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The last time I was in the space currently housing Brick + Mortar (820 Fifth Avenue, Downtown), I was cringing as I watched the episode of FOX’s Hotel Hell where superstar chef Gordon Ramsay ripped the owners of The Keating Hotel and its restaurant, The MerK Bistro, a new one. After decimating The MerK and its staff, he attempted to build the eatery up, revamping the menu and instituting operational changes, but shortly after the episode aired, the owners sold the restaurant to Broseph’s Restaurant Group, who promptly moved in with a new concept for a laid back eatery serving minimally upscale takes on en vogue dining staples.

I stayed away early on, both to give Brick + Mortar’s staff time to get their feet and, honestly, because I was sick of all the drama surrounding the site. Last week, friends of mine who reside downtown said they’d been in and really enjoyed the food, and suggested we have dinner there. With a couple of months behind them, it seemed the perfect opportunity to give them a look and a taste, so we walked down Fifth and hunkered down for a Friday night meal in the Gaslamp.

The menu reads like so many these days—pizzas, mussels, beet salad, charcuterie and cheese plates, plus numerous protein-starch-veg entrées. Nearly all of them are standard, but given some freshness courtesy of a non-standard ingredient or ethnic influence. While it would be nice to see more variance, both here and at other restaurants, particularly those in the Gaslamp, for the most part, the entries on the evening’s bill sounded good enough that figuring out what to order was pleasantly challenging. In the end, we decided to go with two pizzas (one of my dining companions deemed them outstanding, and I trust her) and some sharable starters.

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We started with corn fritters and a salad of goat cheese and beets. The salad had good flavors and minimal fuss. Tender beets were given some countering crunch by thin and pretty watermelon radish rounds. Unfortunately, the accompanying leafy greens were most unusually served whole on thick stems that made it very difficult to eat and far too fibrous for anybody, save maybe the Easter Bunny, to enjoy. The fritters on the other hand, were outstanding. Golden on the outside, warm and slightly doughy (in a good way) on the inside, they hit the spot on a chilly winter evening and were given additional comfort appeal thanks to a mole-spiced beef short rib ragout.

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We were also pleased on the pizza front. The dough straddles the line between thin and thick, has nice crunch, but enough doughiness that one avoids feeling like they’re dining on sauce shellacked water crackers. Both of our pies—one topped with Indian murgh makhani chicken and raita (cucumber studded herbed yogurt), the other a lamb merguez sausage pizza with Manchego cheese, roasted eggplant and peppers—were tastefully sauced and topped. I’d expected the merguez to be a hands-down favorite, and it was extremely flavorful and quite nice, but the subtly spiced chicken and contrasting coolness of the raita inspired me to hog way too much of that variety.

In the end, I was pretty impressed. I won’t run back, but it’s nice to have something reliable in one of the most peril-ridden clusters of eateries in the city, and Brick + Mortar is worlds better than The MerK ever was.

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