I rescued some old pastry-crawl notes from a trip to NY in January '04.
They might still be of interest.
Ceci Cela, very good, a very nice surprise.
Pain Quotidien, mixed
To elaborate on NY patisseries.
First to dispense with the one not in the running: Pain Quotidien. As the name suggests it is a bakery not a patisserie, but since one of its branches is across the street from Petrossian and a few minutes from where we were staying I thought it worth trying. Their bread is respectable. Pain poilaine it is not, but they bake an honest loaf. The baguette was rustic, chewy, and tasty. The large wheat round bread is a substantial piece of gluten with good hearty wholewheat flavor. I have yet to sample the multi-grain, but it smells good.
Their croissant is better than the supermarket variety, and is comparable to the sub-standard issue all too common in Paris, but it does not match what a croissant should be, a flaky, light buttery, brief crumbling communion with warm and wonderful wheat in a field of sunshine. The contrast between the outer dark crunchy crust and the inner yielding white dough should have been more elaborate.
They make a so-called Belgian brownie that is bigger and better than the standard supermarket issue, but nothing spectacular.
On the other hand their pastries are horrid. I bought two tarts: one lemon and one caramel creme brulee. The base of crust might as well have been cardboard. It was nearly hard as a rock. The toppings were even worse. The so-called creme brulee tasted like a layer of cookless -- the kind kids whip up in the kitchen -- butterscotch pudding on top of a thin layer of vanilla pudding.
However I can recommend them for one virtue, a virtue that flows from their vice. Since they are not a patisserie, they know how to pack their product to go. In striking contrast to Payard, the villain of the piece, they know that not all their customers transport their products home on a gyroscopically and aerodynamically balanced pastry conveyor mounted on a special platform of their chauffeured Rolls. PQ offers small hard plastic containers that snap shut and neatly hold the pastry in place. Better to buy them than the pastry they hold.
I should have realized what Payard was like when I called them early in the day to place my order. I explained that I would be carrying the pastries home a distance and I wanted to pack them carefully. I suggested that each tart could be placed in a small box all its own and that would minimize damage. They evinced no idea of what I was talking about. In Paris, I take that reaction for granted since one shops at the neighborhood patisserie -- as one should -- and the walk home is only a few feet away. But in mobile car-driven America, I would expect a different response. Their reaction actually encouraged me to expect something as good as Paris, one explanation of their cluelessness.
When I picked up my order that evening the tartes were all crowded into one weak large fancy yellow Payard box, more decorative than effective. I suggested that they could put some bakery tissue paper between each of the half dozen or so pieces so they would not move so much. Two responses: the paper would itself acquire the adjoining pastries and why don't I buy one more so there would be less free space. Of course I should have said better the paper than the pastry. I don't really care for chocolate berry melange mousse, but a bit of berry mousse on its own wrapping paper can always be licked off.
By the time I got around to ordering, the Louvre -- various mousses in dark chocolate -- was gone, but I did try a Japonais, Manhasset, Chocolate chiboust tart, two NY, NY, and a chocolate mousse in a tin cup to fill the box. I also picked up a few macarons, rose and chocolate.
Payard love mousses and I do too, but they are not Bouley mousse makers. I tried the cassis mousse in the Manhasset, the chocolate mousse in the Japonais and in the Notre Dame. None of these were bad, but none of them puts Payard in the major pastry league. Their problem is that for all their mousse might, they don't know how to make pastry dough. The sable Breton in the Manhasset Cassis mousse was as hard and tasty as a rock, a horrid contrast to the delicate cookie at Bouley the night before. The sweet dough in the Chocolate Chiboust Tart made the cookie at the base of the chocolate bas relief in Lu's Le Petit Ecolier, seem like a gossamer fairy delicacy. The pastry is not well-baked. I wonder if they share recipes with Pain Quotidien.
As for the macarons, their center was dry and tasteless. I expect the best French patisserie in New York to be inferior to those in Paris, but at least they should be comparable. The divide in quality between Pierre Herme and Payard is far greater than the ocean between them. Payard could not survive in Paris.
As I was getting ready to pay, I did notice they had a tarte tatin for sale, but I had already bought enough and the apples on this tarte were far too pale and insufficiently carmelized to tempt me.
For your convenience here is what appears on their website.
Japonais Milk Chocolate Mousse, Yuzu Citrus Cream, Sacher Biscuit
Louvre, Hazelnut Mousse, Milk Chocolate Mousse, Hazelnut Dacquoise Covered in Dark Chocolate.
