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Eating in Twickenham

16 Jan 2004 by JR
Perhaps the most fascinating and pleasurable restaurant trend of the past five years has been the almost headlong rush of those once practising only at the most expensive level into the less expensive middle market.

Among those swept along include Michel Rostang, Paul Bocuse, Jean-Claude Vrinat, Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon in Paris; Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White in London; and soon, La Cote Basque in Manhattan, which will reopen as a bistro in 2004.

But none of these glamorous chefs has met with success quite so immediately or inexpensively as John McClements at Ma Cuisine in Twickenham just south west of London which has been full twice a night since it opened in June. But nor has any chef/proprietor, to the best of my knowledge, created two distinct but adjacent restaurants whose kitchen brigades do not even talk to one another, let alone have a drink together.

McClements is instantly likeable. Born in Bootle, Lancashire, the son of a chef, he trained in Liverpool's once great Adelphi Hotel during the 1960's when its kitchens were, as he remembers, 'straight out of Escoffier'. A peripatetic interlude followed including jumping ship in San Francisco and a stint as a chef on cruise ships out of Miami before moving to London where he opened McClements initially in Twickenham Green in 1987.

"There were hardly any restaurants here then and I spotted the potential of the rugby ground nearby. Four times a year we would cater £200 a head parties in the restaurant and set up marquees by the ground. That kind of business made up for the quiet times, " he explained.

A fire next door in a pine stripping business called Jack the Stripper destroyed the initial site and forced a move in 1991. McClements subsequently prospered as a bistro specialising in offal and cheaper cuts of meat until BSE forced a change of direction. Profits were ploughed back into what is now a 900 bin wine cellar, securing and building over what were a series of back gardens to allow extensions to build kitchens and a three bedroom apartment for staff.

September 11 2001 proved particularly costly as it transpired that the restaurant had completely innocently employed the person who in turn had taught the terrorists how to fly in the US. Whilst under police investigation the restaurant was forced to close for two weeks and although the employee was subsequently released this episode cost the business considerable revenue and good will.

But it did allow McClements time to think about his own and the restaurant's future and he decided to hand the kitchens over to a younger chef, Barry Tonks, whom McClements believes is as talented and determined as Marco Pierre White with whom he worked 15 years ago.

Tonks is taking McClements the restaurant ambitiously up market again, an expensive and not continuously profitable strategy. McClements the chef watching the cash flow and missing his kitchen decided to turn to DIY and with his GM Dominic spent the spring converting the former staff bedroom into a bistro. "We worked every night after service. The whole conversion cost £5,000 as most of the kitchen equipment was what was surplus. We dreamt that once it was open it would take a couple of thousand pounds a week, enough to cover the wage bill."

Ma Cuisine is not strong on comfort. Wooden banquettes run along the walls; the tablecloths are red checked plastic; the loose chairs are once elegant banqueting chairs kept for the rugby parties and the walls are covered in a series of Toulouse Lautrec posters. Instead, customers' eyes are fixed on the menu and the small hatch at the back through which McClements and his Jamaican assistant produce terrific food.

The aim was to get back to his culinary roots so the menu smacks of nostalgia as well as simple, flavoursome combinations: French onion soup; a paté de campagne with foie gras (£4!); a salade paysanne; choucroute; cassoulet; breast of magret with cassis; coq au vin; skate wing with capers and brown butter; crêpe suzette, an absolutely correct crème brulée and a chocolate pot with coffee cream.

The menu has two other distinctive attributes. The first and more particular is probably the lightest black pudding which McClements continues to make himself despite only being able to buy dried blood (after BSE it is impossible to buy fresh blood) and which reaches this delicious state because it is inside flaky pastry which has to be cooked at a very high temperature. The second and more prevalent is the size of the portions which are unfashionably large. McClements has lost neither his Northern accent nor his Northern sense of generosity.

But the immediate success of Ma Cuisine has cause tremendous rivalry between the two halves of the business, a situation unlikely to change when the restaurants close at Christmas for extensive renovation that will be paid for out of Ma Cuisine's profits.

When they re-open, the two kitchens will be side by side. If McClements and Tonks get on as they should then twickenham will have a culinary team approaching the same high standards as the English rugby team nearby.

McClements, 2 Whitton Road, Twickenham, Middlesex, 020-8650 9610. Three course menu £40. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Ma Cuisine, 6, Whitton Road, 020-8607-9849. Three courses £18/19. Closed Sunday.
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