After reading and adding to an old thread about croissants http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/427572 , I decided I had to do my own circuit of some of the favorites mentioned. I should note that I’m from Seattle but also spend part of the year in Paris, where I have studied pastry making. By “pastry” here I include breakfast pastries like croissants and pains au chocolat, which the French call viennoiseries.
A list of criteria used by Le Figaro newspaper in France for rating croissants can be found in one of my posts near the end of the thread mentioned above. So are some reference bakeries in Paris and even one in Seattle. In that thread I also reply to comments suggesting that top croissants can’t be made in the US because of differences in flour, butter, or water. They’re just wrong.
Here is my report in the order I tried them. All but one of the croissants were purchased some time late morning or early afternoon today, Sunday, June 13. The temp outside was around 80 degrees and it was somewhat humid. Eli’s alone was bought the day before, when it was a bit cooler and less humid. I say this because croissants are so sensitive to ambient temperature and humidity that only the best bakers are really good at compensating for weather differences. That also means on a different day, any one of these bakeries using a fixed recipe might get better or worse results than what I tasted.
1. Payard: Closed and out of the running. Too bad, I used to love the pastries at Payard’s.
2. Eli’s: I mildly enjoyed the Eli's croissant. But it is a significant cut below the top possible. I found the outside not quite flaky enough and the overall feel a bit too tough. Maybe they're using flour with a bit too much gluten or working it too much. Also the sugar/salt balance was too much on the sweet side.
3. Ceci-Cela: The best exterior texture by far of the croissants I tried. Both the corns (ends) and the point on top broke off nicely, with lots of crispy bits coming off. On the other hand, it was a bit greasy (butter escaping) and a little too heavy in the middle. The sugar/salt balance was perfect. It lacked a full, cultured butter flavor, which was really a shame. I don’t know if it was the butter they use or that too much leaked out. The store itself was my favorite, a tiny, almost funky place with the three employees all speaking French.
4. Petrossian: This one had the best flavor combination of butter, flour, salt, and sugar. It wasn’t greasy on the outside but neither was it as crisp as Ceci-Cela. The middle was too soggy for me to consider it worth eating, which was a tragedy.
5. Balthazar: Industrial quality, not in the same class as any of the above. They were also giving out free samples of their pain au chocolat. The samples were overpriced.
7. Dean and DeLuca: I looked at them but couldn’t see spending the money to taste them. The surface was flatter and more even than you’d see in the average supermarket.
Bottom line: None of these croissants would be in a top category in Paris or compare with Café Besalu in Seattle. Ceci-Cela and Petrossian are respectable and could be better than the (low) average quality one finds in Paris these days. Of the two, Petrossian has the best promise of being really excellent, with a tweaking of the baking or perhaps on a different day. Eli’s is adequate in a pinch.