800 Common St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Review: ***/*****
At some point, all of us want a break from New Orleans and that point usually occurs in the thick of the summer. To feel like you've made a brief lunchtime or coffee break escape from our fair city, a visit to Merchant can be just the ticket. This new CBD spot is essentially a coffee shop with a menu of salads, sandwiches and crepes, but its approach, its look and its menu are all refreshingly different from the local lunch spot norm.
This is a small, casual place that looks like it was designed by a modern architect. The color is mostly white, with a few exclamations of red barstools and a rustic wood table. Beyond that long table, it looks like seating is limited to a few counters, one looking to the street, the other to the crepe- and salad-making stations. But there's also a side corridor with more conventional tables and a collection of anything-but-conventional modern art on the walls.
Place your order with the guy with the iPad and you're given a little stand with your order number on it. The staff comes around to find you with your meal. They're usually prompt, though the place can get pretty busy at the lunch rush, and they always seem on task.
Though this isn't really the type of place for an appetizer-entrée progression, you can get an order of crostini to share or start things off. These, of course, are slices of bread topped with many of the same basic configurations you'll find on the sandwich and salad lists, like duck confit with goat cheese, olive tapenade and roasted peppers, or a combination of prosciutto, hard Italian cheese and red onion.
Salads, sandwiches and crepes all share more or less the same main ingredients, so picking your lunch at Merchant means deciding which short of delivery system you want. The sandwiches are stand-outs. They're called croque batons, and they are essentially narrow, crusty French bread numbers served with small but fresh green salads. The olive oil tuna is one specialty. It's not your typical tuna salad, but rather a higher-grade tuna dressed with tomato, red onion, arugula and very thinly-sliced lemon. I also like the shrimp with avocado. Crepes are less filling, so order one of these only if you're after a lighter lunch. The salami is cut too thick to achieve maximum effect, but I like the duck confit with apple, blue cheese and a balsamic reduction. For salads, I recommend the big crunchy bushel of dark green arugula with flurries of parmesan, roasted tomatoes and a lemony dressing.
Merchant stocks Nutella by the case load and generously deploys this highly-addictive Italian hazelnut chocolate spread on sweet crepes. Add bananas inside and a squirt of whipped cream outside and you have just about the perfect dessert. There are other sweet crepe combinations - butter and sugar, apple and cinnamon - and a small assortment of pastries to grab and go.
Coffee is at least half the reason for Merchant to exist and it is a great reason to visit all on its own. The shop takes a European approach to a casually great cup of espresso, using the Italian illy brand coffee and serving it in proper cups. There is a small but carefully chosen selection of wines and beer too.
Just about everything here is under $10, so even with one of the exceptional coffees your lunch should come in under $15.
Merchant aims for a European model of the quick-but-precise, casual-but-calculated lunch spot and coffee shop and it hits the mark. An oasis from the heavier norms of po-boys and plate lunches, it is a welcome addition to the CBD that fills a niche in a way many will cheer.