Aah, it's good to be back in the cosily-upholstered comfort of the magazine. There may be more legroom over in the Review section, but it's nice to have a bit of colour. It's been over four years since I wrote my debut review for this newspaper, of a new Moroccan place in London called Momo. I remember the friends who came with me getting really excited: "Moroccan – wow! That's different." This week I told my guests we were going to a new restaurant specialising in regional French cooking and got much the same reaction: "French – wow! That's different." Once it was just about the only foreign cuisine in Britain, but traditional bistro-style French food has largely fallen out of fashion, outshone by ethnic newcomers and the River Cafe-inspired enthusiasm for rustic, peasanty Italian cooking.
Sam Clark, who is cooking at Maquis, is part of the River Cafe diaspora – he and his wife worked there before they struck out on their own with the highly successful Moro. Their choice of location last time was unerring; Clerkenwell has become one of the capital's hottest neighbourhoods since Moro opened. That doesn't seem likely to happen with this latest venture; Hammersmith Grove is an unlovely rat-run through the featureless bedsitterland between Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith.
Maquis occupies a corner site at one end of a shopping parade. It's a large cube of a room, sparingly decorated in minimalist style, with discreet French references in the bentwood bistro furniture, fleur-de-lis paint stencils and vintage crystal chandeliers. The effect is far from flamboyant, but at least the designer has attempted to use materials other than brown wood veneer.
The menu, too, takes French tradition, strips it down and updates it. Written in plain English wherever possible, it offers some brasserie classics (a salad of pear, Roquefort, chicory and walnut, for example) but more often gives them an unexpected twist: grilled chicken is served with dandelion and potato salad, and the soup of the day isn't French onion, but chervil, lemon and potato. There's a note of modish retro-camp to the cheese fondue made with aged Gruyère, which imbues the room with a distinctly gaggy smell.
As a bonding exercise, my two guests and I decided to share a starter-size fondue, which came with small squares of sourdough toast for dipping. We could only give thanks that we weren't on a date, as long strands of coagulated cheese trailed from our chins down to the bubbling fondue dish until we were guy-roped to the table like Gulliver at the hands of the Lilliputians. The richness of the Gruyère was spiked with cider in a gorgeous, silky mix, but there was something rather poignant about bedsit-dwelling locals foregoing their usual supper of cheese on toast to pay £12.50 to eat cheese and toast in a restaurant. An additional starter of snails braised with tarragon, walnuts and crème fraîche was a complex treat; the kind of robust, full-flavoured cooking you'd expect from the people behind Moro.
Main courses proved equally satisfying; roast rack of lamb was notably tender and served with a richly autumnal gratin of pumpkin and salsify. Petit salé – salted belly of pork – was pitched perfectly between savoury and over-salty, its fattiness balanced by lightly cooked cabbage, Puy lentils finished with cream, and a mouth-puckering grain mustard. Fillets of Dover sole were generously accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms and prawns in a cider sauce. "This is great – sauce with everything. Good old France!" rejoiced one of my friends as she cleaned her plate with the last piece of bread.
Belatedly remembering our duty to our buns of steel, after each starting with half a pound of melted cheese, we went easy on the dessert list. This didn't prove too difficult, as the selection is largely fruit-based and virtuous. Baked figs, served cold, weren't nearly sweet enough; oeufs à la neige were zigzagged with caramel, the only cheffy touch in a commendably untitivated meal.
It's a mark of Sam Clark's reputation – not to mention the lack of good restaurants in the area – that customers were still arriving at 11pm to pack the place out just a few days after its official opening. Service is currently a little bumpy – the waiting staff have a remarkable ability to disappear when the pressure is on – but that is doubtless due to first-week jitters. With starters at £5 and under and main courses at £10 to £13, prices are appropriate for a neighbourhood restaurant. The locals will have even more reason to celebrate when Maquis' deli opens next door. As one of my companions concluded, "If they carry on like this, French food might just catch on."
Maquis, 111 Hammersmith Grove, London W6 (020-8846 3851)Reuse content