La Brasserie Ma Cuisine Bourgeoise, Twickenham, Middlesex
La Brasserie may be clichéd, but Terry Durack just can't resist a well-risen soufflé
Sunday 23 April 2006
Henry Harris did it, the Galvin Brothers did it, and now Twickenham's favourite chef, John McClements, is doing it: giving up the airs and graces of contemporary fine dining and going back to the simple pleasures of French bourgeois cooking. What was once the Michelin-starred McClements is now the rather fulsomely titled La Brasserie Ma Cuisine Bourgeoise, which suggests a nudge of refinement and individuality that would better suit the middle-class gourmand than its simpler, pared-down, next-door sibling, Ma Cuisine Le Petit Bistrot.
What calls these talented chefs away from the mirepoix and the millefeuille towards the pâté de maison and mousse au chocolat? Is it the lure of the bubbling pots, the steaming pork knuckles, the honest-Jean labour ethic? It's the money, actually.
They do it because they know we love the bistro and the brasserie, that we are sitting ducks for a good confit. We flock like lemmings to the generosity, familiarity, hospitality and conviviality; to the chatter, the buzz, the carafes of red wine, the charcuterie, the baguettes, the frites and the fromages. You can call it clichéd, call it easy, call it unimaginative and call it nostalgic as much as you like. We will just call it for a table.
McClements has done everything possible to press all our brasserie buttons. There are thick-accented French waiters in long aprons carrying giant, white soup terrines down the long, low room, curvaceous art nouveau motifs framing the front windows and the décor-shop wall mirrors, and a well-endowed cheese trolley on guard at the bar. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin whisper their way through a chanson or two, and Edith Piaf is very soon, inevitably, regretting nothing.
Nor am I, faced with a menu that is a right little stroll down L'Avenue de la Mémoire, with its "timeless classics" (I may as well deal in clichés myself here) such as coquilles St Jacques Provençale, assiette de charcuterie, cassoulet of frog's legs and snails, steak tartare, lobster pot au feu, and côte de boeuf with sauce Béarnaise. There are rare treats too, such as chicken en vessie (cooked in a pouch, traditionally a pig's bladder), which shows a chef who refuses to dumb down.
The meal kicks off in traditional style with a basket of freshly cut baguette and fruit bread, and bite-sized gougère-like cheese profiteroles. Most of the fiftysomething crowd begin with a flute of kir royale as if following a well-worn script.
Then it is straight to the Big White Tureen, which tonight holds a thick, bisque-like Mediterranean fish soup laced with crab (£7.50). The waiter ladles out a generous bowlful and assures me that he will be back with les seconds. He leaves small bowls of rouille (spicy mayonnaise), grated cheese for spreading on little toasts, and some terrific pickled garlic cloves for nibbling on between spoonfuls. The soup is full-bodied and long-flavoured. There is no way you could knock back an offer of more.
An artichoke and truffle salad (£5.50) is a simple enough idea with its mix of watercress, asparagus, new potatoes, little black coins of truffle and marinated artichoke hearts, lightly scattered with a good, creamy dressing. The weakest link is the artichoke, which is cold and sharply pickled.
For a fish dish, the John Dory with stuffed cabbage (£17.50) is quite meaty, with its full-on red wine jus and accompanying choux farci, a plug of three cuts of pork wrapped in cabbage leaves. It has no trouble handling a 2003 Père et Fils Givry (£34), an uncomplicated, easy-going all-rounder of a Burgundy. The thick fingerlings of white flesh rest on a fresh, aniseedy bed of grilled fennel.
When I order something like tête du porc (£15), I always hope to see just half a pig's head, from ears to snout, on the plate. But that would be too working class for the bourgeoisie. This is a less graphic affair of a good, solid chunk of pork cheek with a small orb of crisply cooked brain perched, appropriately, on top. Flavours are big, solid and worthwhile, ably assisted by a character-laden jus, and dark, gooey, caramelised onion. Savoury shredded cabbage and a smooth pomme purée almost steal the show.
After that, the script calls for a soufflé. One of rhubarb (£7) is classic, golden and well-risen. The tang of the rhubarb itself is missing, however, and only sweetness is left. With the hand-written bill comes a proffered basket of the most divine little caramelised pastries called cannelles that are, as Michelin would have it, worth a detour on their own.
Ma Cuisine Etc, is professional, generous, well-priced, and does just enough to keep alive the flame we burn in our hearts and stomachs for the bistro and brasserie. At one point, the chef emerges from the kitchen to see that every one of his tables is full and every one of his waiters is either serving soup, pouring wine or carving tableside chickens. I bet he's thanking his lucky stars he doesn't have a Michelin star any more. Je ne regrette rien, indeed.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
La Brasserie Ma Cuisine Bourgeoise, 2 Whitton Road, Twickenham, Middlesex, tel: 020 8744 9598
Lunch and dinner served Monday to Saturday. Dinner around £95 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More bourgeois boltholes
88 Commercial Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 553 5933 This popular French bistro is one of the true stalwarts of the Leith dining scene, with its moules marinières, cassoulet and salade Lyonnaise. Daniel Vencker's Alsatian origins show in the signature tarte flambée (onion and bacon tart) and Alsatian pork knuckle.
105 Western Road, Brighton, tel: 01273 722 556 This Brighton bastion of all things Française is very near the border with Hove. Expect a good range of fresh fish dishes, as well as classics such as duck confit with onion confiture, and côte de boeuf with Béarnaise sauce.
239 Brompton Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 4477 It is now hard to imagine Brompton Road without Henry Harris's chic but cosy bistro. Service is diner-friendly and Gallic, as is the menu, running from soupe de poisson to steak tartare, cassoulet, grilled chicken with white beans and rabbit in a mustard sauce.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.org
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