Maeve's Kitchen: curtain up for a casserole-playing exercise

Date:14-11-2013 08:58:17 read:5

Maeve's Kitchen: curtain up for a casserole-playing exercise

An unlikely theatrical/literary/culinary (pie and) mash-up is proving a hit in Clapton

Inspiration: Maeve's Kitchen was set up in honour of novelist Maeve Binchy Photo: Rex Features

Gourmets are perpetually on the look-out for the next exotic ingredient or esoteric location. But a new restaurant exciting the food bloggers and Tweeters has none of the usual foamy, foraged credentials. Inspired by an Irish novelist and created by a South Bank thespian, Maeve’s Kitchen sets out its stall with stew.

The Clapton venue isn’t even remotely cool. It serves the type of one-pot dishes your grandmother made, and has been established in honour of the author Maeve Binchy, famed for her heartwarming yarns about rural life in Ireland. The decoration is homely rather than hip – farmhouse tables, mismatched chairs, gingham napkins and low lighting – and the brown-painted facade barely stands out amid the bookies and laundrettes of Lower Clapton Road.

Yet since opening a fortnight ago the restaurant, which is owned by Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe Theatre, who lives nearby, has overflowed with local diners – so much so that the kitchen has sold out of stew almost every evening.

It’s safe to say that no one would put Maeve Binchy, who died last year aged 72, and this only-just-up-and-coming corner of London together – except Dromgoole. There are strong ties between the two families (rather like a scenario from a Binchy novel): Binchy’s husband Gordon was best friends with Dromgoole’s father Patrick, and she was always considered to be an “extra mother” by Dromgoole and his siblings. “We ate together numerous times: she was a much loved friend,” Dromgoole says. When Binchy died, she left Dromgoole (D) a modest legacy, which he has used to open a restaurant in her memory. “I have no experience, but I think everyone has a restaurant in them,” he says. “Once it gets into your imagination you’re finished. Three hours later you’re designing the napkins.”

Presumably though, Dromgoole, as one of Britain’s most successful theatre directors – he made his name at the Bush Theatre and Oxford Stage Company before moving to the Globe in 2006 – found it easier than most to conceive a successful restaurant? “Theatre and restaurants go well together,” he admits. “In both you’re trying to create a nice environment for people to be in. You’ve got to give your guests a warm welcome and look after them.”

The menu at Maeve’s Kitchen is short, featuring four slow-cooked stews such as duck confit and rabbit stew – to take the pressure out of ordering, according to Dromgoole, who says he is tired out by fine dining. There’s also a special breakfast stew at weekends, with bacon, beans and tomatoes, and an egg baked on top. The stews – and red wine served in glass carafes – were inspired by Binchy, who loved to cook and eat simple, hearty food in her kitchen in Ireland; but they fit right in with the nostalgic, comfort-seeking mood currently embracing the food world.

Dromgoole must also have been aware, when he bought the leasehold of a dingy Nigerian bar and began Farrow and Balling it, that there has never been a better time to open a restaurant in Clapton. East London has become the food connoisseur’s destination of choice, with new suppliers and pop-ups opening all the time. Chatsworth Road market has a shifting line-up of exciting stallholders, and another new, or rather made-over, restaurant, called – by annoying coincidence – Dom’s Place, has recently opened four doors up from Maeve’s Kitchen.

The area is changing, according to Maeve’s Kitchen’s manager, Alexa Montgomery, great granddaughter of the desert hero Montgomery of Alamein, who has lived in Clapton for 12 years. “House prices are going through the roof and new people are moving in.” By this she means the middle classes who over the past 18 months, priced out of nearby Dalston and Hackney, have spilled into the roomy Victorian houses that line the streets near Maeve’s Kitchen.

What would Binchy have made of her East End dining room? She would have loved the buzz, and the tables are certainly close enough together for her to have earwigged on other people’s conversations – Binchy once fell off a chair in a restaurant while trying to “Maevesdrop” — a word invented for her by her colleagues at the Irish Times. “It was her natural writer’s curiosity,” says Dromgoole, who celebrated his 50th birthday at Maeve’s Kitchen last week. “Restaurants are the theatre of life.”

Maeve's Kitchen

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