Eating in Twickenham
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
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
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
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.