Coffee shops and cafes. Don't you just love them when you have had a hard day shopping and your feet hurt or perhaps you are craving a sweet treat or maybe you have time to kill in between appointment. I must admit when in London I do not head for the huge CafeCostabuck type chains for a hot drink and a yummy cake instead I go to a smaller French pattesserie chain called Paul.
What I like about Paul is that it is a genuine French chain originating in Lille in rather than a French themed chain so you get good hot chocolate and croissants rather than people in berets.
Paul in the UK seems to be confined to London where there are 22 stores. These can be found either in touristy areas such as Covent Garden, and South Kensington or in lovely leafy well to do areas such as Richmond and Hampstead. Paul has two flagship cafes with larger menus on Marylebone High Street and in Covent Garden. I have been to the Covent Garden branch recently for dessert after a meal elsewhere but the branch I know best is aptly enough the Saint Paul's branch on the edge of Paternoster Square next to Temple Bar right opposite the crypt entrance to Saint Paul's Cathedral.
Paul looks warm and welcoming. Outside the Saint Paul's branch there are a few tables which are ideal in the summer to watch the world go by. Once inside you have the bakery on the right and a couple of tables to the left. There is a staircase with more tables upstairs but I have never been up there. The Covent Garden branch is much larger with the bakery at the front and the waitress service part behind. The good thing about Paul is that it is open later than most coffee shops. We went to the Covent Garden branch around about 7 30 or 8 and they were still very much open and ready to take our orders.
My main reason for going to Paul is to get a chocolate fix from their wonderful hot chocolate. There is no other hot chocolate like it. Its quite thick and slightly viscous in texture with a skin of chocolate at the top. It is rich , not too sweet but oh so chocolaty. Imagine the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory heated up and served and that's the nearest you will get to Paul's hot chocolate. I only ever order a small hot chocolate as that is all you need for a serious chocolate fix. I find that other hot chocolates from places like Starbucks do not match and just taste like hot milk with chocolate flavourirng. I never order it with cream as it is rich enough. A hot chocolate will set you back £2.50. It may seem expensive but as a treat its worth it. Paul sells a range of hot and cold drinks but I can't comment as I only ever go for the hot chocolate.
So what else is on the menu?
Cakes, cakes pastries, and the odd sandwich. I often treat myself to an almond croissant or almond pan au chocolat. These can be quite pricey. I paid nearly £2 for a take away pan au choclat the other week but it was worth it with its dark bitter chocolate and sweet almond paste. There are a number of tasty looking cream cakes and tarts that are around £2 or £3. Every time I go into the cafe my mouth waters but I tend to resist the temptation. They also sell bigger gateaux and cakes to take home for a special occasion around about the £16 mark. I once had a gorgeous rhubarb tart, which a colleague bought when he was leaving. In its box it looked a bit like a pizza but did not taste anything like pizza with its crisp pastry and tangy rhubarb filling. I'd love someone to treat me to one of these gorgeous looking cakes for my birthday!
Fancy a savoury snack. Paul does a number of quiches, pies and sandwiches for around about £3. The sandwich I have sampled was a mozzarella and tomato hot baguette and was large and well filled. I feel the value of the sandwiches is not bad especially for central London prices
Paul being a bakery does a number of rustic, specialty breads. They have always looked very nice but are also nice prices to math this I have never bought a loaf.
The cafe menus at the Marylebone and Covent Garden sites are more extensive with breakfast menu, soups, sandwiches and desserts. On my recent visit to the Covent Garden branch I ordered a crepe citron with cream for round about the £4 mark. I received two very light and fluffy pancakes with wedges of real lemon and sugar for a simple tangy treat. The cream was nice but did not add too much to an already lovely dessert. My companion had a giant slice of rich dark gooey chocolate cake, which she found difficult to finish due to the size of the portion.
Many of the staff members seem to be French. I have never had a problem with the staff as they are always friendly and helpful.
Paul may not be the cheapest place for a quick snack or a revivalising coffee and cake but price wise I would say it is on par with other coffee ships and cafes in London. . I would recommend it especially for the wonderful hot chocolate and cakes.
