If you walk round Hanway Street at the moment, the medieval street is like a war zone. It’s difficult to pick your way around builders noise and disruption, writes Pete Whyatt.
On this once quiet side street there is a treasure that you could easily walk past if you were not aware of its existence. In the discreet window is a mouth-watering display of freshly made “Plaisir of the day” dishes. When you walk through the door lighting is subdued, you can sense the quiet hum of people chatting laughing enjoying lovely homemade food.
At the centre of this establishment is Mama, 71 years old Francoise Raulier who has worked in the catering and restaurant trade for over 40 years. Francoise was born in Belgium and lived there for her first 30 years and then the next 30 years in Spain (Ibiza and Madrid.) She then spent eight years as the private cook for an Iranian family.” In this job I travelled with the family and learnt a lot about a different tradition and culture which widened my food perspective. I discovered new dishes and interesting Iranian twists. The Persian people are one of the oldest civilisations and they have an interesting and sophisticated cuisine.”
Francoise cooks by the seasons. She buys what is good fresh and abundant and likes to use Marylebone farmers market and Berwick Street market in Soho. The food also reflects her personal mood. If she feels happy or sad then it will affect what she cooks and the way she cooks it. All the food is freshly prepared. The menus are hand written and presented on a board as “plaisir of the day.” It changes daily around a soup, a chicken dish, a meat dish a fish dish and a vegetarian offering.
“I call this an ‘emotional café bistro.’ Love is very important, family is very important, deep emotion both happy and sad is a key ingredient of our dishes. We are a family business with good and bad times. Sometimes we have arguments or sharp words with each other but we make up and there are always deep feelings between us. I think that this ‘soul’ is something our customers understand. People can see and feel the atmosphere and good vibes here. After working here people want to be part of our family.
“Behind all this is the love and encouragement of my Mamie who taught me all the culture, sophistication and love of food and cooking. Nelly Lenoble Raulier died in 1995 aged 84 years. She wrote her recipies out in beautiful handwritten script. They are all collected in this book we have had reprinted — ‘Les recettes simples de pomme maman’ — which is the motivation and creative source of our cuisine. Each day my daughter Victoria makes pastries for us using her Grandmother’s recipes. It is our reference and inspiration.”
I like Chez Mamie because it is something once commonplace in Fitzrovia but now a rarity: a family business where three generations live ‘over the shop’ the food is simple, creative and very good writes Stephen Heath.
I visit Chez Mamie at least once a week. You only have to look at the family book of carefully handwritten menus to appreciate that this is a labour of love, not some impersonal commercial endeavour.
There are the regular staples on the printed menu and the daily wonders of the plats de jour that depend on whatever Francoise finds in the shops. It is all freshly prepared from what is seasonal and good that day. I would describe the cooking as inventive: healthy Belgian home cooking with an occasional Spanish twist. The two influences mix in the languages spoken, on the wine list and in the food.
I would recommend Francoise’s fresh, home made tarte tatin. I have fond memories of the rhubarb on creme fraiche on a bed of pastry steeped in hot syrup… Mmm. Then there was the octopus in a wonderful, multi-coloured salad with so many ingredients I lost count.
The ambience has a slightly bohemian feel similar to what might have been found in Quartier Latin fifty years ago. There are not many tables and when it is full and everyone is chatting, as it is at lunchtime and quite often in the evening, it has a good buzz. When it is quiet, mindful of where it is located, it is bliss.
Our neighbour went every day when his family was away and we notice that there are several regulars who do just the same. It is good to escape there and sit in the green high-backed armchair with a mocha, a slice of Victoria’s chocolate cake, newspaper and laptop.
Service is warm and friendly. “Staff” is not an appropriate concept here. It is family. Francoise (Mamie), her daughters and the other friends and relatives who pop in to help.
This article originally appeared in spring 2016 issue of Fitzrovia News.