The obvious choice for a pre-theatre dinner before catching a play at the Almeida Theatre would be the Almeida itself, which is located right opposite the theatre. That said, theatre goers are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options. Other than The Almeida, the little café within the theatre does hot sandwiches for a fiver upwards. And then there’s Le Mercury.
Le Mercury sits right at the junction between Almeida Street and Islington High Street. You can’t miss it. With a full glass façade and its clean layout, Le Mercury looks inviting in the daytime. When night falls, the pretty little restaurant is lit up with a soft yellow hue and becomes almost alluring.
The interesting thing is that its prices displayed on a board laid outside on the sidewalk are rather reasonable. Starters at £3.95, mains £7.95 and dessert £2.95. £15 in all for a three course meal (there is no service charge), not too bad at all.
As we walked into Le Mercury that afternoon, I couldn’t help but compare it with Le Sacre Coeur at Therberton Street, which is further up along Upper Street. While Le Sacre Coueur’s interior is somewhat quirky (there is a chair stuck onto the ceiling etc.), there is this quiet charm about Le Mercury. It could very well be any of those tiny restaurants that dot the Trocadero Metro station opposite Pont d'lena from the Eiffel Tower. Nothing fancy but you know that you are in French territory once you step through the two stiff swing doors.
The ground floor of Le Mercury is filled with small square tables arranged in a tight cosy manner. The lone waitress that afternoon glided through the floor with a quiet efficiency. "Are you ready to order?" she asked almost haughtily. I took a cursory glance at the menu and was almost glad to see English description to the French dishes. It felt almost surreal. At that moment, with the menu in my hands, it felt as if I was in a small restaurant in the middle of Paris trying in vain to remember whether poissons was actually poussin.
The waitress's quiet glare, which warmth rivaled that of the wintry weather outside, quickly shook me back to reality. We promptly placed our orders, sat back and watched the world go by through the large glass windows.
The starters arrived quite soon after. My calamars fris, cut into thin rings, came with homemade tartar sauce. The sauce itself had good consistency and a nice subtle taste to it. Dressed french leaves made the otherwise sinful dish a bit less so.
Wife's ballotine de foie gras came with apple marmalade and toast. We weren't quite taken to the duck ballotine but it was nothing that sweet apple marmalade couldn't solve. Given a choice, we probably wouldn't go for this again.
The mains appeared a couple of moments after our table was cleared. My selle d'agneau au romarin (roast saddle of lamb) came with a thick slab of mashed potatos, grilled courgettes and rosemary. While the grilled courgettes could have more flavour, the lamb, especially the slightly fatty portion, was marvelous with no small credit attributed to the garlicky mashed potatoes.
The poitrine de porc (slow roast honeyed pork belly) was sweet but only just so. The accompanying granny smith apple sauce, as always, was a delight with red meat. The pork tore away easily and its fatty skin having soaked up with honey added another dimension to the dish.
Le Mercury's mascarpone cheesecake was uninspiring. In fact, other than the strawberry syrup, which was so generously drilled over it, we couldn't taste very much of the cake itself.
Frankly, I was surprised that Le Mercury wasn't more crowded during lunchtimes. While I wouldn't go so far to say that its food was to die for, it certainly was decent for its pricing. Next time round however, I would probably do without the starters and desserts, and go for the mains only before rounding up the meal with a coffee.