I can clearly remember the day, almost six years ago now, when a new Paul Boulangerie opened on Bedford St, in Covent Garden. The builder's Paul-emblazoned hoardings were finally removed, revealing a stylish shop-front beyond. 'Maison de Qualité' proclaimed the sign above the windows, and the display behind the glass certainly provided a testament to its veracity. Glazed scarlet tarts, smothered in raspberries, decadent chocolate cakes, plump Millefeuilles and dainty petit fours were all assembled in regimentally tidy little rows. Tall baguettes were arranged in baskets to the side, like so many umbrellas in a stand. Inside, the French bakery staff, all in white, moved smoothly amongst the displays, whilst at the rear of the premises, the Salon de Thé stood ready, each table beautifully laid, awaiting its first customers.
As I stood at the window, admiring the cakes and tarts, a warm scent of freshly, nay, Frenchly baked bread drifted out through the opened glass doors... My seduction, shall we say, was complete, and I've remained a firm devotee ever since.
THE MAISON PAUL was founded in 1889, when Charlemayne Mayot opened a small bakery at Croix near Lille. The original bakery was later moved to the Place de Strasbourg in Lille. In 1958, upon the death his father, Francis Holder inherited the family business, and proceeded, over the decades that followed, to transform a modest provincial bakery and patisserie into a multi-national empire. Today, the Maison Paul has over two hundred and fifty outlets throughout France, and dozens more throughout the world. There are no fewer than fourteen Paul outlets in Japan alone, and internationally, Paul's austere, black shop-frontages have become synonymous with both excellence and authenticity. However, whilst the Maison Paul has become an extensive chain, there is no sense of this in the individual stores, so much so that it seems almost churlish not to take each outlet on its individual merits. In any event, irrespective of the outlet, the bread, pastries and cakes are largely produced on site, and are invariably fresh and flawlessly presented. As I know it best, however, I'll concentrate on the Covent Garden branch for the purposes of this account.
IN COVENT GARDEN, at lunchtime, there are more cafes, bars and sandwich shops to choose between than there are buskers on the paved piazza. Some are long-standing sandwich bar success-stories, with massive tubs of ready-mixed fillers like egg & mayo, and loyal local followings, others are quaint and Italian and tucked down laneways. Some are undoubtedly better than others. There are also all the usual franchise staples, from Pret a Manger and Starbucks, to Café Nero and Tesco Metro. There's a charming bar on Henrietta Street beneath the Georgian digs of Jane Austen's favourite brother, and upstairs at the Lamb and Flag on Rose Street, where Dryden was once attacked, they serve up some excellent lunchtime fare. All of this is well and good, but in my opinion you're still far better off simply crossing the road and heading straight for Paul, where they sell the best sandwiches in London.
THE STORE itself is impeccably French and immaculately clean. Outside, the wide, black shop-front with its large glass windows is simple and restrained. As you move inside, the senses are positively assaulted, but in the nicest possible way. The smells and sights are enchanting. To the side, the bread is arranged on wooden shelves, and the tarts and cakes are displayed behind a long glass case. The floors are tiled in terracotta and the lighting is ambient throughout. During the lunch-hour rush, between one and two, a long queue of office workers can generally be found, snaking its way along the counters and towards the busy exit. The Covent Garden outlet, like most of the others, seems to be entirely staffed by a troupe of young, attractive and pleasant French natives, not all of whom, it has to be said, have the most extensive grasp of English.
SALON DE THÉ: Inside the store itself, a wide entrance opens up into the Salon de Thé/ Restaurant, in which breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea are served. The Salon de Thé is charming, and feels like an oasis of calm in this chaotic corner of the Capital. Breakfast at Paul is perfect in its Franco-simplicity, and consists of croissants, pastries and sliced baguettes with real-fruit conserves, warm, freshly cooked eggs, teas, café au lait, hot chocolate, and freshly squeezed orange juice. The crockery is fine and the cutlery is polished. At lunchtime, a more comprehensive menu is offered, with an array of sandwiches, quiches and salads, as well as daily specials, such as soups. One house specialty is the Jurassienne quiche, which is comprised of grilled lardons, raclette cheese, onion and chives. There are also some delicious crepes on the menu. Prices for lunch are very reasonable, with most dishes costing between £3.50 -£6.50.
