Like just about everything that happens in New York, the opening of Dominque Ansel’s new pastry shop in Soho was accompanied by a great deal of hype. And truth be told, I was excited too, because ever since François Payard closed his patisserie on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the city hasn’t had a decent French pastry shop. Ansel has good pedigree. Most recently he was the pastry chef at Daniel which has the reputation of serving up some of the best French cuisine in town. So my hopes were high as we weaved and darted through the stream of Soho shoppers on a Sunday afternoon.
The pastry shop is modest, with a small glass-enclosed kitchen at the back that reveals a couple of banks of convection ovens. There is a very pleasant back yard where you can take the pastries, something of a rarity in New York.
We came on a Sunday afternoon so the full assortment wasn’t out, though looking at the board there appear to be no more than about a half-dozen pastries available at any given time. There is also a selection of Viennoiserie and Ansel has to be lauded for selling that Breton specialty the kouign amman, a disk of butter, pastry and caramel. Can’t report on that because they were sold out. I did try a palmier though, which isn’t made so differently. It was OK, more dense and doughy than buttery and ethereal. So let us return to the pastry. Which was fine. About the level of a provincial French pastry shop without too much ambition or technique. In other words just about the level of other New York French-style pastry shops.
My wife had the mini tarte tatin which seemed like the beginning of a good idea. An individual thick round of apple nestled on a cookie base. But it’s as if there was no follow through. Somehow for $5.50 you expect a flight of imagination, or at least a modest leap. Like Starbucks you’ll find the cups and plates are paper, the forks plastic.
It’s an interesting question, why French-style pastry shops here are so mediocre. Obviously it has something to do with an undiscerning clientele weaned on Twinkies and Dunkin Hines. But that can’t be all of it. After all we have good Italian restaurants which is clear evidence that we can overcome Chef Boyardee. Real estate may be part of it too as well as the wage structure. After Payard closed his wonderful pastry shop uptown he opened Francois Payard Bakery, which is all about mass production. My suspicion is that he just can’t get the workers with the necessary skill level to make genuinely artisanal pastry.
In France pastry cooks have to go through a multi-year apprenticeship (with little pay). Why would anyone bother to do it here when you can just open up another cupcake bakery and hire workers with the skill set of twelve year olds. Another reason why French pastry seems to be holding on in France in ways that it can’t here was pointed out to me by Emmanuel Hamon a talented pastry chef in Brest. In France people visit their neighborhood pastry shop virtually every day because they buy their bread there as well. As a result buying pastry isn’t some sort of esoteric, once a month activity it is a quotidian reality. This, in turn, supports numerous pastry shops which increases competition leading to better quality and variety. Of course those conditions don’t exist here but still, you'd think a city like New York could support at least one stellar patisserie.