This food review by reporter Emily Priest gets a bit too saucy for family audiences. Avert your eyes or, even better, find out why Highland Road’s latest addition gives new meaning to food porn.
2018 may not have set off to a good start but, sometimes, the bad comes with the good. The good I speak of is the opening of The Merchant House and the re-launch of Need Steet Food, formerly Feed Hot Dog Co.
The Merchant House on Highland Road (previously the Ice Bar) has been transformed from a dark venue into a bright and blue ale pub. Every time I walked past the construction site, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. Finally, I walked past and saw people packed inside, drinking the night away. Seeing the venue develop from start to finish made me appreciate the final result that much more.
The Merchant House, even before I visited, was a welcome addition. The Highland Road side of Albert Road is not as exciting as the other end, populated by favourites such as The Fat Fox and One Eyed Dog. All we have is the Festing which is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the past, if I wanted to enjoy a night out, I would have to walk at least 20 minutes but now, thanks to the previous management of LJR (Little Johnny Russells), the Eastney side of town has reclaimed its colour and life. Maybe this will spark a new movement through Portsmouth that will show it’s not just Southsea that wants to have fun.
When I first entered The Merchant house, it had already been open a month. I wanted to wait until the initial hype had died down and Need Street Food had settled in and started to serve food.
But the hype didn’t die down. The first day of serving food, The Merchant House was heaving. The second, third and fourth were no different. On the Sunday of their opening, their roast dinners sold out so I waited a little longer, no matter how hard it was.
A quiet Tuesday was my time to strike. Although there were still people inside, I managed to secure myself a seat and get comfortable amongst the exposed brick, blue walls and rustic radiators.
It is pristine inside The Merchant House but I found the decor a bit too minimalistic, with its bare walls and wooden furniture. The lower seating area was the same but with less light and far more echo. Due to the hard furniture, the acoustics in the micro-pub are not the best. When it’s busy, everyone’s conversations are amplified which makes your visit a loud one. They need some sofas perhaps but, saying that, I am not sure where they would fit any soft furnishings.
You may think me harsh in my critique of the decor, but I am a critic, and this is the only thing I can possibly fault The Merchant House for! They have a great selection of spirits and beers and a genius ‘live’ feed where you can view the beers on offer and see who has drunk what. It even tells you when one sells out. The staff are friendly too and the food is – well, let’s talk about the food.
I have followed Need Street Food for a while now. I remember when they were Feed Hot Dog Co and just sold hot dogs by the ice rink in Guildhall Walk and Gunwharf Quays. I would salivate over their photos and fantasise about their hot dogs in my mouth. Their social media team took food porn to a whole new level.
But it wasn’t just the food that drew me to this Pompey company. Every time someone eats with Need Street Food, they fund food packets which are sent to children in need across the world. For every hot dog you eat, a packet of ‘Plumpy’ nut‘ is donated which includes all the essential fats, vitamins and carbohydrates needed to defeat malnutrition. Since their creation in 2016, Need Street Food has funded over 8,000 packets to Plump’d – the UK charity that created Plumpy nut – including to Syria and Yemen.
But if saving lives isn’t enough to entice you, then their incredible and unique flavours will.
Need Street Food’s menu at The Merchant House, although small, packs one hell of a punch with burgers, hot dogs, loaded fries and vegan options too. For meat eaters, there are options such as their Merchant Burger with several patties, dirty cheese, bacon and onions, Brisket Roll with pulled brisket, bbq sauce, coleslaw and mayo and their Dirty Dog with a bacon wrapped beef frankfurter, onions, sauce and pickles. I am drooling just thinking about it.
Their menu is the foodie equivalent of phone sex – ‘how dirty is your dirty dog?’
Their vegan options are just as thigh-clenching. There is the Seitan’s Chick crispy chick’n fillet with vegan slaw and hot sauce and their Wild Dog with smoked bockwurst, vegan slaw again, pickles and more hot sauce. They sounded as good as the meaty ones. I wanted to reach for my megaphone, step into the street and yell – ‘Vegans! The day has come. Finally, you can have tasty and ethical food.’
For the fries, there were more juicy options with Burnt End Fries with bbq sauce and coleslaw and Fowl Fries which were crispy chicken skins with smoked gravy. You could also find chicken wings and fried cauliflower.
It took me a good 20 minutes to decide what I wanted. When I thought I had made my mind up, I changed it again. Finally, I settled on the Tokyo Dog with garlic fries. It didn’t matter much anyway. I knew I would be back. Hell, the more I ate the more I saved lives. I could become some sort of fat Batman – Fatman if you will.
At this point, you must be thinking that it can’t get any better, but it can. The food was not just ethical and mouthwatering but reasonably priced too. Many of the main options were only £7/£8 and the loaded fries cost around a mere £5. Seems too good to be true right? Well, the lord works in mysterious ways.
When the food was placed in front of me I noticed I was given the wrong hot dog. Instead of my Tokyo Dog, I had received a Dirty Dog instead. I politely raised it with a member of staff, who was later revealed to be Pete, NSF’s owner, and had my order quickly sorted. He was very apologetic and sincere and even let me keep the Dirty Dog to try anyway. Score!
The hot dog was huge. It was a foot long and was piled with generous portions of sauce, onions and chunks of pickles. I took a bite and found out soon enough why it was called dirty. My mouth, hands and lap were soon covered in sauce and in no time at all, I started to look like a baby at dinnertime. But did I mind? Not at all. I was enjoying myself too much.
Halfway through, my other hot dog arrived. Another bacon wrapped sausage, the Tokyo Dog had Japanese mayo, teriyaki sauce, spring onions and toasted sesame seeds. The presentation was beautiful and once again the portions were generous. The tastes were incredible and complemented each other well. The tang from the teriyaki and onion contrasted with the cool mayo to create a unique blend I had never experienced before. It was a west-meets-east masterpiece.
Last came the chips. My ‘regular’ portion was huge and easily enough for two people. These were nice but for me, a garlic lover, I would have preferred a lot more garlic butter. Taking into account the other meals, I felt that the fries didn’t follow suit with the go big or go home style. I am sure people would like the subtle flavour but for me, I sent the fries back to their bed and went to town on the remnants of my hot dogs.
I probably don’t need to tell you in conclusion that I like – no, love – Need Street Food and The Merchant’s House. This dynamite couple brings something fresh to this side of town at great, affordable flavours. I cannot wait to see how they both develop in the future and I know I will be going back over and over again in the coming months.
Not only can I get behind their ethics and values but also what they have on offer from food to drink. They are a strong contender for my top spot and, just in time for Easter, I left The Merchant House a very happy bunny.
Photography by Emily Priest