When I first heard about Indigo Road's plans to create a gourmet food emporium in the south wing of the restored Cigar Factory on East Bay, I pictured a bustling, high-end farmers market packed with artisanal food stalls. In my mind's eye, individual kiosks lined the perimeter of the 7,500-square foot floorspace, each offering gourmet coffees, spiced pickles, baked breads, craft sandwiches, and handcrafted kitchen gadgetry. Or at least that's what came to mind when Indigo Road's managing partner Steve Palmer spoke about the project in a press release last year saying, "In 2008 I walked into the Dean & DeLuca on Broadway in SoHo and was totally blown away. I was immediately inspired by this concept and have since visited similar food halls in Florence, Barcelona, Chicago, Napa, Sonoma, and San Francisco." Based on that, I pictured San Francisco's popular Ferry Building, where fresh produce shares the lineup with fishmongers, oyster bars, boutique restaurants, jars of truffles, and dried wild mushrooms. The idea seemed great for Charleston, but I worried how such a thriving space would impact smaller, mom-and-pop specialty food stores or the weekend farmer's market at Marion Square.
I shouldn't have been concerned. The end result of Palmer's think-tanking, Mercantile is now just over three months old, and only slowly gaining steam. What I saw as a throb of initial interest appears to have given way to some lulls in attendance. Some could argue that's due to its off-the-trodden-path location or the fact that the Cigar Factory itself is not yet fully occupied, but I think it's a combination of the two. While the space is beautiful, the idea still needs work, especially when the multi-counter concept — selling charcuterie, cheese, wine, baked goods, gifts, and cookware, in addition to a full menu — has such tough competition. As of right now, Mercantile's to-go items can't rival the freshness of Caviar & Bananas' build-your-own salad bar or the breadth of their prepared foods section. The beer options are more limited than Bull Street Gourmet. Merc's cheese selection is nowhere near as robust as goat.sheep.cow's. The meat counter has nothing on Ted's Butcherblock. Its charcuterie program can't compare to Artisan Meat Share. And the pantry is more gifty than useful — the wall at Two Boroughs Larder has cooler items for sale. That said, I see potential here.
Mercantile has a mellow, welcoming vibe. And to be clear, I'm talking about Mercantile, the daytime cafeteria up front, not Mash, the after-hours whiskey bar to the back. Rather than the loud, clattering, eclectic food hall of my imagination, Mercantile is subdued, comfortable, inviting. Its layout can be slightly confusing at first; you have to order at the café counter then take a seat with your number to await your food. I've seen newcomers come in, take a seat, and wonder why no one is waiting on them. But once you get the drill, service is swift and friendly, and you can relax and relish the ambiance.
While I've stopped in to find empty parking places abundant and the cavernous room largely empty — ideal for the folks happily sipping coffee and peacefully working on their laptops but not boding well for business — a recent visit found the place much more lively. Couples and families were gathered around tall communal tables. Adults sipped white wine and $5 brunch mimosas. Kids knocked back craft sodas, and everyone ogled their enormous portion sizes, such as the popular two-inch thick Croque Monsieur ($11), dripping with gooey fontina cheese alongside a pile of crispy tots; or the towering fried chicken buttermilk biscuit ($10), ladled with white cheddar mornay; or the massive hunk of crispy-creamy fried boudin ($8), stacked with an organic sunnyside up egg and creolaise bread-and-butter pickles, all sandwiched in a house-made biscuit. The sheer size of each dish made me wish I could dislocate my jaw like a python to widen its range. Instead, I used a knife and fork.
A low-volume acoustic playlist of hushed vocalists entices you to sit back and savor your beautifully swirled latte ($4), your aggressively strong cappuccino ($3), or your sweet Louisiana cane soda pop (my favorite: Fest satsuma mint, $2.50), as you peruse the built-in shelves lined with tasteful culinary knick-knacks, many of them locally sourced. Bare-bulbed industrial pendants help cast Palmer's signature "warm ambient glow" (think Oak, Indaco, O-Ku, The Macintosh, The Cocktail Club). Clipped magnolia leaves add subtle adornment, but for the most part, the lofty space feels rough-hewn and decidedly masculine. Massive overhead support beams still bear the markings "Miller & Kelly Charleston, S.C. 1881," from the building's early days as a cotton mill.
Mercantile's menu brims with comfort foods and indulgent portions. Both the Merc hot dog ($9), and Mash burger ($13), lie in the unabashedly oversized department; the hot dog is 50-50 pure beef-pork topped with a pickled chow-chow and beer mustard, the double burger laced with thick slabs of bacon, oozy cheddar, bread-and-butter pickles and lettuce, on a buttery brioche. I have yet to finish a meal here, though I'm not complaining. I'm eating the second half of brunch's monolithic $8 spicy huevos rancheros wrap as I type this.
What Mercantile is not is dietetic. Those seeking to up their kale intake or tighten their new year's waistlines will find slim pickings, though the cooler does offer some juice blends and vegetarian wraps. Even lunchtime salads veer meat-centric. The factory chop salad ($12) toward the laces its smoky red peas with crumbled bacon and tops its chopped lettuce with chilled and blanched shrimp drizzled with avocado-buttermilk. The duck confit salad ($12) tosses finely mandolined root veggies with house-made slow-boiled duck, blue cheese, pecans, and a maple sherry vinaigrette. I found both salads fresh and filling, though a little bland, each lacking an acid or herb component that might have married the flavors together.
Among my favorite dishes to date are the grilled mahi tacos (two for $9) whose delicately moist chunks of fish nestle into sturdy, charred tortillas, filled with crunchy shredded red cabbage, pops of pickled onion, creamy-mild queso fresco, and a bright citrus punch of chili lime aioli. The bahn mi ($13) makes me swoon. Crispy tender slabs of caramelized sweet-salty hoisin-glazed pork belly tuck into a pillowy bun smeared with house chicken liver mousse, all piled high with sliced jalapeños, shaved radishes, and julienned cucumbers, as pleasing a sandwich to the eye as to the palate.
Mercantile offers breakfast, lunch, or early dinner (they stop taking orders at 6:30 p.m.), either eat-in or to-go, including prepared meals on the run. For $35-$38, you can buy a complete "dinner for two," such as last week's special of seared grouper filets with braised fennel and celery root, herbed Carolina Gold rice, and a salad with pickled fennel, goat cheese, and tomatoes. The price seems a little steep considering that's probably what you would pay if you went to a mid-level restaurant (and you'd be waited on to boot), but I guess you're paying for the combo of quality, speed, and convenience. There are also pastas and sauces made that day on the premises, rotisserie whole chickens and ribs, house-cured coppa di testa, $6 cartons of James Island eggs, build-your-own craft beer six-packs, and a well-curated array of wines. So you can easily build a meal to go, albeit it not a cheap one. Mercantile is also a great coffee-pastry spot for those heading to work, especially at 7 a.m. when seasonally inspired scones and giant cinnamon rolls are fresh out of the oven. My fig-walnut maple-glazed scone ($3) was delicious.
It will be interesting to see Mercantile evolve as it listens to patron feedback. There are, after all, plenty of other locales for specialty foods, all well-established and beloved, with admittedly smaller venues but very well-stocked pantries. I, for one, am thrilled to see the no-longer-vacant Cigar Factory building make a go of it, and I will indeed revisit Mercantile to sample more things from its weekly changing menu, especially if I'm craving a loaded bahn mi or a stick-to-my-ribs burger.