William Drabble's Aubergine restaurant is set to open a sister site in Marlow, pitching the surrounding area into the gastronomic big time. There's a growing collection of high-level places to eat in the Buckinghamshire market town, so has Marlow become the new Ludlow? Tom Vaughan looks at the evidence
Maybe there's something in the water at Marlow, aside from nose-bleed-expensive motorboats. TS Eliot wrote some of his poems here, Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein and Jerome K Jerome compiled Three Men in a Boat in the small Buckinghamshire town.
Now chefs are gathering where once poets and authors mingled. Michael McDonald is turning out highly commended modern British cuisine at his Vanilla Pod restaurant. There's the Two Brewers gastropub garnering plaudits, and in Tom Kerridge from the Hand & Flowers and Adam Simmonds at Danesfield House, Marlow has two of the brightest talents to emerge from the UK restaurant scene over the past few years.
And the fact that restaurant company London Fine Dining's first foray outside the capital is to open a branch of Michelin-starred Fulham eaterie Aubergine in Macdonald Hotels' the Compleat Angler is a sign indeed that Marlow is on the up. Aubergine is part of London Fine Dining, formerly known as A-Z Restaurants, which also owns fine-dining venues L'Oranger and Zafferano in London. Its long-standing head chef William Drabble, the man who took over from Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine, will oversee Fulham sous chef Miles Nixon in heading up the Marlow kitchen.
"It's a new challenge - we'll be able to look at things from a slightly different perspective," says Drabble. "It's a fantastic location and an affluent area. Some might see Marlow as tough with all the competition there, but London's tough. I've got Gordon Ramsay round the corner. We're just going to go in there and do our thing," he adds.
Ambitiously, the menu will be similar to the south-west London restaurant "in order to draw brand loyalty from London customers", according to David Herbert, marketing and operations director for London Fine Dining. A mix of local and Chelsea suppliers will be used for the new venture, set to open in October. "Maybe a bit of the countryside will come to London and a little bit of London will go to Marlow," adds Drabble.
There'll be a new look too: sandstone-effect walls and green panelling, with aubergine colouring to tie in with the name. It's being done by designer Mary Morrison, and the reworking will prompt a redesign at the first Aubergine in Fulham along a similar style, with more modern touches. Surely Marlow is the new Ludlow, the place that attracts daytrippers and overnight stayers alike for its food?
Part of the pull is the way Marlow looks. Perched on the Thames's slow crawl through rural Buckinghamshire, the town is chock-full of quaint country townhouses and boutique, treasure-laden shops. It's not hard to see the allure of the Compleat Angler restaurant site either, edging the tumbling weir under the Victorian suspension bridge.
Herbert says his company jumped at the chance to fill a restaurant vacated by Dean Timpson, who held a joint venture with Macdonald Hotels on the site. "Marlow has the right demographic of people who have the money for eating out," he says. "The Compleat Angler has always been attractive to city types for meetings. The right clientele are already aware of the site. If you're going to put a luxury brand into an area, that location needs to be able to support it. It needs to be a place that the London demographic can travel to easily and the London demographic will want to travel to. There aren't many towns just outside of London that have both of those things, but Marlow does."
Brian Miller, general manager at Danesfield House hotel, says the area around Marlow is "very much inhabited by people who use and work in London, people who live in and work around Chelsea, Fulham, Victoria, St James's. This is where London Fine Dining's brand recognition is strongest".
But it's not just about people from London. The town was named the 11th richest in the UK by the Daily Telegraph this year, and there are foodies aplenty in the surrounding area. Foodies, a monthly glossy magazine, is published in the Thames Valley area with a circulation of 10,000. "The foodie market in Marlow has not been created," says Miller. "It's merely been recognised by some astute people."
Macdonald's Vanilla Pod opened in Marlow six years ago and has built a solid reputation, but it was really when Tom and Beth Kerridge's Hand & Flowers pub opened in 2005 that people's attention began to be drawn. Within a year the site earned Marlow its first Michelin star, and shortly after that Kerridge was joined in the town by Simmonds, who moved from Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth, Powys, where he had himself gained a star, to head up Danesfield House's Oak Room restaurant.
Tom Kerridge claims a large part of Marlow's appeal was the lifestyle. "We were looking for a site for about a year, predominantly in north London, before we found the Hand & Flowers," he says. "The town has a lot in common with those cool areas of London. It's full of hairdressers and nice coffee shops and nice bars, it's got a great feel to it. And on your days off, in the summertime, there's cricket being played in the park, rowing on the river. It's just a great town to be in."
Working alongside and building up a rapport with neighbouring chefs is the appeal for Simmonds. "I was isolated in Wales," he says. "There were no other chefs to talk to and meet up with. Now in Marlow there's Tom, who has a star, Aubergine, which I'm sure will be pushing for one, and us. We're really pushing for a star, and to have three in such close proximity would be fantastic."
