It’s date night. You want to exude the romance and sophistication of suggesting French food, but you’re also on a budget. You’ve probably seen that the Bunch have tried and tested plenty of London’s high-end French restaurants on the blog, but if you’re looking for something more casual than crème de la crème then Le Mercury might be it.
It’s a long-time fixture on Upper Street that still draws in a healthy crowd (in fact confusingly there’s even a second version ‘Deuxieme’ further up the street), so I’d suggest booking ahead if possible – if only because, like us, they might save you the nicest table in the place. We were led upstairs and seated in the far corner, at an intimate table for two with views out of the windows (and of each other) and with our backs to the rest of the restaurant. Bad feng shui; great date set-up.
It’s certainly no swish bistro inside; rather there’s a functional and homely feel to the place with wooden furniture, potted plants and wax-dripped candle-lit tables packed in over three floors. The menu is about as unpretentious as a French menu gets; the starters are all £4.45, mains are all £10.95 and the pages are in plastic wallet inserts, like the kind you used to put your schoolwork in. Add to that some waiters that actually smile at you and we’re a long way from Paris, Dorothy.
I was upsold to their ‘Le Mercury Royal’ cocktail special of the day of Chambord and organic prosecco (yes I paid an extra £1 versus the rest of the cocktail menu after being suckered by the word organic), while my date enjoyed a ‘seize’, or Kronenbourg 1664 (at least that’s how I used to order it in Paris but this waiter just looked at me blankly as I said it!). The wine selection we switched to later isn’t going to win any awards but solidly covers the bases. We had a great view out over the street being a few storeys up, as the sky turned pinkish and our food started to arrive.
I opted for the Chèvre Chaud to start, a simple dish of grilled goat’s cheese with a green leafy salad and pesto, which to be blunt was more of an assembly job than taking much skill to prepare. I was surprised at how big it was though, as I’m pretty sure one person shouldn’t be eating that amount of cheese by themselves in one sitting. I obviously ate it all anyway though.
Main course was a little healthier with Filet de Loup de Mer, or pan-fried sea bass fillet with crushed new potatoes and mint pesto. Again they kept the dish simple and the ingredients well-flavoured, while I struggled to finish the generous portion size.
We were then tempted, as I’m sure many are, by the desserts which are also offered at flat pricing of £3.45 apiece. I was overruled on the sticky toffee pudding and we shared a slice of the dark chocolate tart instead. I found it a bit of a wasted order really, but then perhaps that’s just me wanting to say I told you so…
All of the staff who served us seemed warm and friendly, and it felt like they tended to us just the right amount to seem attentive while still giving us plenty of date night intimacy in our cosy candle-lit corner – perhaps helped by the fact it became harder to physically reach our table once the others behind us had filled up!
The food isn’t anything spectacular then, or particularly advanced or creative cooking. But it’s like an Olympic diver choosing a simpler jump off a lower board, rather than risking a double-twist half-pike triple-somersault for a higher score; the simpler strategy can still be a winner if the execution is solid (you can tell I just read an article about Tom Daley can’t you). Here, the ingredients are fresh and you’re getting what you pay for; sure, a child could have created my starter and the paper tablecloths won’t impress your most discerning friends, but let them stick to the Le Gavroche‘s of London – I can’t help but harbour a soft spot for Le Mercury’s reasonably cheap and cheerful style.
140A Upper Street, London N1 1QY