Paris in Piccadilly

Paris in Piccadilly. Wonderful sandwiches, shame about the fuchsia pink surroundings. Nellie Nichols visits the new flagship of Maison Blanc.

I need convincing there’s a need for yet another new sandwich concept in the main stretch to Leicester Square. The cartel is well established here, endless Prets and Starbucks, not to mention Costa and Coffee Republic, all vying for trade along with the extensive list of restaurants and hotels.

This is the street of ridiculously high rents and the stakes are high. In the bravest location, right opposite Pret and a stone’s throw from Eros, Maison Blanc have opened the flagship store of their new concept Maison Vite and a low key start this certainly isn’t. I am overwhelmed by the brightest of Fuchsia pinks. It’s very unclear as to whether I’ve walked into the poshest of French cake shops or the smartest of newly opened Mayfair hairdressing salons.

The ceiling is twinkling like a Christmas tree with miniature lights and electric pink is everywhere. Tall (and I thought extremely uncomfortable) wobbly wooden stools tuck under the very high black marble bar style tables. Along one side of the shop the fridges are each clad in a pink surround to look like furniture, but hide the food within unless you are looking straight into them. They remind me of those fake library shelves with pretend book spines.

I’m told that there is no stainless steel to be seen. Is this why it looks more like a nail parlour than a sandwich shop? There is a long walk up to the counter but it’s not until I get there do I realise there is a coffee machine. It’s too tucked away and I can’t smell coffee, I would change this tomorrow. When I heard about this venture I had visions of delicious coffee and pastries baked before my eyes. Mountains of Pain au Chocolat, All Butter Croissants, Pain au Raisins all piled to the ceiling made by the most authentic in the field.

There are no part-baked products on offer here as are so commonly found in the market masquerading as fresh. Let’s face it: a Maison Blanc pastry is a true piece of France. And what of le menu ? My press release tells me this is “fabulous”, “refreshing”, “fresh”, “simply superb”, “the most heavenly authentic French food”…. not a lot to live up to then. There’s no doubt about it, the menu is very ambitious indeed and here in lies their point of difference.

Using their very own viennoiserie, bread, savoury and patisserie chefs they have set out to make even more use of their expertise. Expertise that shines so brightly in products such as their tiny Tartelette aux Fruits – a small and delicate pastry case filled with mousseline cream and ten different fresh fruits all beautifully positioned on the top to create a wonderful pattern of colours and shapes. Slithers of kiwi, strawberry and orange, a solitary raspberry, one grape, one blackberry and a blueberry, a segment of mandarin, a sprig of redcurrants, a triangle of star fruit. The result is so spectacular I am overwhelmed by guilt to eat and destroy it.

Many of their very delicious breads are incorporated into the menu; Baguettes, Pain Rustique, Pain Campagne, Pain aux Cereales, and Pain Complet, together with an endless list of Feuillete, Quiches and Tarts. All fresh, warm and waiting to become someone’s lunch. No, of course it doesn’t stop there. On the front counter hot open sandwiches are made in front of you on Pain Maison – a flavoured slightly sour bread, cut thinly and very crisp to eat.

French Smoked Magret Duck (the duck too thick and therefore chewy) and Camembert with red onion confit is a bargain at £3.25, or for the same price there’s Artichoke and Crème Fraiche with roasted vegetables and mushrooms. The roasted veg look a little manufactured to me cut into neat little squares but apart from that this is a colourful enough tasty snack. There are reasonably priced soups from £2.95-£3.50 continuing along the French theme: Lardon and Lentil, Provencale Chicken and Parmesan, and so on… and a properly delicious Classic Quiche Lorraine.

In addition, there’s a good selection of salads ranging from £3.50 for a Tuna Nicoise to the bravest of them all, a Lobster and Crayfish salad at £7.95. Now I’d give the whole stage to the lobster and kick the crayfish out all together with any saving converting to a little more lobster, pure and simple. Their baguette range is, well, just deliciously different from the norm. There’s a Pork and Apricot Chutney at £2.95, yummy Foie Gras and Red Onion Confit, and the most decadent of all Lobster.

These two are very pricey at £6.95 but bravery abounds here. For me I’d leave the lobster alone again and leave out the horrid cherry tomatoes. They give an unnecessary acidity and look very Comic Relief. I’m not even half way through this menu and have no chance of doing it true justice. There’s a massive delivery menu and platters galore. A wealth of hot and cold drinks. Hot Chocolate all the way through to baby bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne, Bordeaux and Bourgogne Blanc wines.

French attention to detail is sewn through all the food and drinks like the strongest of threads; Evian and Perrier waters, Orangina, dolls house portions of President butter and those wonderful French yoghurts in glass jars. Every piece of packaging (black miraculously not pink) featureswonderful French thought provoking photography. Bicycles, bakers at work, cafes and bridges. And of course the Eiffel Tower.

I’m totally in love with the little sandwich boxes that have three crustless sandwich fingers all made on different breads; Complet, Cereale and Campagne. Beautifully wrapped in thick cellophane, mine was a wonderful combination of Camembert, Chicory and Red Onion Confit. Fantastic value at £2.25. (Careful on the use of the Confit guys, it seems to be in danger of over use in the menu). Then there are the beautifully designed Plat du Jour – a French lunch in a box. The packaging is quite ingenious with the box acting as a tray.

Everything has been thought of; salt, pepper, cutlery, a napkin, a dinky wine glass and a bottle of Perrier. A Charcuterie and Cheese Platter made up of Dried Hams and Salamis with delicious Comte and Brie Cheese with masses of olives, cornichons and caperberries. Two little cakes and a freshly baked roll with butter. Even a miniature bottle of salad dressing. This is described as “everything but the chair”. (In the case of this one it’s more like everything but the chair and the salad as there wasn’t one to go with the dressing.

I’m assuming that because there’s a slot for the dressing bottle they put one in anyway). This is a great concept and will no doubt prove a great seller in the summer – pick up a little bottle of their white wine and head for the park. So here is a new venture that has tried exceedingly hard to get it just right. And it’s working. As I write the second Vite is about to open its doors in Fenchurch Street in the City promising a different layout which it desperately needs.

The food is so wonderful but is far too well hidden with weak point of sale and mislocated food photography. Entice those passers by. Pinch those customers. Please – let it out of those very pink closets. Then, and only then this really could become a tour de force on any street.

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