I don’t generally like viennoiseries. I know, *shock*. This branch of the pastry family tree is just too – flaky. Like your least favourite cousin Esme, they’re not very sweet, and too unreliable (in quality) to justify blowing your daily recommended calorie and fat intake on one. I have just experienced one too many mediocre croissants and pedestrian pains au chocolat to take any more chances. I just say non, merci, before polishing off a brownie instead.
Patisserie, on the other hand, is always tempting, but only if it’s of the seriously good kind, and one for which I don’t have to queue. We’re lucky to have a pretty good selection of excellent patisseries in London: for delicate, buttery shortcrust pastries which yield to the gentle pressure of the pastry fork I always think of Balthazar; for the definition of perfect Danish pastry, my mind lingers on Ole and Steen; for beautiful, inventive, almost fantastical creations, I can only think of Dominique Ansel.
It’s almost a shame that this New York bakery made its name with the Cronut, because all I associate with that is hype and long queues. I’ve queued for an underwhelming Cronut in New York City (original post of my experience here), and left feeling like a sucker: an hour’s queue for a pastry that just didn’t hit that sweet spot. When they opened a branch in London last year, I just thought of the hour’s wait, overhyped pastry, shivered at the thought, and stayed away.
Which was a little unfair, because as it turns out, when I did finally venture there earlier this year, I found no queues, a rather lovely, quiet seating area (all very Instagram-friendly, of course), and a variety of patisserie and baked goods which looked pretty good. They also bake throughout the day, so you have a good chance of getting what you want (in my case, cookies and more – read on) even if you drop by later in the afternoon, which is what I tend to do.
Cronut note: if you are a die-hard Cronut fan, here’s what you should know: they make only one flavour for the entire month, and in London you can actually prepay for yours and collect it on a date and time that suits you (as opposed to queuing before the bakery opens, which I think still happens in NYC). Which is pretty civilised. But I had my eye on other things…
I have both eaten in the bakery and taken goods away to eat at home. And I know that the general assumption is that eating in is the ‘proper’ experience – and Dominique Ansel does have a lovely conservatory area at the back to sit and eat, and a great filtered water tap (I notice these things) – but I personally think that the better experience is bringing your Dominique Ansel goodies home and eating them exactly the way you want them. In fact, it’s amazing. This is a massive compliment to the bakery, because to create something which is even better enjoyed at home than on site is just wonderful! It’s like bringing magic home.
Case in point: the cookies…
I dropped by one evening to pick up some cookie-based items – the staff were also very helpful when I phoned ahead, telling me they had cookies available – and picked up the following to take home:
At £2.50 each, they’re more expensive than Ben’s Cookies, but less expensive than the overpriced crispy-looking cookies you get from Selfridges Food Hall. And for the taste and quality, they were well worth it.
I like my cookies warm, so when I bring them home I get to heat them in the oven for a few minutes until they’re just gooey enough, in which time I’ve got my drink ready, and then I get to break off a bite and…
…bliss. The Flourless Chocolate Pecan cookie is like dark, velvety chocolate in cookie form – really dense and moist. I told myself half would be enough, but I ended up eating the whole thing (no guilt, none).
The Chocolate Chunk cookie was rich and decadent: a perfect balance of buttery cookie with semi-molten chunks of dark chocolate. Again, I ended up wolfing down the whole thing.
The following is a Dominique Ansel signature, and a perfect example of the quirky creativity of this bakery: the Cookie Shot. Think cookies and milk rethought into a thick, rich, chocolate-lined cookie ‘shot glass’, filled with Tahitian vanilla-flavoured milk. Wow. I got this to takeaway as well, thinking I would only get the shot and not the milk, but no, they filled a small espresso-style cup with the milk and packaged the whole thing perfectly to take away. I was impressed. I couldn’t actually wait to get home to eat this, so I sat on a bench outside a church, unwrapped and reassembled what I had been packed and given just moments earlier, and in peaceful silence on sanctified ground enjoyed a transcendental experience. It was pretty incredible.
