First, the grain of salt you need to take this with: I'm a pastry snob. I don't like pastry with shortening in it (lard, yes; butter, yes), I don't like artificial, bitter-tasting colors in my food, I've eaten pastry in France and Italy, and I don't like my sweets overly sugared. So understand where I'm coming from. I'm setting out looking for the best croissants that Chicago has to offer - a true croissant in the French style, crispy outside, supple inside, buttery flavor, ingredients: butter, flour, sugar, yeast, salt.
So I made a list of bakeries to try (see list at link below) and set off Friday on my bike to check out the first bunch.
Rolf's Pastisserie: Croissants were closer to brioche than croissants, and were fine but bland. But they had some cream pastries that looked tempting - napoleons, opera cakes, etc. Wasn't impressed with the brioche/croissant, but perhaps that's not their specialty. Artificial colors were on many of their products, though.
Vienna Bakery: Very friendly staff, croissants marked "butter horns", and the most bready of the day's croissants. Admittedly, Italy and Vienna's take on croissant is more bready than I prefer, and this fell into that category. Not very buttery, though. But their cheese kolachky was excellent - tender dough, good dairy flavor, not too sweet. I would get these again. They also came in 2 fruit flavors. They also had some very intriguing crusty breads there - add them to the chow bread tasting? Fake colors on some of their stuff, too.
Reuter's Bakery: I was happy to see the staff busy cutting fresh strawberries as I walked in, for different cakes, they said. They were whitish and not too ripe, but they certainly weren't from a can. Their croissant had to be from a pre-made dough - nearly devoid of butter flavor, but crispy/flaky in that hydrogenated fat sort of way - flavorless and lifeless. Their cheese square (like a cheesecake on crumb crust) was pleasant, but far too sweet for my preference. The flavor of the crust reminded me of the frozen crumb crusts (Sarah Lee?) my mom used to cook with, it had that salty...???...flavor. Very friendly. As I left, the teenage worker sneezed, covering her mouth, then served something to another customer in front of the older workers. Worried me a bit. Artificial colors on items here, too.
Leutitzia's Bakery: No croissants, this is more of an earthy-crunchy coffee shop where they actually make their own stuff, more along the lines of muffins and mini fruit tarts. Was trying to stay focused on croissants, so didn't try anything, but would hang out here. No fake colorings noticed.
Alliance Bakery: Coolest looking bakery, I wonder how old it is? I felt like I'd stepped back a few decades, it was great. I hope this place doesn't get gentrified out of this up-and-coming strip of Division. Unfortunately, no croissants to try, so I got a sandwich cookie. Many would like this, I didn't: supersweet, filling made of crisco-n-sugar. I know it lasts longer, is cheaper and easier to use, but it tastes so bad and leaves that coating in your mouth for me. Still, I only tried one thing here. Fake colors on items.
Red Hen: I've been here many times and like what I've had, though their croissants, besides being too big for my taste, tasted great but didn't achieve croissant-ness in their texture. Found the same thing again today - butter galore, but too soft, too spongy. Still, I'd rather have one of these than any I'd tried so far this day. No fluorescent colors.
Sweet Thang: Wow, two bakeries within a block of each other! Their croissant, even though I had it around 12:00, was excellent - still fairly crispy on the outside, layers and layers of filmy, buttery heaven inside, and not the size of a cantelope. This place I will get to early in the morning. They make the finals. No fake colorings.
Vanille Pastisserie: In case you were wondering, I'd just been taking one bite of each item during this day, but when I sank my teeth into their pain aux raisen (they were out of plain croissants), my willpower melted. Now this is what I've been looking for! Buttery, flaky, flavorful, soft-chewy raisins, yum. He also makes incredibly elegant desserts, truffles, macaroons in 3 flavors, and pate de fruit (passionfruit/pineapple and raspberry were yesterday's). The pate were superior, the macaroon just as perfect. This has been talked about on this board and in the Trib, so I don't go into details, but this place is what Chicago needs and I hope they do well. Also, both husband and wife were incredibly friendly and helpful.
I still have more to try, but of those I visited today, Sweet Thang and Vanille Pastiserie had the best croissants, and I'll be going back to them some weekend morning!