For 20 years, Maison Blanche has been bringing a bit of Paris to Longboat Key. The restaurant opened on March 2, 2002, and owners Jose and Victoria Martinez have delicately balanced on the edge of assimilating into American culture and keeping their French roots strong.
The couple moved to the area after selling their Parisian restaurant and found Longboat Key to be the perfect place to start fresh. Victoria didn’t want to move to a big city like Miami, but Naples was too sleepy. Their happy medium was Sarasota, with its vibrant arts scene, safety and manageable size. She saw potential and a bit of European flair here, so they put down roots with the help of friends who had also recently moved to the country. But they couldn’t just pick up the Parisian version of themselves and plunk it down on an island.
“We had to adapt because we came with everything we know and when you transport to another country it’s a big adjustment, so we had to understand what we could offer and how to meet expectations without losing what we came here with,” Victoria said.
The Longboat Key restaurant, located next to Four Winds Beach Resort, has the same name as the one from their Parisian past. Victoria’s brother named it when he opened the first location in the 15th Arrondissement in 1980. By the time he died and the Martinezes took over, it had grown to 240 seats and had one Michelin star — the first restaurant of its size to earn that distinction.
“When he opened it was a little place,” Victoria said. “It was one chef and a dishwasher. But it became very successful, so he expanded. He was looking for a sous chef, and that’s how I met my husband.”
Jose was 18 when he started working in kitchens. He’s now 58 and focuses on honing his abilities in the kitchen. He was trained by master chefs in France, and Victoria said that integrity and a high quality of ingredients are some of the most important things to him. About 80% of their menu is organic — it’s just the way Jose’s particularity works out. The focus on improving the quality of the menu has drawn in many repeat customers over the years, but the Martinezes took a risk when they first opened.
“We opened just after Sept. 11, 2001, so it was a little bit concerning to be opening when everybody was watching and the economy was crumbling a little bit,” Victoria said. “We worried about it, but we said, ‘We are here, let’s do it.’”
Their gamble paid off. Now they’ve built up a loyal customer base that returns year after year. Victoria even wrote a poem to their regulars on the day of their 20th anniversary, offering 7,300 thanks for 7,300 days of business. In 2002, they hardly knew anyone.
“We didn’t know a lot of people, but we met beautiful human beings,” Victoria said.
Though they’ve racked up awards and recognition over the years, including the designation of one of America’s 100 Best Restaurants by Opentable in 2016, the Martinezes are not a pair to rest on their laurels. When they travel, they take note of the highlights of other restaurants and Jose is always trying to improve upon his techniques. Currently, he’s working on updating his presentation and elaborating on the menu at hand, though their regulars enjoy the same dishes over time. Jose prefers to update rather than redo, like with the filet mignon, beef short ribs or sweetbread. Overall, their ethos has remained the same: Don’t do anything you wouldn’t accept yourself.
“Never forget your roots and your ethics and what you believe,” Victoria said.
Their roots are plain to see if you know where to look. The Martinezes have held true to themselves down to the tables and chairs in the restaurant, which is all taken right from the Paris location. Even the building itself was designed by the same architect who created the first Maison Blanche. By now, the Martinezes have established themselves in the Sarasota scene, but they’ll never forget where they came from and who helped them get to where they are today.
“We feel blessed,” Victoria said. “It’s a lot of work, of course, but what else can you do but try to be good at what you like and what gives you energy? … It’s about balance. We have wonderful friends and the clients we have are really just the best. Even when it’s been difficult, we’ve done our best.”