and stands back as
everyone oohs at the plump crescents nestled into a pale-green moonscape of steamed cabbage. With bursts of veggie crunch in every bite, they're flavorful even without the accompanying sauces.
A word about the sauces: it seems like most dishes come nestled in, glazed with, or accompanied by a white, orange, yellow, or dark brown sauce. This is not a bad thing, because most of the sauces are tasty and their ingredients sufficiently explained. One rich and briny soy reduction showed up on several plates; I thought it had a hint of fish, but our server insisted otherwise.
The same server declared duck confit egg rolls the most popular appetizer--they're slant-cut and stacked on end into an impressive cluster of towers. For something lighter, try the fresh veggie summer roll with peanut sauce and coconut curried carrot vinaigrette. Vegetarian French onion soup was also pleasing, with a thick root vegetable base as an appealing alternative to the usual salty beef broth.
There are a dozen "principals," as entrees are called here. The rack of lamb de Provence dresses for success in a medley of mint sauce and pesto. Crusty brown over tender pink on every forkful, it's what you offer people who think they don't like lamb--to make them think again.
The award for most striking presentation went to coriander-dusted sea scallops. An array of summery hues and flavors comes together in what the menu describes as "scallops sauteed to perfection served with a citrus beurre blanc, orange curry coconut glace, balsamic paint, glazed sweet potato nest, coconut jasmine rice, and haricot verts." Just one complaint: the prose outweighs the meager portion! We scavenged stray grains from the tiny rice hummock to dredge through the brushwork of candied sauce.
We might not have fixated on the size of the exquisite scallop dish if our other seafood choice, ginger salmon wrapped in chard, didn't come in such a massive package. It tasted fine, if eye-wateringly hot from the generous layer of chili-fired onions. But with the rice also wrapped into the green bulwark, it made for an awkward dinner to navigate.
With only two months of a busy concert and theater season under its belt, Mercy's seemed to be working awfully hard just to keep up. The wine list is changing, and probably the menu will too when lunch becomes an option soon. Two charismatic servers say they've gotten everything under control after an admittedly challenging start.
I want to believe it. Yet there are still rough spots, like wobbly and too-tall tables, splashy water glass fillings, and too much distracting shop talk at the front of the house. Consistency was a challenge, too--our coffee was delicious one night but bitter another. The creme brulee came generously tall and cool one night, squat and warm another--yet creamy and luscious both times, with real vanilla bean specks in the bottom of the ramekin. Mango and banana crepes and a coconut rice dish were other fresh and wonderful desserts, and gluten-free chocolate and spice cake are also reportedly popular.
There's much to enjoy here--although a patient and forgiving attitude will enhance your experience, at least for now. If you liked the old Zanzibar's postcolonial pan-tropical fare, then you might love how Mercy's takes it to another level.
300 S. Thayer (Bell Tower Hotel)
Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 5:30-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5:30-10 p.m. Bar opens 4:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri. and till an hour after kitchen closes. Closed Sun. & Mon.
Appetizers and soups $5-$21, entrees $15-$32, desserts $4-$9; some prices change at happy hour (Tues.-Fri. 4:30-6 p.m.) and before major shows
[Originally published in May, 2010.]