Fine-dining-guide was pleased to revisit Maison Blanc in Henley to sample the new Spring and Summer menu. This branch of the fourteen strong, up market chain is, after Oxford and Winchester, the third largest in terms of business, butprobably the most spacious in terms of accommodation, benefiting from outside tables and an upstairs extension. Given the expansion of this Thames side town, along with major attractions such as the famous Regatta, the Arts, Food and Literary festivals, the future success of the Henley branch seems assured.
The Maison Blanc concept, combining a classical boulangerie and patisserie with all day casual eating – breakfast, continental pastries, dishes from the oven, sandwiches, soups and salads and afternoon tea – has proved highly successful since its inception in 1981. But “up market” does not have to mean expensive. Indeed, one is struck by the value for money offered on the menu: ingredients are top notch and servings are very generous indeed. It is quite possible to enjoy a substantial meal and drink for around £10, especially if the large single portions are shared or the sharing platter is ordered.
The Spring and Summer menu dispenses with the slow cooked oven dishes – which included a delicious cassoulet – of the winter menu, and introduces new salads, ice cream and sorbets and a selection of new patisserie.
A salad of prosciutto, mozzarella, fig, pomegranate, avocado and mixed leaves was a best seller. This was not surprising given its utterly fresh combination of ingredients – a perfect taste of summer! Personally, I thought the leaves could be improved by a little seasoning beforehand. Nevertheless, the honey and mustard dressing, served in a separate jug, was a highly suitable, being not too powerful, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Equally enticing amongst the four salads on the menu were those with Moroccan chicken or smoked salmon and avocado.
The best of the seven items from the oven proved to be the classic Croque Monsieur, each component of which was top quality and properly rendered. The pain de mie, ideal for tasting, was topped with tasty ham, generously enveloped in a well seasoned béchamel and finished under the grill with grated Emmental. This Swiss cheese retained a gentle piquancy in its golden crust.
A warm tart of light, crisp puff pastry, lined with melted cheese was spoilt by the disappointing quality of the main ingredient – roast asparagus. The sprue stalks were overcooked, stringy and difficult to cut or bite off.
Of the eleven sandwich items, Salt beef ciabatta was another new best seller, being available with white or brown (cereal) bread. The beef was properly cured, being supple, tender and flavoursome. The horseradish cream had a moderate kick which did not overwhelm the beef. The oversize wedge could happily be shared between two hungry diners.
For dessert, French Maison Blanc ice creams – vanilla or chocolate ganache – and organic raspberry sorbet made a welcome appearance, and were available separately or as a side serving with patisserie. The sorbet had great purity of fruit flavour, with a rustic texture suitably reflecting its artisan method of production. Crème Brulee, a popular favourite, is now also on the dessert list.
No visit to Maison Blanc would be complete without trying at least one of the delectable range of patisserie, the supreme quality of which has come to define the brand. On the list of sixteen, ranging from éclairs and mille feuilles to classic tart au citron, are four new items including Summer Fig Daquoise and Raspberry Cheesecake. A delicate construction of syrup soaked Genoise sponge, white chocolate pannacotta and elderflower jelly filled with wild strawberry and pomegranate, was the most exciting of the new range. However, the new style Strawberry tart with crisp chocolate pate sucree was let down by tired looking strawberries and inadequate fruit glaze.
Much better was the ever popular Fraisier, comprising light vanilla sponge, delicate mousseline cream and fresh strawberries. Instead of the ubiquitous thick green marzipan found elsewhere, a thin white chocolate glaze completed this exquisite dessert, and was all the better for it.
The cup cake and macaroon revolutions have not escaped the Maison Blanc brand with a variety of flavours on offer. More interesting was the new pastry of the month, a beehive shaped polenta chocolate and honey cake which was much lighter and less rich than it looked.
If not taking out a pastry or savoury item, then artisan bread would be a good alternative. The Brioche loaf, the basis for the excellent club and new chocolate, sandwiches, was irreproachable in its buttery richness. Equally accomplished was the sweet, glazed and braided Challah loaf,
Overall, the Henley branch continues to thrive, enticing its customers with a well judged price structure, and an embarrassment of choice from the wide range of sweet and savoury items. Competition in the town is fierce, and is likely to be even stronger given the imminent arrival of another top end, all day casual eating restaurant and patisserie.
Nevertheless, the strength of the Maison Blanc brand, the efficient service, and, above all, the sheer quality of the product, will enable it to hold its own comfortably.