And when I got to the bottom…
Well, hello. In hindsight, I would have waited until I got home, and then heated the cookie shot in the oven until it was just warmed through, and then enjoyed a super-transcendental experience.
Eating in – the Dessert Meal
Amazing as this all was, it was still safe ground. I love cookies, and these happen to be very good ones. The real surprise came when I went to the bakery again with a friend to enjoy a two-course dessert meal (entirely our own creation, and a great idea). We brought in round one…
I had the Blossoming Hot Chocolate – their beautifully rich house hot chocolate (made in-house) with a ‘blossoming’ marshmallow ‘flower’. At £5.40 it was more expensive than it was actually worth, and the aesthetic showmanship a little underwhelming, but I would definitely get the ‘non-blossoming’ hot chocolate (£3.50/£4.00) because it was so tasty.
I also had the Liquid Caramel Peanut Butter Mousse Cake, which is a stunning pastry made with glass-like caramel (which is actually liquid), encasing a peanut butter mousse sitting on top of a cinnamon and caramelised puffed rice base.
The food science behind it looks quite mind-boggling because of the appearance and textures, and it was delicious, light, airy and smooth:
But it was something else that unexpectedly caught my tastebuds. My friend ordered the Coconut and Chocolate Croissant, and I took a small bite. I wasn’t expecting much, it being a viennoiserie, but what I wasn’t expecting was a BOUNTY BAR IN A PASTRY. That’s the only way I can describe it: chocolate with a coconut frangipane. I mean, who does that? It was insanely good, and I decided that I had to take one home to enjoy it properly.
The Perfect Pastry at Home Experience – Eating Out At Home
I started looking forward to eating this croissant from the moment I bought it – literally. From that moment, I thought of eating nothing else, and there was something exciting about clearing my quotidian eating schedule to eat one thing, and that being such a decadent item, an edible bauble; the anticipation amounted to a frisson. It sounds slightly comical, but I found it quite joyful to be so present to the thought of eating something, and it made me think about how thoughtless and absent I’ve become recently about my food.
The time came: it was a late brunch. Like a holiday, the sun came out, and I placed the pastry – almost the size of my hand, and fairly heavy – into the oven for a few minutes. Because I was home, I could have exactly what I wanted, so I made myself a house iced coffee (recipe here) and set a magazine on the table. This is what makes it better being at home.
I could not get over the warm, nutty, chocolatey goo that was inside the pastry when I cut it open. Putting chocolate and coconut together this way is ingenious.
I ate, slowly, the sun falling on my face, and my eyes dipping in and out of the magazine. I wanted to savour each bite. It may be the first time I had to use a knife and fork for my pastry, but there were a few first times going on here so that’s fine.
Could this be the perfect pastry? Right now, for me it is. I didn’t want to eat anything else afterwards so as to keep the taste and the memory of the moment in my mouth. The sun on my face. Idly reading my magazine. Sipping a cool iced coffee, perfectly made. An explosion of sweet and warm, soft and flaky, smooth and crispy, all coming together in an unexpectedly perfect whole.
It is pretty special when you can create a wonderful eating out at home experience with excellent food. Getting Dominique Ansel pastries takeaway is literally bringing that wonderful food experience home with me to enjoy more at home than I would eating on the premises.
Note: I also bought one of the savoury pastries – their exclusive Welsh Rarebit (a croissant-type creation) – for my brother, who is normally laid back about food. Even he said the inside was creamy and rich, and he finished the whole thing…
I didn’t expect to get philosophical over a pastry, but the quality and joy of eating it made me think about how easy it is to get used to average food, eaten more often. This pastry epiphany strongly encouraged me to eat the best things less often, but to really enjoy them when I did, because the experience is so much better.
I never expected to get rhapsodic over a flaky pastry, but isn’t it a joy when your expectations are overturned and you enjoy something new?
I see Dominique Ansel elevating the eating out at home more often going forward…