Friday, 30 September 2011

How Not To Cook Meat At London’s Oldest French Restaurant

By Alistair Martin

Finely diced steak, dressed in a concoction of minced anchovy, chopped gherkin, raw egg yolk and hot pepper sauce, served on a plate, room temperature and uncooked, with a side of French fries. Probably not everyone’s idea of fine dining, but for devotees of this classic French dish, like myself, a well-made steak tartare is amongst the most delectable things that you can treat your palate to.

Since I first accidentally discovered steak tartare as a young boy holidaying in France with my grandparents – my pre-GCSE understanding of the French language led me to mistakenly believe I was ordering Bolognese and chips – I have been in thrall to the exquisite blend of soft red meat and delicately spiced flavours that fate put in front of me that day.

My years since have been spent in a exhaustive quest for the perfect tartare; a quest that has taken me to numerous restaurants on both sides of the channel, and has seen me sample variations that have ranked amongst the highest of haut cuisine, as well as versions that can only be described as a bag of raw mince on a plate. Yet, as I discovered in what will hopefully become the first in a series of masterclass evenings at Covent Garden’s French restaurant, Mon Plaisir, with a little expert instruction, I could have been manufacturing my own perfect steak tartare all this time.Well, almost. Mon Plaisir owner Alain Lhermitte, who led the masterclass, had begun the evening creating a quite sensational tartare on the table in front of us, whisking his ingredients together like an apothecary from yore and producing a concoction every bit as magical. Yet when I blended what I thought were the very same ingredients in the same proportions – exactly five drops of Tabasco, eight drops of English Worcester sauce (superior to the French equivalent, we were told), and so forth – the resultant tartare, though perfectly serviceable, seemed less well emulsified and without the same exacting balance of flavours.Still, I didn’t take it as too hard. After all, Alain has helmed one of London’s finest French restaurants for the past 40 years, and made his first tartare a full decade before then. The only reason I have even eaten steak tartare is that, as a 13-year-old boy, I was unaware that the French word for Bolognese is in fact the radically different ‘Bolognaise’.

In any case, it was on both mine and Alain’s tartare that I subsequently feasted, with a crisp leaf salad and crisper French fries to accompany them, and an endless supply of violet Champagne cocktails and carignan Vin de Pays to keep the palate moist.

And as the conversation between masterclass attendees flowed, with Alain – a man so delightfully, stereotypically French that he could have walked straight off the set of Allo Allo – regaling with us a myriad of hilarious anecdotes, an evening that I had anticipated being a short instructional event soon evolved into an occasion more akin to dinner party amongst friends.

The current (as yet unconfirmed) plan is for these masterclass evenings to become regular events at Mon Plaisir. If they do, I have no doubt that they will rightly become as popular as Alain’s culinary skills and Gallic charisma deserve. Even if they don’t, however, this evening revealed enough charm and quality to warrant repeated visits to Mon Plaisir. The steak tartare is worth the trip alone; far better than you could expect to make yourself, no matter whose recipe you use.If you cant wait to find out when the next masterclass is set for, just book a table using the below form and let Alain take care of the rest.

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