Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
It’s not often that a ruggedly handsome man says bonjour from a Kensington café table just as you walk past at 9 o’clock in the morning but this is my introduction to Café Montparnasse, a small French bakery and pâtisserie in Kensington. Tucked between a tailor and a hair salon on a back street behind what was once Barkers, it’s an old-fashioned sort of place that my spies tell me has the best croissants in London.
The man sitting under the café’s bright pink awning is Max Haddad, the Franco-Lebanese manager of Café Montparnasse. He is sporting a pony tail (very sleek, very French); hippie wristbands (very discreet – only the tiniest soupçon of South East Asia) and a crisp white shirt that could pass muster in any West London boardroom.
Within moments I’m inside, he’s inside, and he’s about to serve me a croissant and a café au lait. Manon, his second in command, is making the coffee and Max, who I already have a crush on, is lifting a golden croissant from the window display with a pair of silver tongs.
But for the murmur of Classic FM the café is very quiet. I can see a room at the back with rickety chairs and marble-topped tables. And I can see oil paintings of Paris on the walls and an old gramophone with a tulip-shaped horn perched high on a corner shelf. People are starting to arrive but for the moment there’s just a man eating scrambled eggs from behind a newspaper and a woman deep in Le Figaro magazine.
It all feels laidback, rather continental and not in the least bit showy despite the neighbourhood (a three bedroom flat at Iverna Court nearby is currently on Zoopla for just under £3 million). Nobody is tapping away on their mobile or talking into their iPad. And it’s hard to believe that Kensington High Street with all its noise and traffic and chaos is so close by.
My coffee is very good indeed and my croissant absolutely perfect. In fact it’s so delicious that I forget to test pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s much quoted (and irresistibly French) line about croissants as I bite into it: ‘On doit entendre la souffrance du croissant’ (You should hear the croissant suffer.’)
I feel I should start reading Voltaire at this point or perhaps a Racine tragedy but – oh dear – would it be very bad to order another croissant just to test Hermé’s croissant in torment theory (a sort of feeble just about to expire crunching sound?) And can Max at least explain why his croissants are so much better than everybody else’s?
‘Everything is baked downstairs,’ says the modest Max. ‘The eggs come from France, as does the flour and the butter. And we have a French baker, Ben, who starts at 4am.’
It’s an all-French operation with an all day menu that features salads, galettes, paninis and baguettes. Forty per cent of the customers are French, according to Max, and there are regular deliveries to the offices of the Daily Mail nearby as well as to Norland Place School in Holland Park. The Beckham family used to come at weekends, when they lived around the corner, and the Maltese ambassador is a regular but celebrities and grandees are treated just like everybody else. ‘It’s a discreet place, a secret place,’ says Max, who sometimes walks to work across the park from his home in Paddington. ‘And it’s very much a local business.’
Last summer Kate Moss posed for a photo shoot in front of the window – to Max’s eternal regret he wasn’t in that day – and the café has also featured in the Evening Standard but for the moment Café Montparnasse is happy to keep its treasures under wraps.
Before I leave I discover that Max used to run a hotel in Cambodia. ‘It was nice to see something a bit different from Kensington,’ he says, as yet another (very svelte) female customer breezes in for her pre-gym croissant. ‘Here it’s a movie. But zone two, zone three that’s the reality.’
For just £1.70 – that’s the price of one of Café Montparnasse’s sublime croissants – we can all live the dream.
Café Montparnasse is at 22 Thackeray Street, London W8, tel: 020 7376 2212. It’s open 7 days a week and only closes on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and January 1. Opening hours: 8am-5.30pm, though if business is slow (e.g. during school holidays) Max sometimes closes the café a little earlier. There’s a jaunty little video about Café Montparnasse on Yelp.