Thursday, 28 April 2016
Cafe Monico, Piccadilly
There are certain neighbourhoods that have taken a long time to shake off their reputation for bad food. At one time Covent Garden was the culinary wasteland, full of gimmicky tourist traps and Bella Pastas and not much else, where you'd end up by accident, never on purpose, poking glumly at a pasta penne while someone bellowed opera at you. Now, we have 10 Cases, Flesh & Buns, Hawksmoor, Opera Tavern, 32 Great Queen Street and - coming soon - Margot from ex-Bar Boulud Paulo de Tarso, surely definitive proof that this area has Arrived.
Could there ever be hope for Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly? The restauarants in this part of town aren't just lazy and cynical, they're actively evil. Rainforest Café have been flogging their £15 quesadillas and frozen burgers for nearly two decades, surviving on an endless stream of frazzled parents and desperate lost tourists who recognise the brand name from back home. And let's not forget Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a restaurant launched entirely on the back of a minor plot point in a terrible movie most of whose target customers were too young to see when it was last in theaters. It's shit, but then you probably don't need me to tell you that.
But what's this? Cafe Monico, brand-spanking-new from the Soho House group, nestled inbetween the all-you-can-eat dross and theme restaurants of Shaftesbury Avenue, threatens to actually make a trip to this part of town worthwhile. I'm neither young, attractive nor moneyed enough to make the most of a Soho House membership but I do know that Chicken Shop is one of my go-to places for rotisserie bird, and Dean St Townhouse do cracking cocktails. So hopes were high for this new place, even if, by the standards of the area, it will probably only need to not poison me to be better than the standards of the competition.
They've done a great job on the interior, with a grand central island bar downstairs overlooked by a plush balcony dining area above. The years of experience in creating a comfortable-but-not-intimidatingly-lavish atmosphere in places like Dean St Townhouse have clearly been put to use here; it's a very pleasant place to sit and eat.
Unfortunately, first impressions of the food weren't so positive. Ordering native oysters and then being brought rocks could be dismissed as early days confusion, but how many people would this incorrect order have had to go past to arrive at the table? I can't tell you whether they just misheard me or made a mistake in selection as I didn't see the bill on this occasion, but it does make you wonder. Still, even these rocks were nice, with a good sharp mignionette dressing.
Slightly more worrying was the "Parmesan custard with anchovy toast", a sure sign of Rowley Leigh's involvement in the design if not execution of the menu. When I've had this dish in the past, most notably at Leigh's Café Anglais in Bayswater, it's been a delicate pot of fluffy cheese custard accompanied with a neat stack of golden-brown toasted anchovy sandwiches. I've posted what they should look like above. What arrived at Café Monico (beneath) was the custard, which looked OK at first before you broke the surface to reveal a sad, split mixture beneath with a texture not dissimilar to scrambled eggs. And what on earth was happening with the "toast" I have no idea - this strange, chewy flat pancake with more in common with a doughy paratha than toasted white bread, and with not a trace of anchovy. Rowley - head back to Shaftesbury Avenue. Your work here is not yet done.
Happily, better things were to follow. Salmon carpaccio with chilli was fresh and attractive, not shy with the chillies and, studded with capers and dill and goodness knows what else, much fun to eat.
And both mains on my first visit were great successes, first this guinea fowl with morels which boasted a lovely golden brown crisp skin and plenty of funghi...
...and this Dover Sole which was abosolutely perfectly cooked - not a hint of either gelatinous undercooked or mushy overcooking - dressed in brown butter and a joy to eat to the last meaty, bright white bite.
Partly because the first visit was a PR invite and partly because I still couldn't make my mind up about the place, I made a return trip a week or two later. On this occasion I played it a bit safer with the menu, and was rewarded with a more consistent experience, so perhaps safe is the way to go at Cafe Monico. A French Onion soup was a fine example, vaguely wine-y and with a good rich broth.
And though I didn't get a chance to try it, this beef carpaccio disappeared very quickly, so I imagine it tasted as good as it looked.
Steak was a cheap cut I think but I was given the correct tools to work my way through this tough but richly flavoured slab of cow, and it was hardly a chore to eat. The Bearnaise had a bit of an unpleasant crust, but between the nicely seasoned and crisp fries and the juicy steak, there was plenty else to enjoy.
And also from the lunch menu, pork belly, which also disappeared with few - in fact no - complaints.
Had my second visit involved as many mistakes and disappointments as the first - and even on the first visit there weren't that many - then perhaps I still wouldn't have made my mind up about Cafe Monico. But what I mainly remember from my lunches there aren't the missing native oysters or the custard paratha but the smart service, lovely room and menu of comfort food bistro classics that I would happily order from again and again. And given that there still really aren't that many sure-thing crowdpleasing bistros in this part of town - in fact, given that there aren't really any (Zedel aside) - I can see myself eating here quite a bit. And if I ever order that parmesan custard again, I'll let you know how it goes.
I went once as a guest to Café Monico and once on my own dollar. They probably haven't quite done enough to get into the next version of the app, but you can certainly do far worse on the Shaftesbury Avenue. Meanwhile, see where else is good.