French Breads and Pastries: The Upper East Side
What better time to walk the streets of any great city than when it’s snowing or raining? It's that precipitation—be it rain, sleet, hail, snow or fog—has a way of blurring the sharp edges of a metropolis, slowing the pace of its inhabitants walking with downcast eyes, and lowering the decibel count. When the everyday hustle-bustle fades, the city takes a deep breath.
So it was on a snowy day last week, with meteorologists issuing warnings, urging young and old to stay indoors, that I pulled on a pair of fleecy socks and knee-high Hunter boots to see what I could see.
With a fine snow whipping in from the north, Park Avenue was a ghostly shadow of itself. With visibility of less than a block, I couldn't tell if the Bronx was still to the north or the Helmsley Tower to the south. In a city of eight million, it was as if I had the place to myself if only for a moment, with not another soul in sight. Over on Madison Avenue, the lights in the shops were winking and blinking, as if trying to get my attention, begging me to come in. But being less a shopper than an observer of the passing scene, I trudged on by. And isn’t that what being a flaneur (or a flaneuse) is all about?
It wasn’t long before I became aware of a new-found flourishing of French style on the Upper East Side. Especially notable was the arrival of the ‘boulangeries et pâtisseries,’ featuring healthful breads, exquisite pastries, and an array of flaky croissants and pain au chocolat.
First stop was Maison Kayser at the corner of Third Avenue and East 87th, where I was greeted warmly by the staff, one of whom--the delightful Rodeilyn--obligingly became my 'Missing Mother' model. When asked about their favorite breads, each found it hard to select just one. After all, there were so many to choose from -- baguettes and mini-baguettes; olive breads and fig breads; Pullman loaves and sourdough breads -- all of which they thought scrumptious!
After much indecisiveness on their parts and mine, I bought a pain d’epi. The word ‘epi’ translates as a ‘wheat stack,’ which is what the baguette is thought to resemble. If not a wheat stack, then maybe a cluster of leaves on a branch, each one ready for plucking. In that spirit, the ‘epi’ invites you to do that, to pull it apart one crusty ‘leaf’ at a time.
Next up was Café Bilboquet at 26 East 60th street, a few doors east of the popular restaurant Le Bilboquet. If your curiosity is piqued by the word ‘bilboquet,’ it's a well-known Frech toy.
Arriving a little before eleven that morning, in between breakfast and lunch, I was startled to find the café bustling. If I expected to find a bakery, it was much more than that. To the right as you enter is a smallish corner with three café tables and to the left a charming niche. Casing the place, I saw that all the tables were spoken for, including the ones at the rear. Stopping the attractive waiter, I asked: ‘How long has this been going on?'
'It’s been nine months, Madame,’ he said.
Whenever I hear ‘Madame,’ in an instant I'm whisked away to Paris, tears welling in my eyes. There's something about the word that's both proper and polite. I do not feel the same about 'Miss,' 'Miz' or 'Missus.' Which is why you never want to enter a hotel or shop in France without bidding the proprietor, the maitre d' or the clerk behind the counter a ‘Bon jour, Madame’ or a ‘Bon soir, Monsieur.’ It is the custom, and if you fail to heed it, you will be thought rude.
The offerings at Café Bilboquet were varied, but the one I could not resist was the beignets: ‘Le Trois Gourmand, s’il vous plait.’ A little basket all my own for $5. Without a place to sit, I gently placed it in my bag. By the way, the intimate Café Bilboquet becomes a wine bar in the evening. If you find yourself midtown late afternoon, it might be worth a try.
And then I was off to the recently reopened La Goulue, 28 East 61st Street off Madison, to make a reservation. Indeed, last Sunday the family enjoyed the ambiance of La Goulue and the wonderful prix-fixe lunch. If the ladies gave thumbs-up to the eggs Benedict, the men raved about steak au poivre with frites. To better appreciate the charms of La Goulue be sure to click here.
After which, I headed for Vaucluse at 100 East 63rd Street. Vaucluse is the first French restaurant owned by Michael White’s Altamarea Group, known for its fine Italian restaurants. The latest buzz on the street is that the restaurant is selling its fabulous breads, baked by Jacqueline Eng, retail. Really? Yes, it's true, and here’s what you should know. You must order the breads and pastries two days ahead on-line, and then pick them up at the restaurant from noon to 9 PM. To order from Boulangerie V, all you do is go to: Shop.altamareagroup.com.
Vaucluse is so beautiful that any excuse is reason enough to stop by, if only to pick up a croissant or two. Rather than have me wax delirious about the breads and pastries, click here to see the crusty baguettes ($4), the olive bread, and the incredible chocolate flax Pullman bread with pepitas, a bread as divinely decadent as can be imagined. A half-loaf might do it. Remember to order two days in advance.
Both Café Bilboquet and Boulangerie V offer viennoiseries like the pain au chocolat and croissants. What could be better than starting a day with un croissant et un pot de café?
The renown food writer M F K Fisher said: 'It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without bread or soup.' The citing of bread I would agree with. But let me as you, what's your favorite thing to pair with a great bread? A soup? A pate? A bit of cheese? For me it's butter. I would rather have a slice of crusty French bread with an excellent French butter than a decidedly delicious dessert.
That's all for this week, mes amis. Hope to see you back next week when I'll have the coffee ready. And what about you? With your coffee, would you care for a croissant or perhaps the pain d'epi? Until then, may life be good to you.