Eating out at chic and delicious Maison Bleue
PUBLISHED: 12:48 09 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:48 09 August 2016
After 18 years it's practically a fixture in Bury St Edmunds, but the marvellous Maison Bleue just keeps on getting better, as Tessa Allingham discovers
“So who’s in charge here?” I ask. In a moment of perfect comedic timing, Pascal and Karine Canevet spin round, each points at the other, then they throw back their heads and laugh. Neither, bizarrely, wants to take responsibility for the pleasure that a meal at Maison Bleue gives.
Ever the professional, Karine composes herself. We’re sitting at the restaurant’s choice table, the one in the sunny window overlooking the comings and goings of Churchgate Street and with a glimpse of Bury St Edmunds’ ancient Norman Tower. She and Pascal get up as customers – many are regulars, friends it would seem – leave the restaurant. They accept praise graciously, warmly thank their guests for coming.
This is a place that gets service, delivers it with a lightness of touch and naturalness that leaves you feeling looked-after, deftly cosseted rather than uncomfortably, cloyingly, over-attended to. Maison Bleue is a refined, precise, elegant restaurant (it has all the white cloths and proper crockery that come with the terroir), but it is comfortable too, a little sliver of France at its welcoming, relaxed best. The food is similarly refined, precise and elegant – but also darned delicious, the kitchen putting out plates that champion an ingredient, let it take the applause, rather than smothering it in technique.
A pea gazpacho is fresh on today, a herald of the summery ingredients just coming in at the time of my visit. It is vivid green, fragrantly dotted with truffle oil and a light-as-air quenelle of poached meringue. A scattering of croutons stops the overall texture from being too soft and smooth, and there’s just the right amount of salty edge. Langoustine tails, and crab that fills the finest of fresh tortellini, is a luxurious concoction, up there with the duck liver foie gras or a hand-dived king scallop, starters that rarely leave the menu such is their popularity. Humbler ingredients are given careful treatment too, though. Celeriac roasted in sweet brioche is a favourite of Karine’s, while spanking fresh mackerel is paired with the vinegary flavours of pickled cucumber and a yogurt and mint dressing to balance the oiliness of the fish.
A piece of hake flakes beautifully on a main course plate, the delicate flavour lifted by the fragrance of basil, saffron and thyme, and sweetly confit’d fennel. Lamb comes properly pink and tender, and a thoughtful arrangement of gently peppery young turnips, sweet carrots and warm cumin is finished with the punchy richness of an Abbot Ale sauce.
Puddings are a tour de force, worth saving space for. Pascal admits that pastry is not his natural station, but needs must – good pastry chefs are hard to find. You’d never guess he wasn’t born to it – a perfectly crisp tartlet contains silky-smooth crème fraîche, covered with a disc of rhubarb gel and rippling shards of dried rhubarb. A quenelle of grapefruit sorbet is a refreshing slice through any sweetness. I make a mental note to come back for a pudding Pascal is currently working on, a pistachio crème brulée, set in a square and served with a vanilla sablé.
“We’ve done some tastings and it’ll be on the menu soon,” he promises. Karine chips in. “Yes, we’ve decided the raspberry ice cream works best with it, better than the grapefruit sorbet.” They do that a lot, finish each other’s sentences, chip in, refer to each other. There’s a sense of a strong partnership steering Maison Bleue into fully independent waters. Karine does refer to the restaurant as “our baby”, albeit one that is now a fully-fledged 18-year-old. Maybe there’s a sense of ‘coming of age’, maybe this is why the restaurant has enjoyed a recent slew of recognition such as a glowing review in Tatler magazine’s respected restaurant awards in which it was the only East Anglian restaurant to be a ‘Best of Britain’ finalist this year.
“To have chatted with people like Claude Bosi [chef-patron of Michelin starred London restaurant, Hibiscus] and Raymond Blanc at the reception at the Savoy was amazing,” Pascal says. Then there’s Goût de France, the annual event organised by the French Embassy, in which selected restaurants around the world celebrate French gastronomy on a certain day. If that wasn’t enough, the final preparations for an event to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday were underway when we meet, too.
For all that, the Canevets’ core job is to turn out good food to an increasingly demanding and knowledgeable customer-base in a town fast developing a food reputation.
“The change we have seen since coming to England is incredible, and Bury has improved no end,” says Pascal. “Produce is so much better, people are more aware of good food and expect more of restaurants. Eighteen years ago, nobody wanted langoustines – now we sell 15 kilos a week.”
“That was partly because back then we served them whole, now they’re shelled,” Karine reminds him. Pascal shrugs in the way that only the French can shrug.
The ideas man
Those langoustines – shelled – come from Marrfish, one of Maison Bleue’s longstanding suppliers, a company that fishes cold Scottish waters for world-class shellfish, round and flat fish. Pascal has just received some turbot. Everything comes prepped and filleted to make life easier in his small kitchen with its five-strong brigade. He may well poach the fish in a court bouillon, serve it simply with local asparagus, steamed and finished in butter, and roasted lemon paste.
And while the restaurant may have a reputation as a place to eat fish, meat, much reared in East Anglia, features too. Pascal prefers to buy whole carcasses.
“It’s easy to sell the prime cuts such as Aberdeen Angus beef fillet or rack of lamb,” he says, “but I don’t want to waste food, so we’ll use other cuts in an amuse-bouche, stocks, a winter stew, or for beef cheek cromesqui [croquettes].”
He talks to his suppliers and plans the daily-changing menu the previous afternoon. Many dishes are favourites that come round with the seasons, but Pascal will often make a tweak here or there, a change that reflects something he has seen, tasted or read about. Spotting some borage on a walk in the Abbey Gardens meant that a scallop dish the next day was scattered with the tiny blue flowers and hint of pepperiness of the plant, for example.
“Sometimes he won’t sleep because he’s thinking about recipes and ideas and can’t stop his mind working,” Karine says. “And then sometimes Didier from Fisher and Woods [fresh produce supplier] comes with some Gariguette strawberries [the prized, early-ripening, French strawberries] and he comes up with all sorts of ideas – but they cost £60 a case! Or white asparagus that costs £88! I have to keep my eye on him and his ideas!” she smiles, mock stern.
Maison Bleue is up against some stiff competition from other independent restaurants, many fairly new to the town.
“But it’s great that Bury is becoming known as a place to eat well,” Karine insists. “We’re really happy that there are so many other good places. We have never been busier, so there is clearly enough space for all of us. And it – how do you say it? – it keeps us on our toes, makes us always try and be better.” “Like wine, we are maturing well!” Pascal adds. That makes them both laugh.