London scores top points for keeping its pulse on the forever-evolving culinary scene. But if there’s one London restaurant that comes up trumps in terms of character and keeping up a family’s legacy, it has to be Mon Plaisir. This quaint traditional restaurant is as French as you’ll get this side of the Channel. It’s located in the bustling Seven Dials quarter of Covent Garden, and for the theatre Belles among us, is a stone’s throw away from most of the best West End shows –perfect for a pre-theatre dinner.
What better time to go than the year of Mon Plaisir’s 70th Birthday? It’s not only the oldest French Restaurant in the capital, but it also holds a depth of history. President Charles de Gaulle dined here during exile in the 1940s and many loyal customers have been going back for more than 20 years. We just had to take up Monsieur Alain Lhermitte’s invitation to try out their dining, which is still thriving under his ownership after more than six decades.
We spotted the red, white and blue front colours of the giant French flag which sways proudly in the breeze, before we got to the double shop front half way down Monmouth Street. After a very warm and energetic welcome from the moustached Monsieur Lhermitte himself, he took me and my guest from the chintzy, old part of the restaurant that dates back to the 1940s, through a warren of rooms into their newer and aptly named ‘Next Door’ room. After a delightful ‘Valerie’ champagne cocktail, named in honour of Alain’s daughter, we were beckoned upstairs to the mezzanine level.
As part of our visit, Belle bravely volunteered to observe Mon Plaisir’s Steak Tartare masterclass, which takes place on the first Monday of every month. And for those of you who are a little reluctant to eating raw beef, boy this will be a pleasant surprise. We observed intently as Alain’s chef expertly sliced up a sirloin steak. Alain talked us through the several ingredients while he energetically ‘impregnated the meat’ with the flavours – all under the watchful eye of his adorable protégé, seven-year-old son ‘Max’.
The taste was, well, a nice surprise. Slightly chewy, but very flavoursome. If you’re intrigued to try steak tartare, most definitely try it here. Alain and his team will only use the leanest cuts of meat. Rumour has it that he stirs every Steak Tartare dish they serve.
A walk past the original 1940s bar that was salvaged from a brothel in Lyon, (yes really) and we returned to our perfectly set white linen table. The whole restaurant is filled with quirky French artefacts wherever you look – French accordions, cockerels and retro Michelin-man pictures. As the light streamed in from the glass covered bar, our starters arrived – Parfait de Foie Gras (£12) and Fromage de Tete (pork terrine, £9). The pork terrine didn’t produce quite the explosion of taste as its colourful presentation suggested, but it was meaty, and pleasantly complemented by a subtle sour Gribriche sauce. The fois gras was extremely smooth and rich. Perhaps a little too rich with the brioche alone, so thank goodness for the passion fruit jelly which saved it. If you’re not put off by this controversial delicacy, approach with an appetite.
For mains, the Limande Grille (Lemon sole, £26) was simple yet beautifully presented with watercress and a wedge of lemon. The Beurre Meuniere was rich and tasty and was nicely topped off by the waxy ratte potatoes. Regrettably, the creamed spinach side might have been a bit of a hasty order, making the dish a little heavy. But overall, along with a perfectly chilled glass of house white wine, it was a delight to eat. The Onglet a l’Echalotte (skirt of beef, £19) was served with a red wine reduction. However my side order of dauphinoise potatotes made the meal a little sloppy. But this was beef at its best – perfectly pink, tender and tasty, and beautifully arranged.
How we fitted in a dessert, we do not know – but once you see the Contraste Chocopassionnement (warm chocolate mousse with passion fruit sorbet) and Panna cotta with blood orange sorbet (£6.50) you’ll see why we couldn’t say no. The gooey chocolate mousse was like a perfect fondant. The panna cotta was custardy yet tangy. Top points all round.
As we admired the trinkets, and picked up snippets of strong French accents around us, one thing struck us – this is the home of a warm and caring family who just want to do one thing – share their love of French food, and make you laugh. When you see the artwork in the ladies’ and gents’, you’ll see why.
Mon Plaisir, 19-21 Monmouth Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9DD; Contact: +44 (0) 20 7836 7243. Masterclasses take part on the first Monday of every month, costing £29.50 inclusive of champagne, appetiser, own tartare and dessert.
by Lucy McGuire