As the name suggests, Modern Mercantile is about retail. Its vaguely duplexed space houses a close to closet-size wine store that prides itself on lesser-known varietals and producers, and a more expansive merchandise area that sells everything from living room furniture to bibelots. But its name conceals Modern Mercantile's most enjoyable dimension: the bistro experience.
The space sports a stage that, when empty, sits in the naked daylight as a silent promise of things to come; on weekends, however, under cool evening lighting, it springs to life with music, featuring terrific performers such as The City or John Hedger. Comedy and theater make occasional appearances on the stage, too.
The kitchen doesn't rest, though, turning out its own versions of familiar standards with fun twists here and there. (Just this week, the restaurant ended its breakfast and lunch service and now concentrates on dinner.)
I liked the angel hair pasta, partly for the capers and pancetta in an otherwise basic marinara, but also for the noticeable yet restrained use of cayenne and the absence of extra sauce (a pet peeve of mine) lingering at the bottom of the dish.
Spinach-artichoke dip is wonderful here. Swiss cheese, underused these days, really works in this starter. Thin wedges of baked brie complement the other flavors. Because the accompanying crackers were nondescript and the tortilla chips just didn't make sense, I used a fork to eat it. Why bother with empty calories?
The New York strip steak gets a good sear of smoke before being grilled to order. It comes with creamy blue cheese mashed potatoes and perfectly blanched green beans. I appreciate that portion size, although generous, is not overwhelming.
But my favorite item was the salmon, flaky and tender and lightly napped in a classic lemon-dill beurre blanc. The side of basmati rice had a hint of curry. I subbed out the standard broccoli for winter greens, a weakness of mine, and they were absolutely superb — fork-tender collards that tasted young and green.
Dessert choices include a cheese course, crepes, tarts and pies, but it is the Trinidadian black cake for which you should save room. This is one of those fun twists I was talking about. It's essentially rum-soaked fruitcake, yet it's greater than the sum of its parts, with depth that gives the illusion of chocolate and molasses, moist and dense yet somehow delicate.
With the addition of Modern Mercantile, Stonewall Shopping Center has branched out as a food destination.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.