For the growing number of self-employed, the first half of February is the most financially painful time of the year. A cheque has just gone off to the Inland Revenue which puts into the shade anything spent over the Christmas period and, although this is sadly a bi-annual affair, somehow sending the second cheque off at the end of July, when the British climate is less grim, is bearable if certainly not enjoyable. Happily, there has been a cluster of inexpensive openings around London which should help ease this temporary financial pain.
The most recent is the first branch of Le Pain Quotidien which has just opened at the top end of that food superhighway known as Marylebone High Street.
Le Pain Quotidien began in Belgium a decade ago, the brainchild of Alain Coumont, then working as a baker in a restaurant. Since then, its guiding principles – the exceptional quality of its breads, a relaxed atmosphere and a particularly sympathetic interior with a large communal table – have seen it spread to 50 branches across its home country, France, Switzerland and the US.
Philippe Le Roux is the aptly named and perceptive holder of the franchise for the UK and Eire and on two visits during the store's opening fortnight I was as impressed by the quality of the bread as I had been at one of their shops in Brussels. A great place obviously for any breakfast meeting where three of us ate their basket of breads and drank bowls of good coffee for £15, while their tartines, between £5 and £6.50, make for a healthy, inexpensive lunch. What anyone subsequently chooses to spend on their delicious cakes and desserts is entirely up to them.
Whether Hani Nakkash, a Lebanese-born businessman from a property background, had ever heard of Le Pain Quotidien must remain a mystery. But after living in London for five years and despairing of ever enjoying the same quality of bread he had so regularly eaten in Paris, he has decided to open Aubaine, (French for a godsend or windfall) in the image of his very own French patisserie and café.
Aubaine's Gallic roots are epitomised in its logo, a Citroen DCV with a long baguette stretching across the roof of the car from bumper to bumper driven by a man in a beret. But as well as the quality of the bread and patisserie I was impressed by the menu, which stretches from a mouth-wateringly flaky quiche lorraine to steak and frites, and the young, friendly staff. An excellent, substantia,l albeit alcohol-free lunch for two came to just under £30.
Aubaine and Le Pain Quotidien have both opened to far more immediate success than either of their founders anticipated due in part to their authenticity and value for money but also to their respective locations. Le Pain Quotidien occupies a corner site on a street that offers Le Roux the necessary pedestrian footfall seven days a week, an essential part of his business plan, while Aubaine is within a boule's throw of 'Frog Valley', as that part of South Kensington is colloquially referred to because of the French Lycée nearby.
But the immediate success of Shanghai Blues, which has opened just in time for the Chinese New Year and has been greeted with a rush that has even surprised its hard working Chinese managers, owes its appeal to the very opposite. Its location on High Holborn, while home to numerous cafes and sandwich bars that feed the large office population nearby, has seen several more expensive restaurants open and close in the recent past. Shanghai Blues, despite the lunchtime music, will survive and prosper, I believe.
The reason it will do so is because thanks to its extensive dim sum menu it will be able to offer a relatively inexpensive lunch time menu that will bring in not just the numbers to justify the expensive renovation of a Grade 2 listed building that formerly housed the St Giles Library but also an impressively wide ranging clientele. We ate among tables of businessmen and women and alongside a number of Chinese students who only seemed to take their eyes off their mobile phones to order, eat and drink.
Shanghai Blues is the latest opening for the Weng Wah group who already run a handful of good Chinese restaurants around town. But the quality and freshness of the dim sum we ate were definitely superior to those at their other restaurants and on a par with those at yauatcha, a tribute to the influence of their Executive Chef Hong Qiu Feng who has recently flown in from his former post at the Beijing Conference Centre. Lunch for two with a couple of beers and plates of crystal prawn dumplings, fried chestnut and yam and abalone and almond dim sum, eel fillets in a sweet and spicy sauce, crisp 'morning glory' with chilli and a hugely satisfying bowl of Shanghai rice soup came to just under £50.
Le Pain Quotidien, 72-75 Marylebone High Street, W1, 020-7486 6154
Aubaine, 260 Brompton Road, SW3 7-050100
Shanghai Blues, 193-7 High Holborn, WC1 020-7404 1668