Discovering Aux Merveileux on Old Brompton Road is like finding a portal into another world. Yes, it’s London. Yes, it’s rush hour, but stepping into Aux Merveilleux is like walking into a sweet, buttery, steamy, caffeinated corner of Paris on a crisp winter morning.
When you’re freelance and you’re desperate for caffeine before 7am, you’ll drink pretty much anywhere that’s open. I’ve found myself in a range of undesirable places looking for coffee at ungodly hours; car parks, hospital canteens, industrial estates, beach fronts, Maccy D’s with the punters who are still sleeping or the wannabe regulars about to be kicked out for prising the free coffee stickers off paper cups whilst the existing customers are still holding onto them (yes, Wembley McDonalds, I’m talking about you whilst working for the FA).
I think it’s fair to say that South Kensington is a little upmarket compared to my usual pre-work haunts. Accidentally stumbling into Aux Merveilleux and being greeted with a cheerful “Bonjour!” was like falling down a rabbit hole into another paradigm. London but not London. I even looked behind me to check if there was in fact, a real, live, sophisticated French person standing there. Responding in my best French, all puffed up in the mistaken belief that I’d been mistaken for a Parisian, we were back to English in less than 60 seconds.
Aux Merveilleux: A new 7am Home
Aux Merveilleux is my new home (at least when I’m working in South Kensington). If I thought that I could get away with moving in, I would. Who wouldn’t with those trays of freshly made, exquisite patisseries surrounded by huge chandeliers and rococo chairs? It’s at least two weeks and counting until I’m back in Paris. Aux Merveilleux is a liminal bridge to that world.
This elegant, unassuming, friendly cafe is a slice of French life in a city of identikit chain coffee shops. Named after a small cake made of meringue, chocolate and whipped cream coated with shavings of dark chocolate, Aux Merveilleux provides a ring side seat from which to watch the creation of these delicious concoctions.
Aux Merveilleux: Portal to Another World
A glass wall reveals stack upon stack of golden croissants parked next to pale pain au chocolate waiting to be baked, flakey brioche and patisserie cakes on rows of stainless steel trays. It reminds me of the children’s book, Mr Benn by David McKee.
Mr Benn, a character in a suit and bowler hat, visits a fancy dress shop owned by a man wearing a Fez (bear with me on this one). Mr Benn enters the changing room to try on an outfit and enters another world, leaving his mundane, 9 to 5 existence behind. The stories were animated in the 1970s and narrated by Ray Brooks. The series ran for 21 years. I think we can guess why. I’m pretty damn sure I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be Mr Benn when I grew up. I still do. Aux Merveilleux is the costume shop. Fred, the owner, is the man with the fez, except he’s swapped it for a chef’s hat, chef whites and a ton of sugar.
For an hour every morning I am Mr Benn. I get to sink into a claw footed chair and observe the comings and goings of Aux Merveilleux du Fred. Hippy the Old English Sheepdog who bounded in one morning and placed his paws on the counter ready to be served. At 8 months old hippy is easily distracted and likes to chew. The expensively shod foot dangling from a chair in front of him, belonging to a chic Kensingtonian proved too much of a temptation. He lurched forward, mouth open with unbridled enthusiasm. Only a short leash prevented Hippy from making contact with the object of his desire. Jaws snapping shut in disappointment, the foot made an impressively hasty exit.
Or the pleasingly plump woman in a navy trench coat, American tan tights and sensible court shoes who hovered, deliberating at the counter. A queue for coffee gathering behind her. It took her over twenty minutes to choose a battalion of patisseries which were duly boxed and stacked for her to spirit away. Cakes are serious business and this was one woman who was not going to be rushed. Not a bit of it. The young French woman behind the counter understood, pausing to advise and confirm when an excellent choice had been made. Nearly £80 lighter but weighed down with boxes, she left, satisfied.
Institut français du Royaume-Uni
Aux Merveilleux is a hop, skip and a jump away from Institut français du Royaume-Uni. South Kensington is home to a huge French community. There’s a French bookshop, Ciné Lumiere, the Lycée. I wonder how many French expats come to this cafe each morning, with their dogs and their Gauloises, to be greeted with a smile, in French.
The counter is home to business cards belonging to French teachers. There are magazines in French. At 7am in the morning everything sounds better with a Gallic twist. This small corner of South Kensington is très, très, French. A Francophile’s dream cafe. It’s merveilleux.