Typical Midwestern cuisine, while often occupying a nostalgic nook in many a Minnesotan heart, is often reduced to a few well-worn stereotypes: casseroles, lutefisk, pot roast, bars and watery church coffee. But when it comes to the Twin Cities region, the variety and quality of dining options rivals that of larger coastal cities. Of course, standard American fare has a strong foothold among the higher echelon of restaurants. Although one can boast several uniquely “American” foods, one can also objectively make the observation that most of our classic menu items are heavily influenced by foreign cuisine. French cuisine in particular has found a comfortable spot in our American dining experience: crème brulée graces many a desert menu, baguettes can be found at every supermarket, and crêpe stands are even popping up at the Mall of America! If it is possible to say that these French items have been Americanized, is it possible to say that we in the Twin Cities have also left our unique mark on French cuisine? Are our culinary interpretations authentic or have they departed from classic French standards?
To explore this question, I set out with a lively group of French enthusiasts from the weekly conversation circle on a rainy Saturday morning to explore the Twin Cities’ offerings of one of the most quintessentially “French” pastries: the croissant. In the space of the morning, we sampled croissants from four bakeries across the metro area: Trung Nam French Bakery in St. Paul, Patisserie 46 and Rustica Bakery in Minneapolis, and Patrick’s Bakery in Richfield. Our aim was not only to determine the “best” variety of croissant, but also to consider which bakery produced the most “authentic” variety of croissant. Luckily, our group was graciously accompanied by une vraie parisienne who lent her expertise to our final deliberations.
The classic crescent-shaped, fluffy, buttery croissant, derives its name the gerund form of “to grow” in French (croisser, “to grow” à croissant ,“growing”), as well as from the noun designating the waxing crescent moon. This concept of expansion and growth is quite evident in the process of baking croissants; when correctly made, they double in size. Beyond these general characteristics, we encountered a wide array of more particular traits at each bakery. While each venue offered an individual and committed interpretation of a French croissant, marked differences existed across the spectrum. Visiting four bakeries in one morning does seem a bit excessive; by the end of the outing we were stuffed, and somewhat relieved to be leaving the magnetic force field of those gorgeous pastry cases. Nevertheless, this croissant scavenger hunt permitted us to focus on a single type of pastry across the span of a few hours, to better compare and contrast several varieties. In this way, the group felt that we were better able to properly judge the quality of the croissants.
Stop #1: Trung Name French Bakery (http://www.trungnambakery.com/)
Our first stop of the day was a bit of a surprise in the regard that the outward appearance of Trung Nam Bakery, as well as its interior, resembled that of a fast food restaurant. While the amply stocked case of fresh croissants was impossible to miss, many group member felt that they received mixed messages in regard to the establishment’s atmosphere. With fast-food style, plastic seated booths lining the walls, one member of the group described the locale as being “McDonaldesque”, or even “industrial”. The inside décor is neither cozy nor overly inviting, and thus not what one would expect from a typical French bakery setting. However, this did not deter local customers from forming a line outside before the doors opened at 8 am; judging by the awards on the walls and these customers, it seems that the business is well supported by the Frogtown community. In this regard, the small-business aspect of the establishment shone through in the fact that they also only accept cash. When it came to the actual croissants, the first three words that came to mind were buttery, slightly sweet, and mou (soft). Even though we chose to stick to the classic plain croissant, Trung Nam’s take on the pastry was distinct in that outside crust and inside were both doughier than one would expect. In sum, while this type of croissant may stem from a tradition of French-influenced Vietnamese fare, it was not the most quintessentially French version of croissant that we sampled across the morning.
Average group rating (on a scale of 1 to 10): 7.5
Stop # 2: Patisserie 46 (http://www.patisserie46.com/)
In comparison with the cooler reception at Trung Nam, the whole group was immediately drawn to the bustling, yet welcoming atmosphere just inside the doors of the snug corner bakery on the corner of 46th street and Grand Avenue South. The art lined walls of the dining area encompassed a warm, sunlit and vibrant space in which the 20-foot long pastry case was the centerpiece. If there is a true test of will power, it would be to walk past the gorgeous display of deserts, pastries, bonbons, and fresh-baked bread without purchasing at least one item. Several members of our group left with treats to complement our croissant tastings. There were many a claim that the aforementioned treats were for roommates or friends, but I have to wonder how many actually reached their intended destinataires…And who could blame them? There is certainly something to be said about the visual appeal of the bakery’s wares and its dining space; it is easy to reason that such exquisitely crafted treats must taste equally exquisite. Despite the noisy and somewhat crowded seating area (indicative of a well-loved and frequented Saturday morning destination), we eventually found a nook to sample our croissants. Somewhat larger than Trung Nam’s croissants, these were lightly browned with a distinctively firmer crust, croustillant in the best sense of the term. However, as we discovered, the crust had a pleasant flaky texture beyond which lay a soft center. In contrast with the previous croissants, Patisserie 46’s croissants were moist without being too greasy, and maintained pleasant neutrality in terms of flavor (rather than the sweeter taste we experience at Trung Nam). Our “Parisian in Residence” promptly confirmed that these croissants were very close to those she had sampled in Paris. If this wasn’t enough of an authentication, it is also interesting to note that most of the signage was in French, giving the place an extra measure of credibility, if just in terms of aesthetics. Overall, it is clear that Patisserie 46 has stayed true to a more traditional style of French baking; this effort is evident, appreciable, and affirms the value of this treasured Lake Harriet neighborhood business.
