In a restaurant world hurtling toward casual, communal, loud and fast, Longboat Key’s 15-year-old Maison Blanche is an anomaly: formal, private, hushed and leisurely. And that reflects chef/owner José Martinez’s reverence for classical French food, prepared and served with near-religious devotion.
Martinez, 53, arrives at the restaurant around 9:30 a.m. every day. Today, a Tuesday, the 53-year-old, his hair slicked back and spectacles resting on his nose, putters around the quiet kitchen, accepting produce and meat deliveries, answering phone calls, checking on the walk-in. The guest list tonight, as it is on most nights, is loaded with familiar names: Longboat Key and Sarasota residents who make it a habit of eating Martinez’s food as often as possible. Repeat customers make up 70 percent of the busy restaurant’s clients.
“Quality, quality, quality,” is how Martinez sums up the Maison Blanche philosophy, and that extends to every aspect of the experience.
The restaurant’s ribeye is the ideal expression of the genre, as are baguettes baked in-house and the chocolate truffles served with coffee. The servers know when to stay away, and you’re free to linger until 2 a.m. if it suits you. White drapes and soft wood floors absorb any untoward noise. Fixtures gleam in the bathrooms and the hand towels are pillow-soft.
In his mid-30s, Martinez moved here, importing both the restaurant design and the cuisine from Paris, where he owned a Maison Blanche along the Avenue Montaigne. Before that, he worked in other French restaurants, including Jamin, a three-star Michelin restaurant opened by Joël Robuchon.
Over the years, Martinez has made some changes. As diners have become more health-conscious, he says, “We tried to cut the sugar and fat.” But when it comes to quality and the principles of French cookery, he refuses to compromise. “When you’re a kid, you can change yourself,” Martinez says. “After, you cannot change. You have your roots. You know what you believe in.”