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Fish Type: Lake Perch     Price: $16.00

Overall, I would not recommend this Fish Fry.

Fish Score: Fair
Potato Score: Good
Tartar Score: Fair
Bread Score: Excellent
Miscellaneous Score: Fair

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Comment: Downtown Madison is on the up and up (at least as far as Fish Fry is concerned). There is renewed interest in our most sacred Wisconsin tradition around the Capitol Square with places like the Tempest and the Tipsy Cow bolstering what was once a sorely lacking Fish Fry scene. These places are honing their craft on a weekly basis, and clearly aren’t just a flash in the fry pan. However, there are more and more newcomers trying their hand all the time, after all, Friday fish is simple, and anyone can just jump right in and instantly be making the best of the best, right? Wrong.

Enter Merchant. The classy cocktail crafter has recently waded into the freshly competitive waters in order to get their own slice of the piscine pie. Their offering comes in on the high side at $16, but as we’ve learned from the Tempest, when fancy places peddle the perch a bump in price is to be expected, but can be justified. Unfortunately in the case of Merchant, it’s not. At least not yet.

We showed up relatively early but there was a wedding reception taking place inside which led to the only seating besides the bar being outside. While it was a little chilly, it was also a little windy which made everything a little less than pleasant. Eventually the hostess turned the waitress onto the fact that we were actually there to eat (and not just sitting there), and she came over to get us some drinks. Always the thrifty sort, we decided on the $5 bucket of High Life ponies over a $10 cocktail (which seemed like a wise move at the time). Unfortunately, more of the bitty beers had to be retrieved from the basement which took forever and put the kibosh on my plan to get a few down before the main event. Even worse, when they finally did come it was at the exact same time as the fish which left me 6 beers to slam and a whole plate of fish to pound, all in the chilly breeze of a shady Capitol side street. It was a bad start to say the least.

Had the fish been stellar all could easily have been forgiven, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. While the plate looked pretty, and seemed to be in order, it wound up being far from it. It featured three butterflies of lake perch which were drown in an incredibly thick buttermilk-beer batter. It was totally ridiculous and easily 70% batter and 30% fish (if not worse). The dense coating was incredibly stubborn and could barely even be peeled away from the suffocated swimmers. The perch itself may have been good, but with so much batter it was impossible to tell. Frying fish is a balancing act and in an effort to stand out Merchant wound up missing the mark altogether on this shot.

Pairing with the spongy fish was a reasonable portion of house-cut fries. The spuds were well-fried and lovingly sprinkled with sea salt which gave them just the right finish. The tartar on the other hand was a dilly mess. It actually had a greenish hue thanks to the abundant herb and was overpowering to the max.

A fresh and semi-sweet vinegar-based slaw did what it could to save the day, but the ship was already too far gone. While it wasn’t upper-echelon slaw, it was fresh, and actually paired quite nicely with the slice of lightly-grilled rye bread on the side. The radical rye was quartered and artfully stacked and when it comes right down to it was probably the highlight of the meal.

Well, this wasn’t what we were expecting or hoping for from Merchant. The fish and tartar combo was just not right and despite the quality of the sides this fight was pretty much over before it started. Overall, we don’t recommend the Fish Fry at Merchant, and won’t go back for it unless we hear some changes are made. It’s really too bad because we like the establishment and their craft cocktails, but Friday Fish Fry is not a relationship to be entered into lightly, especially with heavily battered perch.
121 S Pinckney Street
Madison, WI 53703

(608) 259-9799