Average group rating (on a scale of 1 to 10): 9.5
Stop # 3: Rustica Bakery (http://www.rusticabakery.com/)
After our success at Patisserie 46, the group was anxious to see how the renowned Rustica Bakery would compare. While first impressions of the locale were somewhat indicative of the inside atmosphere of the two previous bakeries, we were surprised by Rustica. Nestled amidst other shops in a strip mall near Lake Calhoun, we were at first skeptical, expecting suburban soccer mothers and a more run-of-the-mill setting. But upon our entry, we observed that most of Lake Calhoun holds Rustica in high regard; the place was packed to the brim. The interior décor of Rustica is geared to accommodate longer lines of customers, and has chosen to dedicate most of its space to seating. Unfortunately, this time around, the busy atmosphere was more stressful than cheerful, and we felt a bit rushed to place our order when we would have liked to further examine the lovely bakery case. Promptly, I ordered our croissants to share, but as soon as they were plated, we instinctively knew that they would not be quite as excellent as those we had sampled at Patisserie 46. In fact, they might have been equally as delicious, but it seemed that someone had left them in the oven for just one minute too long. The flaky crust was this time a bit too dark; several group members made this observation before even trying a bite, and when they ventured to do so, they found the outside mildly dry and crunchy, with a less smooth interior. While the croissants were tasty, they were also “forgettable”; while they were generally acceptable, they didn’t make as strong of an impression. Many group members commented on the fact that the hectic pace of the environment detracted from their enjoyment of the croissant. And while the large windows were a pleasant addition to the seating area, several individuals noted that the open baking area behind the counter imbued the entire space with an assembly line effect. While it was fascinating to watch the bakers at their trade, and to spy on baristas just behind the counter frantically pulling espresso shots, this transparent glimpse into the workings of Rustica robbed the space of what otherwise would have been a more intimate atmosphere.
Average group rating (on a scale of 1 to 10): 7
Stop # 4: Patrick’s Bakery (http://www.patricksbakerycafe.com/)
Once again, we arrived outside of our destination wondering if its external appearance would translate to the bakery’s interior atmosphere and wares. Our suspicions were amplified by the fact that the bakery was stationed among other craft shops and private businesses, in a strip mall that was somehow inordinately difficult to navigate. This time, we found that Patrick’s was geared more towards a middle-class clientele, with a homey and “cutesy” effect that screamed Twin-Cities suburbia. And while we were quite ready to try our last croissant of the morning (one can only cope with a certain amount of butter and carbs!), we were interested to know whether Patrick’s croissants would prove to be an exemplary element of the otherwise standard soup and salad menu. In the end, we were mildly disappointed; although lighter in color and similar in appearance to Trung Nam’s croissants, these croissants fell short of expectations in terms of taste. While the crust was a pleasant middle range between crispy and soft, the overall texture was less substantial than previous croissants. Many group members described the overall taste as “flat”. While the other items in the pastry case were beautifully decorated and arranged, it appears that croissants are not the strongest asset of Patrick’s bakery. One group member commented that if not for the convenient suburban location, regulars might otherwise flock to another bakery to find a more flavorful croissant. And while we did not try the other items on the menu, it is safe to say that the entire dining experience at Patrick’s can be boiled down to a matter of perspective. For those who live in the suburbs and do not have a chance to explore other bakeries in the more cosmopolitan areas of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Patrick’s food might be perceptually favored due to its location and convenience. Another group member mentioned that in retrospect, if we had only visited Patrick’s, without the previous experience of three other bakeries as a point of comparison, these croissants would have been good.
Average group rating (on a scale of 1 to 10): 6
Patisserie 46 – 9.5
Trung Nam French Bakery – 7.5
Rustica Bakery – 7
Patrick’s Bakery and Cafe – 6
In the end, while Patisserie 46 had the highest numerical rating, we discovered that the process of sampling croissants came down to a matter of perspective and personal experience. For those living across the street from Trung Nam or just down the road from Rustica, the classic standards at each restaurant may become favorable simply due to habit and the comfort of familiarity. If one were to determine the “best” croissant in terms of its authentically French aspects, then in this regard, Patisserie 46 is indeed the clear winner. Above all, we felt that of the four bakeries we toured, Patisserie 46 demonstrates a unique commitment to traditional French baking practices, all while being an accessible space that allows visitors a brief glimpse into a true patisserie atmosphere. Without caving to the demands of fast(er) food, a high-stress frenzy of industry, or suburban mediocrity, Patisserie 46 holds its ground.