Corbin and King have nothing to worry about
Update 24/4/2021 – this restaurant has now closed
What’s old is new again. This phrase comes to mind when witnessing the resurgence in appreciation of the grand French/continental-style brasseries that now crop up occasionally in London’s wealthier neighbourhoods. Once seen as fusty, the best of these brasseries offer the soothing interiors, slick service and hearty, well-executed food that should be the staple of any city centre.
Bellanger is my favourite, thus far, of this genre. This should come as no surprise as it’s run by Corbin and King, the masterminds behind similar restaurants such as The Wolseley and Brasserie Zedel. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Café Monico is one of theirs. A high-ceilinged wood and brass panelled interior combined with a continental-looking menu.
Peek closer though and the wonky seams, which Corbin and King would likely never tolerate, start to show. The converted sports bar premises, with the mezzanine shoehorned in, felt cramped and dark. It should’ve felt airy and spacious, yet moody and intimate. Service was, to put it politely, highly variable. Slow and laboured. Or slow and surly. Efficient if laconic seems to be the best you can hope for.
Then there’s the vaguely French-Italian menu.
First things first
Steak tartare, available as either a starter or a main, was chewy yet tender with a surprisingly strong spicy kick and a modestly forceful hit of capers. The raw egg added an extra layer of richness. This was an unexpectedly good steak tartare, especially given how many poor to mediocre versions of this dish are available.
A selection of cured meats was pleasing, avoiding most of the usual clichés. It’s no In Parma, but highlights included a lightly woody and fatty fennel salami and a dense, woody and very meaty culatello.
Although the scallops were meaty and reasonably springy, their blandness let the pancetta take centre stage – and the pancetta here was little more than chopped bacon. It’s a thin shadow of a seafood dish when the most interesting thing about it was the creamy sauce dotted with firm, nutty and lightly creamy broad beans. A side dish of lentils was so forgettable, I almost forgot to write this sentence.
Even more disappointing was the stodgy pain perdu served with boozily astringent pineapple and a vanilla ice cream duller than its beige colour.
Going back for seconds
A moist and meaty fillet of halibut nevertheless came apart easily under my fork, which only made the tame relish and sauce more disappointing and unworthy of the fish. At least it wasn’t as bad as the dry and leathery spinach side dish.
The pistachio dacquoise turned out to be a layered cake of slightly crisp wafers and moist, moderately nutty pistachio flavoured cream. It won’t set the world of desserts alight, but it was at least more convincing than the crunchily icy and dimly flavoured strawberry sorbet accompanying it.
Threedom at last
Parmesan and anchovy custard with toast sounds slightly bonkers, but the reality turned out to be much more mundane. The fluffy, soft and savoury custard was moderately thick, while the toast was undressed with both cheese and fish infused into the custard instead. But the parmesan and anchovy presence was more of a fleeting cameo than a starring role – there was certainly none of the multi-layered umami I would expect. Disappointing.
The porchetta was oddly served in a sticky and mildly garlicky jus. While surprisingly good in its own right, it didn’t bring much to the roast pork and its presence wasn’t really needed. The porchetta itself was moist and tender with a decent herby hit, but was only moderately porky. The crackling wasn’t quite crispy, unctuous or visceral enough either. It’s certainly not a patch on the best New York or Rome porchetta.
Surprisingly, the distinctly Californian-feeling watermelon and peach salad turned out to be a winner. Gently sweet and refreshing fruit, served at room temperature as it should be, was mixed with gently bitter leaves. It’s not only a crisp and palate cleansing counterpoint to the relatively rich meat and fish dishes, but an enjoyable dish in its own right too.
Paris-Brest might be a storied French dessert, but Café Monico’s version doesn’t do it justice. A stodgy halved doughnut-style pastry filled with Starbucks-level hazelnut cream might be worthy of a timid multinational coffee chain, but not for a restaurant in one of the best cities in the world for eating out.
Café Monico isn’t all bad. There are some good dishes to be teased out of its populist menu, from the steak tartare to the cured meats and the peach and watermelon salad, but doing so was painful. There were also plenty of dishes that were merely okay or just achingly duff – especially in the dessert department. There’s some good quality meat and produce waiting to be set free at Café Monico, but until that happens it’d be best to leave this faux-brasserie to gullible tourists, especially given the problematic service, atmosphere and relatively high prices, unless you need it as a fallback option.
What to order: Steak tartare; Peach and watermelon salad; Cured meats
What to skip: The desserts; Scallops and pancetta with broad beans
Name: Café Monico
Address: 39-45 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LA
Phone: 0203 727 6161
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday 08.00-midnight, Friday 08.00-01.00, Saturday 11.00-01.00, Sunday and public holidays 11.00-midnight.
Reservations: essential on and around weekends; otherwise highly recommended
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £45-55 approx.