Sunday, 10 January 2010

Monsieur M

Monsieur M opened around the start of December in part of the old Shoreditch Town Hall building on Old Street, billing itself as an "Indochinese" restaurant.  The building itself is quite fascinating: a large and imposing Baroque exterior in Portland stone, all pillars and carvings and reliefs, saved from disuse and dereliction at the start of the 21st century by the formation of the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.  The central couple of halls are impressive and quite beautifully restored although the last time I went to anything in one of the smaller rooms squirrelled away in the little warren of dusty corridors and up creaking staircases I was reminded more of The Shining than anything else.  The building was the scene of the public inquest into the death of Mary Kelly, the last - and by far the most gruesome - of Jack the Ripper's murders.  The story that emerged from the hearing caused a sensation with journalists from all over the world attending and enthusiastically reporting back to their readers the shocking, grisly details, cementing the murderer's legendary status that fuels a mini local economy in "Ripper Walks" and talks which still thrives today.  Once the borough of Shoreditch became part of Hackney in the Sixties the Town Hall was no longer needed and it served as a boxing venue until a young Joe Bugner killed an opponent there in a fight early on his career which led to Hackney banning boxing altogether, causing Shoreditch Town Hall's decline to such a state it was put on the 'at risk' register in the '90s before the formation of the Trust finally brought a new lease of life.

Not the happiest history for a building to have, but it's now managed and marketed as an all-purpose events space, hosting everything from weddings, arts & crafts fairs and music concerts to meditation classes and indeed, Indochinese restaurants.  I'm not sure what the strict definition of Indochinese is but here it means a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese, quite a brave thing to do in these economic times when you're sandwiched between Cay Tre and the imminent new branch of Busaba on one side and Kingsland Road's army of Vietnamese restaurants on the other.

Monsieur M occupies the west wing of the building and has its own entrance.  It doesn't look too inviting from the outside, there's big red illuminated signage and lights by the doorway that let you know something's there but Shoreditch Town Hall wasn't built to encourage hungry people to drop in for a look-see.  It's pleasant enough once you're through the door however, with the odd Buddha lying around and the large bare walls painted in bright slabs of colour, the lighting subdued enough with little tealights on the table to give it a bit more atmosphere in the evenings - a welcome touch with most Oriental places at this level making your typical Wetherspoons look like Sketch.  It's a bit of an awkward space - to be expected I suppose seeing as it's shoehorned into a few Town Hall rooms - and It's obviously not somewhere that expects you to linger for too long, the bare wooden tables with wooden stools quickly convey that message, the high ceilings and hard surfaces make it noisy and lively pretty quickly and you certainly aren't going to spend much time pondering your choices from the menu since they only have three items on it, along with a couple of side dishes, all of which change daily.

On my last visit (an unscheduled lunch stop to thaw out after being caught in the snow on Saturday afternoon) the choices were a chicken Thai curry, "bun pork balls" (Vietnamese pork meatballs with vermicelli noodles) and pho, the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup, the two side dishes were summer rolls and chicken in pandan leaf.  And that was your lot.  Each main had a vegetarian option (where the meat was replaced with tofu) so you could possibly argue (like the waiter) there were 6 mains available but I wouldn't believe you.  Summer rolls and pho are big favourites of mine so deciding what to have took a couple of seconds, the summer rolls arriving in the blink of an eye.  A rather daft mistake to make was serving them in a hot-out-of-oven bowl causing the delicate rice paper skin of the cold rolls to start sticking to it.  The rolls themselves were decent enough although they were vegetarian ones (no choice here) so no pork or shrimp in them which would have made them a bit more interesting but they were fresh and lively, packed with herbs and crunchy cold noodles and cucumber and a thick dipping sauce topped with peanuts and a slight sour tamarind tang to it that was very tasty.

This was just passing the time really till I could see what they made of the pho.  Talk about coals to Newcastle, if you're going to choose just 3 dishes for the day and you've got about 15 Vietnamese restaurants within a 5 minute walk (including Song Que which is pho-tastic) then you're going to have to be pretty confident you've cooked up something special, I thought.  What turned up was decent enough, generous helpings of good quality steak and brisket cuts of beef and dense, very finely minced meatballs sitting in a broth that was okay, laden with a nice mix of herbs and noodles.  What on Earth they thought they were doing serving red pepper on top I do not know but I never want to experience it again.  It's a shame it was all made up in the kitchen though, order pho in any of the restaurants nearby and it's very much a DIY affair, the table quickly loaded up with herbs, beansprouts, chillis, limes and other odds and sods depending where you are, for you to add to your liking as you progress through the soup.  The only addition supplied here was a little bowl of fiery, smokey, oily chilli sauce since there was nothing very spicy about the soup as it was served.

I really quite liked Monsieur M though as I trekked back out into the freezing snow and wind, there's an endearing enthusiasm about the place.  No-one I know has been wowed into raptures by the food but also they've only got positive things to say about it and with the place holding about 80 or 90 covers the 3-mains-only daily changing menu shows a commitment to quality over quantity that is refreshing to see.  From talking to the staff there they're hoping to bump up the number of choices on the menu a bit "once we've found our feet properly" and I hope they get the chance to, and it's a good choice for a friendly pitstop when you're happy to take what's on offer.

Main courses £7.60, sides £3.60, details on the Monsieur M website.


  1. Interesting - looks a bit bare on the inside but the food looks nice enough

  2. heh, yes that just about sums it up! There's an Indian place round the corner, it's much smaller but doing something similar menu-wise, might be a new trend for 2010 that no-one predicted.