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Le Mercury, Islington

June 15, 2009

French food in London for under a tenner? I suppose it’s not unheard of, if you’re including all sorts of dishes and types of service under the sun, including miniscule portions that would barely feed a baby and incredibly rude service. Le Mercury is a little French restaurant on Upper Street, where a 3-course meal can be had for under £15.

All starters are £3.95, mains £6.45, and desserts for a mere £2.95, excluding the daily specials. After reading a few reviews on Qype and Urbanspoon, I decided to reserve a table just in case we would have to wait for a table. It’s a good idea; when I called on Thursday to book a table for the next evening, I was told we would have to vacate the table by 9pm if we wanted to be seated at 7:30pm. Not too surprising, considering it was a last-minute booking. If you want to enjoy your meal, though, you probably want to book a few days in advance.

The atmosphere was lively and buzzing, if a little loud. We sat down and shortly afterwards, a bread basket and butter arrived. It wasn’t until after I spread my butter that I realised how incredibly noisy the restaurant was. I literally had to shout to be heard by my dinner companion. Note to self: not a place to try and impress someone. Not on a Friday night. Service was average, not exemplary, but for this price (and no added service charge, which I’m always glad to see because I think it’s arrogant and unnecessary – but that’s another story), I was satisfied.

I ordered the moules marinere as a starter: mussels cooked in a white wine & cream sauce flavoured with garlic, shallots, lemon, and parsley. The companion went for the ballotine de foie gras: foie gras & duck ballotine with poached dates and toast. My mussels came in a steaming pot swimming in the wine & cream sauce, smelling like heaven in a bowl. I was thankful for the bread basket that we hadn’t finished before the starters arrived, as they were good sponges for mopping up the sauce. The foie gras appeared to be from a tin, but it still tasted passable and had a nice spreadable texture. The poached dates didn’t look appetizing at all, though; little brown strands poked every which way out of the moist, splodgy lumps. They were left uneaten.

Next, my main of poitrine de porc (slow roast honeyed pork belly with confit celeriac & granny smith apple) arrived, a roll of glistening meat atop a bed of shredded savoy cabbage and chopped celeriac & apple. Dinner companion had magret de panard: roast duck breast on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and shredded savoy cabbage, all of which was floating on a shallow pool of red wine jus. My pork belly was slightly dry in the first few bites, but there were some amazingly tender parts. I quite like the apple and pork combination; it’s classic and reminds me of home (steamed minced pork with apple was a dinner staple). The duck breast was cooked to well done, but it still retained its juices; the mash was like eating pure garlic without the pungency and spice of raw garlic – amazing.

We ordered side dishes to go along with it, not realising at the time that those would be charged extra. Looking back, it was silly of us to think they wouldn’t be charged. The side of vegetables looked like they were cooked in a huge vat of butter. I took one bite of a new potato chunk and had to put it down because I could feel the melted fat sliding down my throat and tickling all the wrong places in my mouth. A similar thing happened with the carrots. Thankfully, the broccoli escaped most of the buttery fate, but I’d just like to point out that vegetables are delightful unacommpanied on their own, especially as a side dish. My companion’s side order of French fries were crispy and thin, but then again, ordering fries as a side never appealed to me.

The dinner companion admitted defeat after two courses, while I was able to pack down a third. I opted for glazed rhubarb with basil ice cream, which I mostly chose for the ice cream. It came as four pieces of rhubarb with a scoop of ice cream, drizzled with a strawberry sauce. The ice cream was an unusual flavour (for me), but it tasted strongly of basil and went well with the strawberry sauce. The rhubarb was very sweet on its own, and was covered in a sugary crackling crust, but the crisp of the glaze along with a spoonful of ice cream created a pleasant juxtaposition of textures in my mouth. The texture of rhubarb reminded me of bamboo shoots, but that’s probably because I’m not used to eating rhubarb that isn’t chopped into small chunks for crumbles and pies.

Our bill came to about £32, including three glasses of apple juice, 2 mains, side dishes, and starters, and one dessert. I would definitely go back again, perhaps on a quieter night, and skip the side orders next time, because each course fills you up pretty quickly. Oh, and we weren’t told to leave at 9pm when the time came, so I’m not sure why they gave us a time limit on the phone.

Le Mercury
140a Upper Street, Islington

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