After a month of tolerating chilly and dreary terraces, all in the name of supporting local restaurants, on 17th May 2021 indoor hospitality re-opened. Dare I say “once and for all”?
In picking a restaurant to toast this momentous day, we broke with tradition, eschewing Gloria and making a booking at Mere in Fitzrovia. We made the booking in February, when the lockdown easing dates were announced. From then on, it was a long, hungry winter.
Mere (pronounced “Mary”) has been on my list since forever. It is a labour of love from chef Monica Galetti of Celebrity MasterChef fame, who broke free from the shackles of Michel Roux Jr. a while ago, who leads back of house alongside her sommelier husband David, who looks after the plonk. I am not one to become starstruck (working in hotels numbs you to the giddy thrill of spotting celebrities), but I arrived at the restaurant quietly hoping for a sport of face time with her of the stern gazes.
A few too many strong cocktails in a hotel bar nearby, paired with a light lunch in anticipation of the evening’s frivolities meant, I am ashamed to say, that we arrived at Mere a little tipsy. We were also a little late, and The European had forgotten her mask which was obviously my fault, but she thought fast and pulled her scarf up over her mouth and nose as we greeted the host. Mere’s bar, a compact and jumpy arrangement of comfy-looking blue chairs and dark wooden tables, was packed, so we headed straight down to the basement, into the restaurant. Here, we were sat at a lovely round table in the middle of the room; perfect for people watching.
The walls are adorned with Samoan artwork in a nod to Galetti’s Samoan/New-Zealand heritage. At the end of the restaurant there is an ‘inside-outside’ patio, with an overhead window allowing envious pedestrians to peer down at the diners. These pedestrians would surely acutely observe what we feel; that the restaurant is small, but tidy, homely, and well-arranged. Despite its cosiness, it is not too noisy. That familiar restaurant-y scent – a mix of botanicals and rich smell of patrons’ food – hits our nostrils. It is comforting and nostalgic.
Service is slick, the food is French(ish) and the wine pairings are largely of the New World. It is an exciting and modern mix. We began with a couple of glasses of pink bubbles and complimentary sparkling water and perused the menus.
Mare is unstarred but is clearly gunning for one. The food, although ostensibly a testament to French cookery, slipped a little too often into Modern British, which is sincerely meant as an observation, not a criticism. It seemed that the best the kitchen had to offer was saved for the à la carte menu, which was disappointing. But we had been waiting for a tasting menu for months and were determined to do it. The restaurant is not a cheap date. At £hundred for the tasting menu and £sixty for wine pairings (each), we ultimately decided that we received value for money, but only just.
As always, the devil was in the detail, and the intangibles. Everyone was clearly happy to get back to work. Our sommelier was walking on sunshine, relishing the opportunity to guide us through the whats, whys, wheres, whens and hows of the wine pairings. Our main waiter was fantastic but clearly still clunking into gear, needing to take MasterMind-style pauses before composing himself and perfectly reeling off the various components of each course as they were presented to us. The butter which came with the bread was gloriously silky, and the home-made caramel truffles which accompanied pretty pots of green tea were so incredibly deep and rich that even The European scarfed them down with lustful abandon.
Highlights of the menu included goats’ cheese and mango choux buns – an amuse-bouche – which were borderline addictive in their salty sweetness. Shio-Koji-cured beef was served with pickled gherkins and Tête de Moine, best described as a Reuben salad. The fish course of routinely excellent pollock was elevated with crispy bladder and seaweed, adding more ammunition for the pescatarian thoughts swimming in my head with ever-increasing vigour these days.
Such notions were cupboarded immediately with the arrival of the squab pigeon with bee pollen and nettle. Even The European, who initially suggested that we go à la carte jut because of the presence of pigeon on the menu, was impressed. The rich and hearty earthiness of the bird was carried along on a sweet pigeon jus and perfect blends of texture. It was, by any measure, one of the best pigeon dishes I have ever had.
The closing courses were a little unconventional but moreish. A mouse of twenty-year old aged English cheddar needed sweetening, which was expertly achieved with appropriate dabs of fig. The dessert was elderflower mousse with pink grapefruit. It was incredibly bitter, but stunning in every way. Yes, I would have preferred to have sunk into a dark chocolate thingymajig but cannot fault how the pastry team made sharpness so moreish and palatable to a stodge-junkie such as myself.
I feel that overall, the menu was pleasant but lacked a little inventiveness. It was a reasonably concise and predictable journey of ‘starter, shellfish, fish, meat, cheese and dessert’, like taking a motorway as opposed to the twisty, picturesque B-roads. The cuttlefish was the only dish which did not hit the mark; it was just, well, a little… fishy.
The wines were chosen very well; they really hit the right notes. La Bottega in Geneva will always be our benchmark when it comes to wine-parings; Mere did well in getting close to this, closer than some starred restaurants we have visited.
All in all, Mere was a wonderful celebration of hospitality, if a little on the expensive side (all in, the bill came to £three hundred and sixty). The food did enough to make us happy (as well as soak up l’apéro), but the night was taken to the next level by a buzzing atmosphere of happy diners, great wine and fast track service. And yes, I did meet Monica! She was out and about touching tables. When she came over, she was jumping off the walls, exclaiming to us how incredible it was to be back in the kitchen. Her subsequent words were lost in my starry eyes, and the fact that she arrived during the main course and my pigeon desperately needed eating.