Exmouth Market is a small collection of paved streets near the Farringdon Travelodge, which specialises in monomaniacal restaurants and has a blue plaque dedicated to the dead clown Joseph Grimaldi. We are near King’s Cross, the least magical of London’s districts, and the early summer air chokes the dying trees. There are restaurants that ‘do’ hummus, restaurants that ‘do’ sausages and now a restaurant that ‘does’ potatoes, opened, I suspect, by some mad -potato fetishists for whom I have developed something like love. It is called Potato Merchant and when I first saw it advertised I thought it was a bag of potatoes with a restaurant loitering somewhere within.
I am here because I love potatoes; sometimes I dream about them, twitch my nostrils, snore. When the early European explorers dreamed of El Dorado, did they mean the several thousand species of potatoes I imagine nestling among the Aztec ruins, seeking only a boat for England and a marketing campaign? In my head I have visited the Potato Museum in Canada, which has a 14ft fibreglass potato, with a diameter of 7ft, and is the sort of place where Humbert Humbert took Lolita. (They are very precise about the dimensions in the publicity blurb, as if a 13ft fibreglass potato would have nothing like the same allure. As Martha Gellhorn said, human behaviour is still the most fascinating thing on earth.) A 14ft fibreglass potato? Why not? You can, if you are minded, get quite high on potatoes. Did you know that? Pah, you are all innocents.
So here I am with R., who doesn’t really eat carbohydrates, I suspect for sexual reasons, on a Saturday afternoon that smells of ennui, gasping car innards, and drains. People sit by tables in the street, eating hummus or sausages, reading the Independent, looking like liberals in search of a lost cause, in this case potatoes. There are worse causes. I know several people who want to stand for elected office on a platform of more cheese for everyone, funded by the state. Do write in to The Spectator if you can think of a rational objection, because I cannot.
The restaurant is American shack chic, or Midwest dystopia — wood, ketchup bottles, crumbs, waitresses with minds and bodies elsewhere. It feels open and closed at the same time; like most restaurants that smell American, it could be anywhere, because America is nowhere.
Drinks are an afterthought; so is a menu. When we ask to order, the waitress seems surprised, as if she has suddenly realised she has an amazing superpower. We order like women who have been hospitalised for eating packets of crisps bigger than our heads but escaped in a taxi to Potato Merchant, with guns: small chips (French fries), big chips (beef dripping); mash; dauphinoise; bravas; boulangère; Anna; potato salad and Jersey Royal. It is as if the potatoes have eaten the rest of the menu — they don’t have orange juice or salad, the waitress says; they have been so busy, they ran out. You can order steak or duck on the side — but why bother, here, in this place?
Here the potato feast comes. OK, in the same order: fries, excellent but cold; big chips, scary and scabby; mash, fine, but I do it better at home, with half a pound of butter; dauphinoise, incredible; bravas, doused with bright orange paste, yuck; boulangère, a little limp and greasy, like David Mellor’s face, but R. likes them; Anna, I forgot you, sorry; potato salad, fine; Jersey Royal, overcooked and collapsing.
No one told me to order nine potato dishes; the fault is mine. The road to excess leads to the palace of bloat. I am beginning to think this is a mistake. This is a restaurant for addicts, as you probably knew, but I forgot.
Potato Merchant, 55 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QL. Tel: 020 7837 0009.