As Claude Bosi, chef-patron of Hibiscus, which moved to London from Ludlow last year, explains, the attraction of the Shropshire town in its heyday was the choice on offer. "All the restaurants in Ludlow would work together, there was no competition," he recalls. "Everybody was doing his own thing and that was one of the reasons why it was so popular you could come for three days and have three different Michelin-starred meals."
In Hibiscus, Shaun Hill's Merchant House and Mr Underhill's, Chris Bradley's restaurant with rooms, the town had an eclectic mix of cuisines capable of drawing sustained interest from visitors. However, after holding a total of four Michelin stars spread out among the three restaurants in 2004 and 2005, Ludlow has since fallen away. Shaun Hill left Merchant House, taking a break from the stove before buying the Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny earlier this year, while the Bosis felt they needed a new challenge amid the bustle of London.
So the downside of being a foodie venue is that it doesn't necessarily last. Could Marlow eventually follow the same fate as Ludlow? The main problem in Ludlow, according to Bosi, was "seasonal fluctuations: four months of the year were truly busy for the restaurant". Supplies are so much better in London too. "I can get scallops three times a day in London," says Bosi. "In Ludlow, if I didn't order them before noon the previous day I wouldn't have them for the next morning. It was also harder to keep staff in Ludlow. After service there was so little to do that the motivation to want to work with us had to be very strong."
With its proximity to London, Marlow may well negate these issues. Seasonality is less of a concern as it doesn't rely so much on weekend-breakers. "Marlow isn't proper countryside like Ludlow is," says Bosi. "It's not even a day trip - it's an afternoon trip location." Miller says the catchment area in Marlow is far bigger than in Ludlow. "We know from our own market research who uses our restaurant and the demographic is extensive. Maidenhead, for example, is an enormous town, and there's no Maidenhead on the doorstep of Ludlow."
But while Marlow may not be pure countryside, in Bosi's words it's still not London. Aiden Byrne was head chef at Danesfield House for a year before Simmonds's arrival, and admits he welcomed a return to the capital with open arms. "A lot of people would give their right arm to have a site there. It's an affluent place and the likes of Tom and Beth [Kerridge] would be mad to return to London for what they've got in Marlow," he says. "But a lot of it is down to the personality of the chef. I'll always be a city boy myself."
For now, Marlow looks here to stay, with an array of chefs drawing in diners from London and the Thames Valley. And when those Michelin stars arrive, the up-and-coming talent in the kitchen will start pulling in people from the rest of the country too.
London fine dining group has plans to expand
After former head chef Dean Timpson moved on from his joint-venture restaurant with Macdonald Hotels at the Compleat Angler, the hotel brought in an outside party. "Our goal was a fine-dining restaurant, and sometimes you need outside help to make you better," says Alan Swinson, catering director at Macdonald Hotels.
The opportunity fitted with London Fine Dining's expansion, and this company has leased the site to open a branch of Aubergine in what it hopes will be a miniature roll-out of its London restaurants. "We've felt for a long time that we should take the strength of our restaurant brands and replicate them elsewhere," says marketing and operations director David Herbert.
The company's other restaurants - Alloro, L'Oranger, Zafferano and Memories of China - are intended now for replication outside London. There's already a second Memories of China planned for Bahrain, and Edinburgh and Manchester are down for potential openings too.
Other up-and-coming hot spots
The South Coast is a Mecca for operators seeking to expand out of London, but while Brighton and Bournemouth have drawn in many new entrants, this small town near Camber Sands could be about to hit the big time, foodie-wise. The George in Rye, a former Tudor coaching inn, has been given new life by former management consultant Alex Clarke and his designer wife Katie. There's also the new Landgate Bistro owned by Nilla and Martin Peacock, plus Webbe's at the Fish Café, a highly rated fish restaurant nearby. Watch out for more on a fishy theme.
Cardiff has gained all the recent plaudits, but this more remotely situated South Wales metropolis is on the up, with people drawn by the Gower peninsula and sweeping sands to the west, plus Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones's holiday home in the suburbs. Andrew Hanson, who formerly ran an eating spot on the marina in town, has opened Hansons at the Chelsea restaurant, while Bartrams at 698 has launched in the tree-lined Mumbles region. These add to the French-style cooking at Didier & Stephanie, as well as the Restaurant@Pilot House Wharf.
A trip into the Trossachs National Park requires a car, but the cluster of worthy restaurants dotted around the lochs make it a growing destination for gastronomes. Tom Lewis at Monachyle Mhor and Pete Gottgens at Ardeonaig are cooking to a high level in their respective hotels, perched on the side of lochs 20 miles apart. Lewis's recently opened fish shop and restaurant in nearby Callander won the newcomer award at this year's Observer Food Monthly Awards too, while the Inn at Kippen has built up a sizeable local following.