I’m all for the concept of “quality” fast food and am glad that it is finally catching on in Paris. Not only has the American chain Five Guys, Barack Obama’s favorite burger joint, opened its first Paris branch (in Bercy Village), but there are also a number of homegrown efforts, including the admirable Osè for African food.
One of the latest additions to the scene is Mersea, an amalgam of the French and English words for a large body of salt water that is also a homonym for “merci.”
The welcome gimmick here is that a chef, Olivier Bellin, has created affordable recipes for fish that are made with quality ingredients and can be whipped up quickly for people in a hurry.
The first time I went there, I was a bit disappointed by my fish “hot dog” in a bun, which I just didn’t find very tasty, so I went back to try the “Frenchified” fish and chips, which a friend had proclaimed the best he’d ever had. Having been to two “bests” across the Channel, one in Sussex and one in Dublin, I’m afraid I couldn’t agree with him. The batter was indeed much lighter than usual, but the fish – lieu jaune (pollock) – was fairly tasteless. The crinkle-cut fries were respectable.
Of the two desserts I tried, I enjoyed the classic chocolate mousse but left behind half of the “tarte citron,” which wasn’t a lemon tart at all but lemon curd in a bowl with a cookie, basil sauce and a cherry tomato. Inventive, but didn’t work for me.
Mersea, which is run by the sweetest group of young French people you’ll ever run into, is fine if you’re in a hurry, but when you have time to spare, treat yourself to a “slow” (occasionally too slow) lunch at Istr, a new restaurant on the gradually gentrifying Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth in the third arrondissement. Primarily a fish restaurant, it also offers meat dishes and even has an oyster bar in between mealtimes.
The day after eating at Mersea for the second time, I had a sublime all-fish lunch in Istr’s handsome dining room, with its different ambiances: in the front, round tables and banquettes, a high table with pretty padded stools and a window counter with wooden stools. The curve of the banquette is echoed by the curve of the bar behind it. Add different wallpaper patterns and gold-framed convex mirrors, and it all comes together to create a highly pleasing setting.
The food itself was more than pleasing. I started with three chunks of meaty, richly flavored gravlax on a bed of three-color cauliflower taboulé with raisins and slivered toasted almonds. I enjoyed every moment of it.
The same was true of the next course, a fantastic, generous piece of merlu (hake). Perfectly seasoned, it was cooked “rare” and topped with threads of pickled seaweed that added little hits of flavor and contrasted nicely with the mild fish. It sat atop a bed of cooked leaks in a creamy sauce, studded with chunks of al dente garlic. This was comfort food with class.
I had trouble choosing between the two dessert offerings: rice pudding “mousse” with fried clementines and the house version of crêpes Suzettes. I chose the latter, and was very glad I did. It wasn’t prepared in the traditional way at the table, but the crepes – filled with orange-flavored pastry cream topped with orange zest and Cointreau-flavored syrup – were stunningly good.
All that for only €24! I left in a haze of happiness.
Sure, quality fast food is a good thing, but give me good old-fashioned slow food like I had at Istr any day.
Istr: 41, rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, 75003 Paris. Métro: Temple. Tel.: 01 43 56 81 25. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner; Saturday for dinner only. Fixed-price lunch menus: €19 (two courses), €24 (three courses). A la carte: €30-42.Favorite