EATING OUT / Double vision with corkage: Le Petit Max

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The Independent Culture
97a High Street, Vicarage Road, Hampton Wick, Kingston, Surrey KT1 5DG,

tel: 081-977 0236. Open Tuesday to Sunday for dinner, Sunday lunch from 3.30pm. Set menu

pounds 23.50. Bring your own drink, corkage pounds 2 per bottle. No credit cards accepted.

THERE was a moment, having dinner with my attractive scene-painting stepdaughter at Le Petit Max, when I thought I was having hallucinations. She had been painting a Botticelli-

style Venus all day and was still spattered with grains of silver leaf, and it was already a slightly surreal evening anyway.

We had driven there under a purple sky, past Marble Hill and Pope's Grotto on the Thames at Twickenham, and found the restaurant up a

little turning by the railway bridge opposite Hampton Wick station. It appeared to be called Bonzo's and was next to an off-licence.

As we got there it began to rain cats and dogs, lightning flickered across the sky, the thunder alternating with the rumble of the trains high above us on the railway embankment. I was watching Little Max (who was serving), a plump, cheery man in a white chef's outfit and a pony-

tail, apparently examining his reflection in a mirror by the serving hatch. Then his reflection reached out and took a plate from him.

It turned out to be his identical twin brother, Marc. I asked him whether that was a French name, and Max said no, he thought he'd changed it from Mark when he was at school because it sounded sexier to girls. Max drops the occasional French phrase, and he has exactly the confident down-to-earth performance style of a good French proprietor.

The brothers started the restaurant there two years ago - the daily hand-written menu has an illustration of the twins under a fanciful medieval fireplace engraved depuis 1992 - in what had been an old-fashioned caff in very unpromising surroundings. They have made such a success of it that they have now opened Chez Max in Ifield Road, Chelsea, as well.

There are four starters, four main courses and four puddings, and you have to buy wine from the off-licence next door. As it was raining hard by now, I sent my stepdaughter round

to get a bottle of reliable Jacob's Creek, and she came back soaked but chuckling. The man behind the counter had apologised, saying that they 'couldn't get hold of it'. She had immediately spied and pointed to a bottle on the shelf just beside his head, and he had been covered with confusion.

Pencil poised, Max outlined the starters: an assiette Provencale; rillettes; a soup that sounded like gazpacho; or a tartare of smoked salmon, wild salmon and brill. For the main course there was chicken - volaille de Bresse croustillante - with a cep and white truffle sauce; roast salmon; chargrilled cote de boeuf with a pepper sauce; or fillet of sea bass with scallops. My stepdaughter ordered the assiette Provencale and the chicken, and I asked for the tartare of salmon followed by the cote de boeuf: it was meant to be for two people, but Little Max generously bent the rules and made it for one.

The tables in Le Petit Max are covered with proper French paper tablecloths and are very close together, and I was aware of the solitary bachelor on my left writhing in some discomfort as my stepdaughter, with whom I would be helplessly in love had I half the guts of Woody Allen, began to describe intimate scenes in the ladies' changing room at the club where she goes to swim before work.

Bonzo's, the old greasy-spoon caff, has been scraped down to the appearance of bare grey stone walls, hung with serious-looking culinary diplomas, and the clientele is divided between solidly respectable Thames-side folk, who could be in chartered accountancy, and ravers. Among the latter I gleefully identified four crazy gays

in leather waistcoats and baseball caps, only to be put in my place when four manifestly heterosexual girls arrived in the next car dripping

wet, stripped down to practically nothing, and turned out to be the other half of a perfectly straight party.

By this time my stepdaughter's Provencale plate had arrived, with all kinds of delicately flavoured baby artichokes, delicious unpasteurised goat's cheese spread on toast, peppers in olive oil, fresh egg mayonnaise and leeks vinaigrette, all of which she insisted on sharing, and I got a little round compression of indescribably good smoked salmon, chopped up small with equally tiny bits of other fish, in a pale yellow sauce of sweet mustard and dill, which was as good as it sounds. My stepdaughter ate some of it, but not enough.

Before the next course Little Max, or possibly Little Marc, sidled up to the table and gave us each a taster of the sea bass and a scallop, served in another Oscar-winning sauce, after which my stepdaughter said she couldn't possibly eat any more and started laughing.

Nevertheless I forced her to eat the chicken, which she admitted was very good, while I ate slice after rose-red slice of rare beef and felt the seams of my Marks & Spencer summer casuals begin to split like sails in a typhoon.

Meanwhile the social tone had risen with the arrival of a tall, lean and rather self-consciously good-looking advertising executive of about 45 with an adoring companion I suspected might not be his wife. If he was trying to seduce her he was hammering on a door that had long since come off its hinges, but he devoted a great deal of ice-cool technique to selling her a sailing holiday, ending on the clincher 'Would you find that moderately entertaining?'

We finished with raspberries and cream and tarte tatin. Even if I hadn't been so full, I think I would have found the pastry of the tart a bit heavy. Others around us enjoyed creme brulee and pot au chocolat. I had a cup of coffee, and with mineral water, corkage and service, the bill came to pounds 60.15 plus pounds 4.59 for the wine.

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