3 JANUARY 1998, Page 42

CHESTER Boyd, the caterers, and the Worshipful Company of Butchers

deserve great praise for their initiative on the eve of Dr Cunningham's ludicrous ban on the sale of beef on the bone. Interested parties, including myself, were invited to Butchers' Hall in the City to enjoy a dinner designed to demonstrate what we would thereafter be missing. Bullshots made with freshly brewed beef consommé, accompanied by delicious canapes of bread and dripping, were the aperitif, and the menu comprised oxtail soup with chestnuts, followed by a magnificent 441b baron of beef on the bone, proudly carried aloft by four chefs. The accompanying pommes boulangeres had been prepared with beef stock, and were followed by a treacle pudding made from beef suet. Finally came a newly devised savoury, croque Cunningham, made with a brisket of beef and cheese. It was a memorable meal that clearly dis- played what we now stand to miss.

It would not entirely surprise me if this so-called democratic government outlawed beef in toto before very long, and so creat- ed the first black market in food since rationing ended after the last war. It thus seemed a good idea that this first article of 1998 should concern itself with our much loved steak, which generally tastes best when prepared by the French.

Long ago in 1943, Jean Viala and his wife opened a small bistro in Seven Dials where the short, unpretentious menu offered such simple joys as salade de tomates, gratin& a l'oignon, a fine French cheese board, and, above all, entrecôte et pommes frites. The Vialas, despite their sometimes brusque manner, continued to earn our affection and approval until the end of the Sixties, when they sold the business to their head waiter, M. Lhermitte. Half a century after it opened Mon Plaisir is still going strong, run now by Lhermitte fils, Alain. Although the premises have much expanded, the front room is still as it always was, with a Paris metro map on one wall, a Martini ther- mometer on another, a notice telling us 'La maison ne fait pas de credit', and a menu which still adheres to its original and com- mendable Gallic principles of simple but delicious food, impeccably prepared and at a fair price.

Now that the Royal Opera has taken to inflicting new productions on their dwin- dling audiences at the abominable Shaftes- bury Theatre, Mon Plaisir at least stands ready to offer some gastronomic relief at the end of the evening. It was there that my sister, Elizabeth, and I sought refuge after an unforgettably horrible staging of Rossi- ni's Barber of Seville, much in need of such solace as M. Lhermitte could offer. We were not disappointed. Sitting under the Martini thermometer, looking at the sign telling us we'd get no credit, we were restored to form first by an exemplary salade de tomates aux anchois, and some delicious wild mushrooms sitting on home- baked brioche, and then by impeccably butchered, carefully hung entrecôte, cooked an immaculate `saignant' and accompanied by the thinnest and crispiest of frites, and some heavenly epinards a la crème. Some splendid French cheeses in perfect condition rounded off this exem- plary meal which, with coffee, service and a bottle of pinot noir Burgundy, came to just £71 — that's value for you, and integrity.

More recently, the Chez Gerard chain has been attempting to do much the same thing at four central London venues: Covent Garden, Chancery Lane, Mayfair and Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, where they began. Again value is commendable, with a three-course set meal available for £15 in the evening, and a fairly priced carte which, once again, specialises in steak, though also offers plenty of attractive alternatives.

The Charlotte Street Gerard, where I went on a Saturday evening with the roving gastronome David Damant, is a long, nar- row establishment with a friendly, unpompous atmosphere and helpful ser- vice. I began with half a dozen splendidly fresh fine de claire French oysters, admirable value at £5.95, and Damant ate some perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, pâté de foie de volaille with toasted brioche, again reasonably priced at £4.30. Next we chose Chez Gerard's 500-gram Chateaubriand fillet of beef for two people at an acceptable £28.80. It came `saignant' as ordered, with first-class pommes frites and some béarnaise sauce with slightly less tarragon, and thus less definition than that served at Mon Plaisir. The fillet was tender and good but again, compared with the steak at Mon Plaisir, had less flavour and character.

To end we had an adequate, but not especially exciting, crème brill& and pear belle Helene at a modest £3.80. With a half-litre 'pot' of this year's rather good Beaujolais nouveau from Georges Duboeuf, coffee and 121/2 per cent service, our bill came to a reasonable £74. There is nothing wrong with Chez Gerard: the cook- ing is careful and correct, the atmosphere congenial, and value commendable. But perhaps because it is part of a chain, it lacks personality. I'm afraid I would find it hard to develop the same affection for it over the decades as for the scruffier, but so much more personal, Mon Plaisir.

In France the steak is a staple rather than a treat. Every 'Services' on an autoroute offers 'steak, frites' of various kinds at various prices. On a recent trip from the Shuttle to the southern Touraine we stopped at venues on Autoroutes 1 and 10, and I made a point of trying the steaks. At L'Arche near Blois my entrecôte, frites cost 54.50 ff — just over £5.50 — for a fair- sized, slightly tough piece of meat, accu- rately cooked and with good frites. The quality was inferior to the meat at both London establishments, but the price was well under half that of an entrecôte at Mon Plaisir. North of Paris at the Aire de Vemars Est, the grillade de boeuf — a rather fibrous tavette' — cost only 47.50 ff (under £5), with chips up to standard, and a choice of sauce au poivre, aux echalottes (onions), or aux tomates included. Again, for quality of meat it could not compare with the steaks in London, but think just for a moment of the kind of government- approved slop you would be served on a British motorway at those prices.

Mon Plaisir.• 21 Monmouth Street, London WC2; tel: 0171 836 7243. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.

Chez Gerard: 8 Charlotte Street, London W1; tel: 0171 636 4975. Closed Saturday lunch.