As I indicated earlier in my quick Manhattan notes, I wanted to offer a report on patisseries and other sites sampled on my visit.
Ceci Cela, very good, a very nice surprise.
Pain Quotidien, mixed
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 once 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.
A detailed review of the last patisserie, Ceci Cela will have to wait. As a neighborhood shop, it does have an element that makes Paris patisseries so charming and appealing. The product is not as pretensious as the other two, but it is closer to what I had in mind when I posed my request.
Financier Patisserie way down in Chinatown, I did not try on this trip, but what I have heard makes it well worth a visit.