O Lucky Woman!
Crossing culinary frontiers at Mere in Fitzrovia with food gurus Monica and David Galetti
One doesn’t often have the opportunity to dine within the hallowed aura of celebrity. When I arrived at Mere, the first opening of husband-and-wife team Monica and David Galetti on Charlotte Street, I hovered awkwardly in the corner for the first ten minutes while the diners finished taking selfies with my date. When I finally sat down, the lady at the next table leaned over and whispered, “You’re a very lucky woman.” I am, because sometimes I get to have dinner with Matthew Fort. Critic, adventurer, poet, pork scratching magnate, presenter of The Great British Menu and all-round good egg, Matthew also appears to be the Kim Kardashian of the foodie world. I’ve even seen him being papped at Stansted airport. His knowledge of the history of food is serious to the point of being arcane, but he disguises it with an infectious exuberance and a genuinely joyful greediness. Matthew was the first writer to spot the genius of one Heston Blumenthal, who at the time was cooking in a dingy pub in Bray, which became The Fat Duck. Monica Galetti is no one’s protégée, but when Matthew told me I had to eat her food I cancelled my other plans.
Born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand, Ms Galetti has been cooking in London since 1999, starting as a commis-chef at Le Gavroche, where she eventually became the first woman to hold the position of senior sous-chef. Like Matthew she is also well known on television, from her appearances as a judge on Masterchef: The Professionals. She and M. Galetti met in the kitchen of “the Gav”, where he was head sommelier. They left the restaurant two years ago to set up Mere, named after Ms Galetti’s mother (it’s pronounced “Mary” in Samoan). Her Antipodean roots manifest playfully in her menus, with dishes such as Mushroom and Marmite, or Pork Boil Up, an elegant interpretation of a basic New Zealand dish, but the flourish of her cooking is firmly grounded in skill. “Learn how to cook with an oven and a pan first, and then you can play with the toys,” is her philosophy.
When Matthew had finished with the groupies, we ordered octopus a la plancha with a relish of fennel, capers, raisin and ‘nduja, the fiery southern Italian sausage paste, a dish which sprang from the eye to the palate, the promise of its vivid colours fulfilled in the clear, harmonious contrast of flavours. The Sicilian flavours reminded me of a caponata we had eaten at La Sirena on the tiny Aeolian island of Filicudi when Matthew was researching his book Summer in the Islands (Unbound, £14.99). I remembered a conversation about the absurdity of “cultural appropriation” in food, the prejudice that one nationality or group can own a cuisine. Matthew said he remembered that dinner because I’d left the table screaming with an earwig in my dress. I wanted to use the octopus to make my point, but we’d eaten it all, so we continued with squab with ras el hanout pastilla, a superb take on the classic Moroccan dish, which in its traditional form can be overpoweringly sweet; here it is a luscious balance of rich, dense meat feathered with delicate spices. Matthew said his sea bream was so good he couldn’t spare any, but he did allow me a bite or three of his pudding, a rhubarb cream with white chocolate sorbet. This was a superb creation in a vivid Fifties pastel pink, so chic that Diana Vreeland might have worn it as a hat.
Indeed “chic” sums up Mere pretty well. It looks gorgeous, in stone and blues, with pieces of Samoan artwork and textiles and the restaurant, pleasingly adult without being formal, makes an advantage of its basement location (though there’s a great bar upstairs) to shut out the hustle of Fitzrovia, as though London has been temporarily switched off. One feels the influence of “the Gav” in the attention to the choreography of the room, in that someone has paid attention to the direction and rhythm of the service. Staff are perfectly attentive without being intrusive, a skill which I wish more high-end destinations would encourage. It is a wonderfully relaxing space, not least because all the surprises are found in the variety and inventiveness of the menu. None of the waiters interrupted Matthew’s punchlines with inquiries about more bread, though the same couldn’t be said for the selfie-seeking customers.
David, who drove over old wine cases from his family home in the Jura to decorate the restaurant, uses the Coravin system, which extracts wine through the cork, enabling diners to try a variety of wines by the glass that might be out of reach by the bottle. We may have taken considerable advantage of this ingenious invention; at least I felt the need to really explain what I felt Mere’s food was demonstrating. A recent furore at Oberlin College in the US had celebrity alumna Lena Dunham weighing in on the “insensitive” and “disrespectful” treatment of the Asian ingredients in the dining hall. Apparently some students were affronted by “the gross manipulation of traditional recipes”, a view which Dunham endorsed. One can only assume that she piously eschews hamburgers , oyster po’ boys and pizza, all “American” dishes borrowed-or “appropriated”-from elsewhere. The offending foodstuffs at Oberlin were sushi and banh mi-the former of which has been served in the US since the 1900s, and (rather like the throroughly British chicken tikka masala) has now been exported back to its native Japan in the form of the California roll, where avocado is substituted for the traditional fatty tuna. Banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, is a product of French colonialism in what was Indochina-since the students protesting were not French, one can only assume that the baguettes were insufficiently oppressive. I’m writing this from Venice, which has a distinctive local cuisine composed of Middle Eastern, Jewish and Austrian influences, amongst many others, all of them tempered and adapted to the ingredients of the lagoons. Food has always been memory melded with ingenuity, neither of which can be discretely owned.
And there we were in a London restaurant run by a French-Samoan couple eating technically brilliant food whose ingredients were as varied as they were imaginatively deployed. Ought someone to be offended? As a rejoinder to such po-faced ignorance, I can’t think of a better place to dine than Mere.