I was meeting my friend Chris, who lives in north London, for an evening meal and we settled on Covent Garden as a good ‘halfway’ meeting place. I fancied trying somewhere different to my usual haunts and remembered that I’ve been meaning to return to Mon Plaisir for sometime, having often passed it when in the area and thinking, I must go back there.
Mon Plaisir was a regular haunt at one time, but many years ago. It was at least 20 years since I’d eaten there. Chris also knew it from a long time ago but hadn’t been back for about the same amount of time as me.
Located in Covent Garden’s Seven Dials district, that’s become very fashionable of late, the restaurant is known as London’s oldest French restaurant. Established during the 1940s by the Viala brothers, it stayed in their family until 1972 when it was bought by Alain Lhermitte, who continued the tradition of serving authentic French food. What I’d remembered from years ago – and at a time when I regularly holidayed with the family in France – was that it was like being transported to a little corner of France for the evening. Everything about it, from the ambience to the food and the staff was French. But would it be quite as I remembered it?
We’d booked for 6.30pm, in time to have the Pre- or Post-Theatre Menu that’s served from 5.45-7.00 and then after 9.30. It’s priced at £16.95 for 2 courses, including coffee, and £18.95 for 3 courses.
I arrived slightly early, escaping the bitter wind outside and seeking warmth. They checked whether I was planning to go to the theatre (good point) and I said, No. (I noticed on the menu that people having the pre-theatre menu had to vacate the table by 8.00, which I hadn’t been warned about when I booked by phone. However, it clearly wasn’t busy enough for them to need the table back as we sat there talking until 9.15!) I was shown to the Back Room. Mon Plaisir is a little bit like a rabbit warren with various rooms branching out through narrow passageways; sometimes you have to duck your head! I’d always sat in the front before, overlooking Monmouth Street, and apparently the Back Room was the first expansion of the restaurant in the 1980s.
There was a choice of 3 starters – Soup of the Day, Pork Terrine with Mushrooms, and Seasonal Salad. I asked what was in the seasonal salad and had a vision of a classic French crudités plate being put before me. It wasn’t quite that. There was a good selection of vegetables – lettuce, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potato – but unfortunately it was smothered in a heavy balsamic dressing, resulting in it not being as ‘fresh’ tasting as I’d expected. Balsamic dressing isn’t really French anyway (balsamic is woefully overused these days and not always appropriate), and I would have preferred a proper French dressing made with wine or cider vinegar. However, it was OK; just nothing to get excited about. The waitress offered us bread from a large basket before the starters arrived, but it’s preferable to have a basket left on the table.
Chris said her pork terrine was OK, but again, nothing special – and I could see that too had balsamic drizzled over it.
There were 3 main courses on offer: Fish of the Day, Penne with Grilled Vegetables and Pesto, and Blanquette de Volaille – chicken in light cream sauce with pearl barley, which was my choice.
I was a bit taken aback by 2 very ordinary crisps sitting on top! There was a lot of chicken (I wouldn’t go hungry) but it was a little dry and the overall dish lacked seasoning. Again, not a ‘bad’ dish but not ‘very good’ either.
Chris had the fish of the day – mackerel. This also came with crisps on top! She thought it was OK, but again the overall opinion was that it wasn’t anything special.
Neither of us wanted a dessert but there was Crème Caramel or Apple Tart with Cinnamon Ice Cream on offer. I had the coffee which was part of the menu and Chris asked for peppermint tea. My coffee was actually very good and I enjoyed it.
We were both a bit disappointed. Mon Plaisir wasn’t as we’d remembered it. Had we somehow ‘romanticised’ those meals from years ago in our minds and memory or had they really been better. I guess we’ll never know. The meal wasn’t a disaster but there are certainly better places to get an early evening menu in Covent Garden. The French ambience now felt tired and a little touristy. What a shame.