After an absolutely amazing meal at Underbelly, my husband and I were game to try its next-door neighbor, The Hay Merchant. The fact that Hay Merchant offers an ever-changing menu of craft beers was an additional enticement for my home-brewing better half.
In the past year, my knowledge of and appreciation for beer has increased from "absolutely freakin' nothing" to "minimal." A penchant for fruit flavors and an aversion to hops means I'm more drawn to cocktails and full-bodied wines. But I've found some beers I like and was hoping to find a new favorite at Hay Merchant.
Success, at least, on that front. I very much liked my husband's Flemish Pale Sour for its pucker-inducing afterbite and was delighted by my frothy tulip of barley wine, even though it had enough hops in it to jump off the table (har).
My (non-liquid) dinner was lackluster. Although I didn't expect the sort of transcendent dishes I experienced at Underbelly, I thought solid pub grub (with some innovations) would be in order. That turned out to be the case more in name than in deed at Hay Merchant. A starter of fried okra seemed promising in description but emerged soggy and uneven on batter. The spicy rémoulade helped liven things up, though distributing the sauce was somewhat awkward given the small slices of vegetable. I resorted to dribbling the sauce over the okra and eating the whole mound with a fork.
The smoked pork sandwich was better in composition, with the smoky sweetness of the meat enriched by melted swiss cheese and a garlic aioli. A juicy, thick tomato slice would have been the perfect crown to this sandwich if it didn't overwhelm the relatively light portion of meat. A half cup more of pulled pork would solve that problem easily.
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Our efficient waiter kindly let me swap out fries for the macaroni and cheese, easily the highlight of the meal. Hay Merchant's mac and cheese is of the "wet" variety (my favorite), with large corkscrew pasta swimming in a rich cheese blend. That dish, at least, they have down pat, and if I go again, I'll try it with its usual main accompaniment, the half barbecued chicken.
I adore the lively atmosphere and rough wood decor of The Hay Merchant and look forward to more of its exotic (well, at least to me) beers and ciders. But I'm eating elsewhere until they bring the food up to speed with the booze. The former ain't bad per se, but when paired with the latter, the uneven quality becomes all the more obvious.