To make the evening properly sporting, the owners had booked in a large group - always more difficult to feed than small ones. This one included a top chef, a food critic, a famous master of wine and - in person and in polka dots - Delia Smith. A fair number of smaller tables had also been reserved, including mine for two.
This sort of situation can drive chefs to drink. Yet the mood in the dining- room was dreamily convivial and the food was wonderful. It generally is where the men behind Chez Max are concerned. They are the identical twins Max and Marc Renzland.
Max is host, Marc is chef. At the beginning of service, several newly employed waiting staff were still not quite sure which twin was which. As a rule of thumb, Max is likely to be the dapper one, most recently seen in a Ralph Lauren shirt and tie with a pussycat pattern; Marc is the rather portly one in the kitchen whites labelled 'chef'.
They sound alike: both share a tendency to lapse into phoney French accents. Given that they are from Essex, this sounds ridiculous. What saves it from pure idiocy is the intensity of their Francophilia. They gaze adoringly across the Channel. And it follows most beguilingly that their restaurants look, and even smell, French. (Downstairs someone was smoking Gitanes.)
The walls have been painted a marvellous, very continental shade of green, and there are covetable Fifties French ashtrays, soft lamplighting and fluttering white muslin curtains. All
it lacks is a thick-lipped Jean-Paul Belmondo and a Simone Signoret only slightly gone to seed.
The food, too, is amazingly authentic - that is to say, rich. Moreover, there is a lot of it in a three-course, fixed-price menu for pounds 19.50.
Somehow, in five years of regular visits to the twins' various restaurants, I have never eaten fewer than five courses at a sitting. Last Sunday, our pre-starter was quite the best imam bayildi in London. (The cumin in this aubergine salad was perfectly judged.)
Of starters proper, an oxtail soup was so rich it was more like a jus, with a three-inch segment of bone, full of its creamy marrow, in the centre of the plate. A creamy crab bisque was built on a perfect fish stock, and studded with more than a dozen mussels.
Main courses were flawless. Brill served with brown shrimp and a veloute sauce was one of the freshest, most perfect fish dishes to be found this side of the Channel.
A fillet of properly hung and lightly grilled Aberdeen Angus beef came with garlicky gratin dauphinois, and spinach cooked and seasoned with an exact touch. To the side, in a small ramekin, sat bearnaise sauce, with just the right amount of tarragon.
One could quibble, if inclined, with the lemon tart: too citric, slightly overcooked. The cream tart was also overcooked, but tasted great. The creme brulee, however, was the best I have eaten anywhere, including France. And the pot au chocolat, made with excellent chocolate, was intense. The fizzy water was, of course, Perrier, but the cafetiere coffee was English style: weak with a sweetly rancid aftertaste.
Vegetarians, please note: request special meals when you book, and you can expect to eat wonderfully. Fish eaters should not misdefine themselves as vegetarian: this is one of the few new- fangled absurdities that may actually irritate these very nice men.
Though customers are welcome to bring their own wines (corkage fee, pounds 3.50), there is a short wine list. The Medoc we chose, a 1990 St Estephe Chateau Lilian Ladouys, was just ready to drink, opening up elegantly from hard and eucalyptic to round and subtly spicy.
Until this restaurant becomes well established, it could be tricky for it to list a fuller selection of wines. At least one leading merchant is still fuming about the spectacular failure of the Renzland brothers' first restaurant, also called Chez Max, in Kew. It was abruptly shut by HM Customs several years ago for VAT arrears, and wines, fixtures and fittings were seized.
Those who loved that first restaurant still feel the loss. The experience, however, may have knocked some business sense into the brothers.
During the wilderness years, they jobbed their way through enough highly commercial restaurants to spot where they went wrong - and right. Most remarkably, they retain the moonstruck passion of amateurs.
To pay off debts and rally their spirits, they struck a deal with a caff called Bonzo's in suburban Hampton Wick, Surrey. The terms: they would take it over by night, shaking out gingham for a quick change into an unlicensed bistro called Le Petit Max.
It is now a little gem. For all sorts of reasons, mainly space and credit, Le Petit Max is unlicensed. Customers bring their own bottles.
The twins plan to maintain both restaurants. A loyal and talented kitchen staff, and Graham Thomson, a calming and professional third partner, should make this feasible.
Chez Max, 168 Ifield Road, London SW10 9AF (071-835 0874). Three courses pounds 19.50. Wines from pounds 9.50- pounds 26.50; corkage pounds 3.50. Open nightly for dinner, daily for lunch from 16 May. Cash and cheques.
Le Petit Max, 97a High Street, Hampton Wick, Surrey (081-977 0236). Three courses pounds 19.50. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Sunday. Cash and cheques. Unlicensed; corkage pounds 2.
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