Manhasset Cassis Mousse, Passion Fruit Cream with a Sable Breton
NY, NY Lemon Sponge, Berry Syrup, Fresh Berries and a Cream Cheese Mousse with a
Manhattan Skyline Silk Screen -- incidentally the twin towers till stand.
Notre Dame, Chocolate Biscuit, Chocolate Mousse and Vanilla Bavarois.
Saint-Honore, Pastry Filled with Sweetened Whipped Cream and Dipped in Caramel
Paris Brest, Choux Pastry Filled with Praliné Cream.
Mont Blanc, Sweet Dough, Chestnut Cream, Meringue, Whipped Cream, Chesnut Vermicelles and Candied Chestnuts.
Chocolate Chiboust Tart Sweet Dough, Caramel Ganache, Candied Nuts and Chocolate Chiboust Cream.
I know Petrossian as a purveyor of caviar and smoked salmon and I was surprised by the suggestion that I try their pastry. Their website lists none and when I appeared at their shop in the morning none were yet on display. Sight unseen and on blind trust I ordered a few. Quickly I realized I was dealing with a staff very different from Payard. One pastry I intended for a friend with a very rare digestive disorder that restricts her diet. One of the few fruits she can eat is blueberries. When I learned they make a blueberry blackberry tarte, I asked if they could make it all blueberry. Though surprised, Gigi quickly agreed.
When I returned later to pick them up, I was not disappointed. Petrossian uses as its base, fillo-like flaky dough, a mille-feuille. The result is an extremely light and delicate foil for the fruit above. I gave away three of the pastries to friends at home and so have fully tasted only the raspberry tarte, but it is a very impressive creation. Not too sweet, a slight date-like base below. I could not identify the fruit. I took a small taste of the apple in another tarte. I did not like it as much, but the dough below it seemed equally scrumptious.
I also bought a fruit strudel and a savory cheese role. The strudel I have yet to try. I have had better cheese rolls.
Ceci-Cela Pâtisserie 55 Spring St Bet. Lafayette/Mulberry (212) 274-9179
Raspberry with brandied cherries, strawberry, apple, creme brulee, meringue, cherry flan.
My original itinerary had not included Ceci Cela. From 2nd Avenue I had been planning to take the F train to Lafayette and change to the Lexington Ave. line Uptown to get to Payard. However I discovered that you can't get there from here. I would have to get out, add a fare and cross to the Uptown entrance. Rather than waste my two bucks on Lafayette St. I decided to go down one stop to Spring on the 6 train and check out the Spring St. Ceci Cela which is right next to the station entrance. I was very glad I did.
Ceci Cela is what I would call, to paraphrase Pan, a very good ordinary patisserie -- it is a concept I do accept. I don't consider the tartes sampled from Pain Quotidien to have reached that level. CC is the kind of reliable unpretentious purveyor that you can usually find in a Paris neighborhood. Not everything is great, but the standard is high and the price-quality ratio is good. The pastries are a little more than half the price of the uptown shops and the size is almost as large. Everything looked good. Of what I tried -- raspberry with brandied cherries, apple, creme brulee, and cherry flan -- the raspberry cherry tart was the best, the apple the least successful. I also bought some eclairs and a strawberry tarte, but I gave those away without a taste. The pastry dough is neither too hard or thick -- like that in Pain Quotidien and Payard -- nor too soft with the risk of sogginess -- like that of Petrossian. Instead it is of the typical classic French style. The strawberry tart had a rich eggy custard. The raspberry-cherry had a layer of nuts as well.
I also very much preferred the atmosphere to any of the other places, narrow and tight as it was. Locals were coming in and out, to be greeted with a familiar word of welcome. But a stranger was also quickly made welcome as well. The Frenchman -- owner, employee?? -- who was running the counter had an easy friendly manner. Although the quality is not as high as the Bontè of yesteryear, the atmosphere was similar.
Ceci Cela does not have the precious pretentious quality of the mid-town and uptown patisserie, nor the corporate multi-outlet enforced good behavior of the multi-branch Le Pain Quotidien -- 6 in Manhattan and 3 in LA. I believe CC has two branches downtown and I can well understand the preference for this branch. The other, which I happened to drive by a day earlier, is much less intime.
By the way I did not try the croissant or brioche. In general, the best croissant I have had over the last year or so, between sampling in Paris, Montreal, and New York, has to be at Duc de Lorraine in Montreal.
Edited by VivreManger, 14 June 2005 - 05:22 PM.