Six weeks. It was a shocking time in Richmond food-scene history when newborn restaurant Antler & Fin prematurely closed its doors in July 2016. The friendly bar was full of regulars and dinner reservations were growing every night. Yet, a month and a half after opening, owner Patrick Harris of Boka Tako shut down at Broad and Belvidere with no explanation to employees or clientele.
At the time, executive chef Ian Merryman and restaurant and beverage manager Kristel Poole talked about taking over the space, but funding proved problematic. Each drifted into other work — Merryman back to kitchen shifts at Millie's Diner and Poole to general management of Richmond's Graffiato. The restaurant space shifted to a short-lived, upscale Boka-inspired concept that closed in January 2017, then briefly became a Japanese yakitori spot, Yaki, until September.
Meanwhile, Merryman didn't give up his dream. Two years later, he has reclaimed the former Antler & Fin space at 506 W. Broad St. In late May or early June, he will open Tiny Victory, with a Filipino-inspired menu based on two years of testing menus at his regular pop-ups.
"Clearly, I'm not Asian," Merryman says. "But the cuisine has influenced the vast majority of my professional cooking. My mom was in the military, and we traveled a lot. My favorite food was always Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai and Filipino."
The Antler & Fin menu, sprinkled with bits of nori (dried seaweed), yuzu (a yellow citrus fruit), uni (sea urchin), nuac cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce) and grilled shishito peppers, hints at Merryman's passion for Asian ingredients. His series of pop-up restaurants, which he called the Jackdaw, became notable for its Kamayan dinners. During these classic Philippine meals, a communal table is covered with wide banana leaves and then spread thickly with rice, veggies and meat, all to be consumed by hand. Merryman plans to host occasional Kamayan dinners at Tiny Victory.
For Merryman, the shift to Philippine felt natural.
"My pop-ups were more Chinese-influenced at first, but then I realized I like doing underchampioned food," he says.
The Philippine Islands were a Spanish colony for nearly 300 years until 1898, and Spain still has a stronghold on the cuisine. "There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines," Merryman says. "Each has its own take on Spanish and Filipino flavor."
Merryman aims for a balance of spicy, salty and savory, but works sour undertones into many dishes. He is fond of tamarind, a small pulpy tropical fruit, vinegar and tangy calamansi juice from a tiny Philippine citrus.
At a recent pop-up at the Broken Tulip to preview menu items for Tiny Victory, Merryman serves kinilaw, a tangy, citrus-marinated rockfish crudo with avocado and thai chilies. The pancit palabok, a dish of rice noodles, soft-cooked egg, smoked roe and chicharrones, expertly blends Spanish and Philippine influences onto one plate. The tamarind broth, featured in several dishes, has a refreshing savory flavor tempered by sour hints from the tamarind.
Merryman, 33, will open Tiny Victory with his pop-up co-chef Mark Frenier and longtime girlfriend and occasional Millie's server and bartender Devon Adair Creed, who is 28. Merryman and Creed's daughter, Adair, a tiny 3-year-old powerhouse, is likely to make appearances in the restaurant, along with Creed's 8-year-old, Madeline.
"We want it to be somewhere welcoming, where people can go with kids," says Creed, who will also help make desserts, which she did for the Jackdaw.
"This is so much harder than the pop-ups," Merryman says. "But if I'm not challenged, I don't thrive." Creed interjects to add that he "works well under pressure."
And the pressure is on.
"This is all paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. It's the bane of my existence," Merryman says. "Before Antler & Fin, I was doing pop-ups only for fun. After that, I started thinking about my future more as a business owner than a cook."
Merryman anticipates a late May opening for Tiny Victory. He says his former boss Patrick Harris reached out to congratulate him on the restaurant, and his former work partner Kristel Poole says she is delighted to see Merryman come full circle.
"We were a creative and collaborative family at Antler & Fin. It was a great restaurant with a great team," she says. "I'm confident that Ian's talent and fortitude will bring him success. I'm excited to be a regular and support the restaurant."
As for the name? When prodded about the meaning behind Tiny Victory, Merryman looks away for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
"Yeah, it's really fitting for … everything," he finally says. Just then Adair runs up for a hug, and daddy breaks into a big smile. S