When I bite into a plain croissant in New York City, one of the first things that pops into my mind is that I'm not in Paris. It's a real issue I need to get over - the ingredients in the States are different than what is found in France and it's usually sometimes rarely occasionally not the fault of the chefs here, provided they're using quality products and not taking production shortcuts. The difference in the French butter is that it has a higher fat content and the flour has a different feel, consistency, and combines well with the fat in the butter to form those magical, buttery inner layers and crisp, flaky exterior. I often wish Pierre Hermé would open up a shop here in Manhattan, but in that same breath wonder if he, the reigning Pastry King, could recreate his incomparable croissants on American soil, even if he imported all of his ingredients. Maybe there's just something in the air in Paris that makes a Parisian pastry taste divine - like having a cheese steak in Philly or sushi in Tokyo.
All things considered and taking Paris out of the equation, New York City has a few places that regularly knock out bang-up croissants, and on this first installment of Pastry Police, I'd like to take a look at three of my favorites - Almondine, Bouchon and Payard - and how they compare. I bought a plain croissant from each and headed over to Matthew's, where we dissected and eagerly gobbled up each one.
Let's meet the competitors (click on photos for a full-size close-up): On the left we have a croissant from Payard's new shop on Houston Street. In the middle is Almondine's plain croissant from their Dumbo location. And on the right is Bouchon Bakery's entry from their spot at Columbus Circle.
Looking at them lined up from the top, I immediately noticed the different forms of each croissant - Payard's is lacking the classic crescent shape, while Almondine's is very old school in appearance, and Bouchon's has taken on more of a modern croissant form that leans toward what Pierre Hermé's look like.
Now let's look at them cut in half. The webbing is noticeably different in all three, with Bouchon's croissant (far right) having the most space between layers, followed by Payard's and finally Almondine's, which has a densely packed ring of layers.
Looking at them individually now, I'll go alphabetically starting with Almondine. Look at how dark and crisp the exterior is - exactly how I like a croissant to be when I bite into it! I like hearing that crunch before hitting a flaky, moist interior.
And that's exactly what Almondine had - it was amazing. Matthew and I tried each at room temperature, and warmed the other half in the oven at 350 for a few minutes. Almondine's croissant was great both warm and cold, although warming the croissant in the oven freshened up the exterior slightly and increased the crunch factor.
Bouchon has the prettiest entry of the three - I love the high rounded shape to the croissant and the way that the layers are peeling off before even touching it. I felt that it could have been browned a bit more to give the exterior more of a pop - it wasn't soft by any means, but it could have been crispier.
Examining the Bouchon croissant's interior closely, you see the beautiful layers forming a circular webbing that winds toward the edge. At room temperature, Bouchon was fine, but not great compared to the other two. Because it wasn't as brown as I would like it, I felt that their croissant benefited greatly from some time in the oven, and it really transformed the flavor.
Payard's croissant has a long, curveless shape when viewed from the top, but a side view reveals a beautiful, golden "dome" that hovers over the base and interior. I felt like it could have been a little flakier on the exterior, and again this is a personal preference I have for darker, crispier croissants.
The interior of Payard's croissant falls somewhere in the middle between Almondine's and Bouchon's in terms of density. Taste-wise, it similarly fell in the middle, both at room temperature and when heated.
Rounding up the three croissants, it's hard to pick a winner - these are three of the best croissants you'll find in NYC. Bouchon's form and flaky exterior was quite appealing. Payard's overall taste and presentation was solid. However, I'm a classic guy, and Almondine, with it's crisp exterior and soft interior loaded with layer after layer of buttery goodness, for me comes out tops both at room temperature and when heated up in the oven. Matthew agrees, and we're two of the biggest croissant-eaters around. ;-)
Do you have a suggestion for a future Sweet Smackdown? Or perhaps a tip on something so wretched that the Pastry Police need to check it out? I love drama, so spill it. I'll use no names! Leave a comment below or send me an email via the link on the right column of my blog - I'd love to hear from you!