2011 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Raymond Blanc’s opening of the original Maison Blanc in Oxford. I remember how it attracted national attention with its live-in artisan baker and early morning queues of people eager to buy its freshly baked authentic breads, savouries and patisserie. Then, it was one of the few places outside London where produce of such quality could be found. Its small café, at the end of the long narrow room, was always crowded, with patient customers waiting for a spare table.
Whilst the refurbished Woodstock Road branch still thrives, the intervening years have seen the successful growth of the Maison Blanc group, with 14 branches in south east England. Its central concept of a boulangerie, patisserie and chocolatier, combined with all day casual eating, has proved highly popular with its discerning patrons. Whereas originally the shop was the central part of the business, now the café, with a more extensive menu, is at least equally important. The scale of the operation has increased significantly, with its own bakery in London supplying all its branches.
The most recent one to open, in July 2009, is in Henley -on -Thames. This historic, picturesque town, famed for its annual regatta, is packed with hotels, restaurants, tea rooms, cafes, coffee houses and pubs. Competition is fierce for the custom of local residents, workers, students and tourists.
Located at 1-3 Duke Street, at the major crossroads on the town, it lies at the very heart of the town. Pedestrians, and motorists waiting at the traffic lights, cannot fail to be impressed by its signature italic blue logo, glass fronted walls and attractive displays. In fine weather, the possibility of al fresco eating is another attraction. Inside, a wooden dresser acts as a room divider between counter and café. The dark wooden shelving gives a traditional feel to the shop, whilst the brightly lit tea room has furniture more functional than decorative in design. A spiral staircase leads to the kitchen and extra seating.
Queues regularly form for lunch and afternoon tea, with weekend trade being the heaviest. The menu offers a variety of dishes to suit all pockets and tastes, for all parts of the day. Prices range from £2.99 for toast and marmalade to £12.95 for a sharing platter of various cheeses, hams and French saucisson.
How refreshing to see the humble porridge (with a variety of toppings), and boiled eggs with toast on the nine breakfast items, (although all these are available all day.) A more luxurious alternative is smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which are properly runny and creamy.
Two salads are offered on the autumn/winter menu. One featured lightly smoked salmon paired with (thankfully not over- cooked) crayfish, avocado and mixed leaves. French dressing and crème fraiche with dill are well made and served separately in little pots.
Seven types of sandwich and three baguettes are listed. The warm brioche used to make the chicken club sandwich was excellent in its buttery sweetness, although the chicken was hardly noticeable amongst the other strong flavours of Comte cheese, pancetta and hard boiled egg. Nevertheless, as a composite light lunch, it was first rate.
Nine warm items “From the Oven” include the best selling spinach and goat’s cheese quiche, the generous filling of which did full justice to the rich, crisp pastry. However, a croissant of porcini mushroom and bechamel sauce failed to deliver on taste (too bland) and texture – it had become rather soggy.
More successful were the “Hot Bowls.” Deeply flavoured French onion soup was a popular choice on the day we visited. We also tried the Cassoulet, aware that there are many variations of this classic dish from southern France. The Maison Blanc version has a good balance of white beans, garlic sausage, lardons and shredded duck confit. Unashamedly rich with a gratinated top, and served with bread, is proved a highly comforting main course.
To drink, well chosen wines, two white – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – and two red wines – Cabernet Sauvignon and Rioja – are available by the glass or half bottle. Piper Heidsieck Champagne and 1644 Kronenbourg lager are also on offer, whilst the hot beverage and cold drinks selections are extensive. It is worth pointing out that coffees and teas, just as good as the up market coffee chain opposite, are available to take away.
Afternoon tea is offered in the English version, with scone, strawberry jam and clotted cream or the Maison Blanc version with five dainty pastries: the lemon meringue pie, apricot almondine, mini chocolate eclair and raspberry millefeuille were all deliciously indulgent and well executed. However, there was an intruder – a chocolate brownie. Why this stodgy American apology for a cake was served alongside French patisserie has yet to be explained. What a shame, also, that tea bags were used. The wide variety of teas, and the whole tea room experience, would certainly be enhanced by serving leaf tea.
Five continental pastries and seventeen different patisserie are available to eat in or take out. The range of patisserie features a seasonal new creation by Raymond Blanc, a delicious a pear frangipan with crumble topping. For chocolate lovers, Concerto features sponge biscuit, chocolate mousse with a crisp centre of feuillantine and praline all encased in chocolate fondant. Although light, it is extremely rich, so a smaller size might be preferable. Eclairs, whether chocolate, coffee or vanilla featured crisp choux pastry and generous, fillings of well flavoured crème patissiere.
Tarte au citron and Plum and Date tart benefitted from outstanding pate sucree. Cheesecake came in the sophisticated form of St Michel aux fruits rouges, with fromage blanc and a mixed berry centre. Strangely enough, the mille feuille did not reach the same high standards of the other patisserie, its pate feuilletee lacking the rich crispness one might expect, whilst the crème patissiere was too thick and needed more vanilla.
Two best selling loaves were sampled. Campaillou, had a sour dough flavour with an open, irregular texture. Its rustic looking crust is crisp and not as hard as Pain Poilane. In contrast, the zepplin shaped Colombier was densely textured, moist and dark with a nutty flavour given by linseeds and sunflower seeds. Both were prime examples of well crafted, artisan breads.
Emily, the cheerful and engaging manager of the Henley branch, heads a young front of house team which copes well at busy, peak pressure times. Happy in her role, she is proud of the success of the Henley branch. That it is constantly busy is a testament to its popularity. Indeed, the winning formula of all day eating, flexible menu, reasonably priced and well cooked food, along with top notch bread and patisserie to take away, is hard to beat, as local competitors are finding to their cost. Maison Blanc has definitely impressed its mark on this prosperous Oxfordshire town.