THE BAKERY: Paul is probably best known for its extensive range of breads, which range from heavy, rustic loaves to more unusual styles and regional specialties. The 'Paul' loaf is made from a subtle mix of 'Camp Rémy flour, Atlantic sea salt and natural yeast'. The crust is thick and chewy, but the texture of the bread itself is soft and spongy. This loaf is as addled with air holes as a Norwegian Jarlsberg, but somehow these merely add to its rustic appeal. A large loaf costs approximately £4-£5, but these are also sold as halves. Other breads in the range include the Country Bread, a soft-textured loaf made from a mixture of rye and milled flours, Rye Breads, Wholemeal breads, Six-Grain bread, a soft White bread and a Brioche loaf. Specialty breads include the famous Paul Polka bread, with its well-baked golden crust, which is 'flavoured with the delicate taste of hazelnuts, and has an open, lightly coloured texture'. There are Bio breads, Baguettes and Benoîtons, Chapatas, Olive and Walnut breads and those traditional Provençal Fougasses, with their grain-like form. Finally, there is also a wide selection of dinner rolls, which are essentially miniaturised versions of the larger loaves.
SANDWICHES: The sandwiches chez Paul are quite simply superb, made with the freshest Paul bread, and packed with delicious fillings. These sandwiches aren't cheap, but then again, nor are the ingredients, which are invariably very fresh and of a very high quality. It's probably worth mentioning that the sandwiches on offer aren't really sandwiches at all, but rather that French sort of sandwich, which generally consists of a filled baguette. The baguettes available in London are exactly the same as those sold in Paul's outlets in France, and are generally made with a handful of simple, basic ingredients. These include the 'Dieppois' with Tuna, lettuce, tomato & mayonnaise, the 'Parisien' with ham and butter, the 'Mixte' with Emmental and Ham, and the Savoreux, a simple affair with a Lyonais Salami and butter. Other baguettes include the 'Normand' with Camembert, and the 'Pavot Poulet' with chicken, salad and mayonnaise. A further selection of sandwiches (bread rolls) are made with Paul's famous Polka bread, and include the Catalan, which contains Bayonne cured ham, tomato, lettuce and butter, the Fraicheur, which is made with sliced boiled egg, salad and mayonnaise, and a Mediterranean variant with marinated mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil and olive oil.
My absolute favourite, however, is the Faluche du Mareyeur. The 'Faluche' is a sort of soft, Turkish style bread, baked into a roll the size of a very large bap. The Faluche du Mareyeur, or 'Fish-merchant's Faluche', is made with thick slices of top-quality smoked salmon, Saint-Morêt cream cheese, chives, sliced cucumber and red onions. It is absolutely delicious, and generally sells out well before the lunchtime rush is over. All of the sandwiches at Maison Paul are priced between £3.50 and £4.75.
VIENNOISERIE & PATISSERIE: Paul produce an impressive range of pastries, including the inevitable buttery croissants, generously filled Pains au Chocolat, and plump Pains aux Raisins or Escargots. These cost between one and two pounds each. Miniature croissants and pains au chocolat are available for 50p. Paul also have some delicious little Brioches, traditionally shaped with a topknot, and Cannelés, a small type of cake originating from the Bordeaux region.
Maison Paul's exceptional cakes and tarts really need to be seen (or more to the point, tasted) to be believed, and are more than the equal of those sold at the rival Patisserie Valerie, which has an outlet on the other side of Covent Garden. There are always a number of fruit tarts on offer, generally featuring seasonally available fruits, from Pear Tarte Tatins in the winter, to spectacular flans smothered in summer fruits. There are chocolate flans, sponge cakes, millefeuilles and cheesecakes. These are certainly pricey, so it helps that they're pricelessly tasty, too.
FINALLY: Maison Paul is an absolute success on so many levels. Its cakes are delectable, its pastries divine, and its sandwiches are second to none. The ambience is wonderful, and the staff charming. It is a modern success story, a family business which has managed to become an international phenomenon, without losing any of the care, or the attention to detail that are the hallmarks of a family-run French Patisserie. Key to its success, however, is the bread, which is infallibly good. It may seem rather cheeky to maintain that the best bread in Britain is French, but well, for my money at least, this is it Arise, Maison Paul, makers of the best bread in Britain!
There are fourteen Paul outlets in central London, one in Richmond, another at the Bluewater centre in Kent, and one in Edinburgh. All details are available on the website.