A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The first question I am asked by those who meet me in person is invariably: how, doing the job that I do, do I manage to stay slim?
This is a fair question. I am tall, about 5' 11", and no more than 13 stone. My answer, usually mumbled, comprises a mix of responses: Tai Chi every morning; not eating between meals; and having the luxury of knowing, as I live a very privileged first-world existence, that I never need to worry about where my next meal is coming from.
Then there is the experience, not that frequent in fact, of having as my work the pleasure of eating a meal that is so well judged that at the end of it I feel neither heavy, nor ready for a siesta but simply very well fed.
This was the feeling that both Jancis and I enjoyed at the end of our first meal at Mere, the restaurant in Fitzrovia recently opened by Monica and David Galetti.
Enough has already been written about Monica's past, one which makes her new venture as tricky as it is as a prelude to instant success. As the first female sous chef to Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche (and an increasingly active TV star), she is only too aware of what her customers will demand. But she also seems to be acutely aware of what she uniquely has to offer. A duplication of the polished French cuisine in Mayfair that has now been running for 50 years would not be in anybody's best interests.
But then Fitzrovia is ostensibly very different from Mayfair. This area that is just north of Soho and Oxford Street has been popular for many years with restaurateurs and their customers but has perhaps lacked the sparkle of the quartiers to the south (does anyone else remember Schmidt's, the German restaurant on Charlotte Street where the waiters used to have to buy the dishes from the kitchen?). This sparkle was missing because Fitzrovia was too far from the theatres and cinemas to provide extra early-evening and late-night custom.
That was before a major change in our eating habits. With the increase in the number of women working as well as the rise of the breakfast meeting, the demand for dinner reservations has shifted to tables at 6.30 pm or 7 pm rather than later. Now any restaurateur's preference for a smart location is dictated by the proximity of offices and smart residential property nearby. These are customers the Galettis will now have in abundance with the offices of Arup and Adobe close by, while the presence of the Michelin-starred Kitchen Table within Bubbledogs two doors away is already proof of renowned competition nearby.
The Galettis' response has been to follow the universal rule of restaurateurs that what is inside the front door must match what is on the outside. As the streets of Fitzrovia become more polished so the welcome must be, and here the Galettis' interior is certainly up to scratch: a smart bar with very comfortable chairs where orders are taken from a menu free of the French language, and a curved staircase down to the restaurant. So far, so very Le Gavroche.
Down the stairs, the setting is, however, very different. The waiting staff may be in smart uniforms but there is a distinct absence of starched white linen and the walls are hung with cool brown tapestries while a cleverly chosen table light, called TETATET from Davide Groppi, adorns each table. The food that emerges from a well-hidden kitchen suits the setting.
We began with two very different first courses, Jancis choosing a crisped mammole artichoke, a true Roman example of this vegetable, with pickled walnuts and a bitter-leaf salad, while I chose the more pungent flavours of grilled octopus spiced with a hot combination of capers and raisins, the whole enlivened by the addition of nduja, the spicy Italian sausage. Both were served correctly on plates rather than in the bowls that are so popular with chefs today but which are impossible to tackle with a knife and fork.
We followed this with a squab pigeon, its breast glazed with rhubarb, with a pastilla of the leg, and well-seasoned cauliflower and chard, and, for me, lobster with mashed potato and cabbage. Here Galetti follows the well-worn principle of intelligent cooking, that of matching expensive ingredients such as lobster with far less expensive ones such as her choice of vegetables. It is all to great effect.
These dishes also gave us the opportunity to explore David's wine list. While erring on the slightly cautious side to begin with, he has unusually but thoughtfully compiled a well-chosen range of half bottles from which we drank a 2014 Chardonnay from Kumeu River (£31) and a fully mature Rioja, a 2007 Viña Ardanza (£42) that contributed to a total bill of £225.
This included two excellent desserts from pastry chef Miriam Mwasambili. While Jancis indulged in a dish described succinctly as 'chocolate and peanut', I in a somewhat more restrained fashion opted for a dish headed simply 'rhubarb'. This was the stunning combination shown above of a soft mousse cake covered in this attractive pink fruit with more rhubarb to the side, alongside a scoop of white chocolate sorbet.
Sweetness and acidity in the desserts at the end of a well-chosen menu and wine list all conspire to underline the collective experience behind Mere.
Mere 74 Charlotte Street, London W1T 4QH; tel +44 (0)20 7268 6565