Named after a long defunct café nearby that was opened in 1877 and lasted until the 1950s, Café Monico is bang on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of theatreland. It is sandwiched between the Gielgud Theatre and Queen’s Theatre, and opened in March 2016. This is a brasserie, a “collaboration” between Soho House and Rowley Leigh, serving French and Italian food. A Cambridge graduate, Mr Leigh was the long-time head chef of the very successful Kensington Place from 1987. He later opened Le Café Anglais in 2007 in the rather unusual setting of Whiteleys shopping centre, in premises that were formerly a McDonalds, before selling up in 2014. However do not expect to see Rowley on the pass; he has a broader executive role in the Soho House group now, and just cooked here for a few weeks here at the launch. The actual head chef at Monico is Jason Loy, originally from Australia and previously head chef at the Dean Street Townhouse.
The dining area is set over two floors, with 130 seats in all. There was a cheap lunch and pre-theatre menu at just £18 for three courses, as well as a full choice from the carte menu. The mostly French and Italian wine list ranged in price from £22 to £150, with selections such as Les Templiers Chardonnay 2014 at £28 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £10, Franz Haas Pinot Nero 2013 at £58 compared to a retail price of £24, and the lovely Antinori Tignanello 2012 at £125 for a wine that will set you back £74 in a shop.
A starter of rigatoni pasta with lamb ragu was enjoyable, the sauce having a peppery kick to it. The pasta was a touch firmer than I would have chosen, but such things are partly a matter of personal taste, and the sauce certainly had good flavour (13/20).
Haddock and chips with mushy peas was less satisfactory. The batter, which you might hope to be crisp and golden, was in reality soggy and slightly leathery. The haddock was cooked OK, and the fries were fine, though they were anyhow bought–in. However the main element of the meal was not very good, and I only ate part of it (10/20). What was nice was that the waiter inquired about it and later, without my asking, took it off the bill.
Dessert was better, a lemon panna cotta with raspberries. This was suitably wobbly, in fact perilously so, looking on the brink of collapse. The raspberries had good flavour. but the panna cotta needed more lemon, however, the garnish of lemon zest really the only significant lemon flavour coming through. This lack of sharpness meant that the panna cotta effectively brought just a wobbly texture, acidity coming mainly from the raspberries. The dish was not helped by a shard-like tuile, which was seemingly made with gluten-free flour and almond milk, and was too hard and sharp. Still, perhaps 12/20 if I am feeling kind.
The Brazilian coffee was very good, from a supplier called Origin Coffee. Service was friendly and efficient, the bill with just water to drink coming to just £24. However if you shared a bottle of modest wine then a realistic cost per head all in would be more like £60 unless you went for the off-peak cheap menu. Soho House properties usually provide a successful formula, with appealing menus, capable service, slightly high prices and cooking that, as Rowley Leigh once said about something else at a culinary conference, could be described as “dull but reliable”. This meal didn’t quite hit the “reliable” note given the iffy main course and not quite correct dessert. However I imagine that the kitchen will settle down further in due course, and given its prime location and friendly staff will doubtless fare successfully.