The baby boom in bistros
Just because a restaurant works well, it does not mean it can reproduce itself. Jim Ainsworth visits two offshoots of successful parents
Saturday 28 January 1995
For nearly eight years John McClements has run a classy dining room, McClements Petit Restaurant, at 12 The Green, Twickenham. Following the example of some very smart chef-patrons across the Channel, who were opening less formal, but-my-goodness-how-fashionable bistros in tandem, he whipped the covers off McClements Bistro about 18 months ago.
"I couldn't afford to move into London," he says, "so I brought modern London cooking to the suburbs". The Bistro, though, is hardly out in the sticks - no more than 20 minutes by rail from Waterloo, plus a 75-yard dash from Twickenham station.
Mr McClements was aiming for popular, inexpensive but high-quality food that would mop up the local trade, filling what experts might call "a gap in the market". Experts on Twickenham will tell you just how big that gap was, which goes some way towards explaining why it took off so well. Another reason is the kind of food that his chef Philip Rickerby cooks: black pudding en croute, stuffed lamb's heart served with lamb's tongue and potato cake, and pig's trotter wrapped in Parma ham and fried.
If offal is the food of the moment, it is not before time. Oxtail is so much tastier than the general run of plain rump steak, and the textures of liver and heart are a pleasant change from lamb chop. "Offal is much more interesting to cook, and so versatile," says Mr McClements. Flavours and a rich stickiness come from slow cooking, and the edible bits can be detached from bones and cartilage and presented in any number of ways, even daintily.
The first thing that arrives on the table at McClements Bistro, along with a basket of first-class, thick-crusted, home-made bread, is a tiny pot of crumbly terrine-like spread made from finely chopped duck gizzard, neck and heart, flavoured with star anise, garlic and bacon, the whole cooked confit-style in duck fat. It is a simple and brilliant way to begin a meal.
Sadly, on the day we went, the pig's head - boned, pot-roasted and served with sliced Savoy cabbage and brown lentils - was not at its best, rather old and tired as if it had been hanging around too long. But there are plenty of other things to chew on, including cassoulet, osso bucco and - for those for whom offal is not an obsession - rump steak with chips, or noisette of lamb. First courses are generally £5 or less, mains £10 or less, and puddings £3.75, with an automatic 10 per cent service charge. Thirty decent wines are mostly under £20.
Modern cooking, of the sort that keeps a versatile chef happy, would be nothing without fish and vegetables, among them a fine Provencal fish soup, served with crispy thin toasts and a pink and garlicky rouille, a well executed salad of briskly seared scallops with minuscule pieces of crunchy bacon, and a vegetable couscous that makes the most of seasonal swede, carrot and turnip, all in tomato sauce, with gentle but persistent spicing from cumin and fresh coriander. Because it is a bistro, it may be tempting to skip pudding, but Mr Rickerby's tarte tatin of pears is exemplary, with delightful pastry, well cooked pear halves and good caramel sauce and custard.
Mr McClements cannot be in two restaurants at once, but he has found somebody who can deliver good food on his behalf. The Bistro works because the man at the stove knows how to cook.
Just before Christmas, Cafe Bruno opened up next door to its parent Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street, London W1, just in time for an opportunistic grab at seasonal passing trade. lt was patched together with a bit of artexing, and plywood around the walls to give it a breathless, temporary feel, and offers a commendably short menu at cafe prices. The gamut runs from French onion soup at £3, all the way up to roast poussin on gratin dauphinois with herb jus at £6.50, with 12.5 per cent service charge added automatically.
Hopes that some of Bruno Loubet's superior cooking skills may have rubbed off on this kitchen, however, are not met. The food lacks vitality, whether in the sauce for sauted chicken livers with penne and chorizo, or the tomato relish with limp and not very recently fried onion rings that accompany grilled mackerel fillets. An opportunity seems to have been lost in the rush to sire an instant winner.
McClements Bistro, 2 Whitton Road, Twickenham TW1 1BJ (0181-744 9610).
Cafe Bruno, 65 Frith Street, London W1V 5TA (0171-439 0606).
Emily Green is on holiday.
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