Maison Kayser: The Once Square, Now Hip UES

When there are no errands to be run or chores to be done, no appointments to be kept or parcels to be schlepped, what do you like to do?

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What I like is hanging out in places where you can linger for an hour nursing a cup of coffee, while doing little more than watching those around me. Preferably places that open early and stay open late, with no reservation required. It's a habit I developed when growing up in Sherwood Park in southeast Yonkers—the most boring place in the world!—where the most exciting thing that happened during my four years of high school was the opening of a diner on Yonkers Avenue. It was one of those classic All-American diners having a red neon sign, Formica counters, red leather booths with tabletop jukeboxes, and waitresses in black uniforms with pencils tucked behind their ears. My friends and I soon discovered that for the price of a cup of coffee, the folks at the diner were so nice they'd let you hang out all afternoon. Which we did, as it was one of the few places we could afford. What’s more, the diner was filled with an interesting cast of characters—do you think he’s a Mafioso?—all of whom were passing through and none of whom lived in Sherwood Park.

Years later I would become equally enamored of Parisian cafés with tiny tables where everyone was engaged in a spirited conversation or writing a sequel to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—In Search of Lost Time. Without realizing it, I had become a flâneuse, one who loves nothing more than to walk the city and observe the passing scene.

So it was last Monday, after an exhausting iPhone class at the Apple on Fifth Avenue—how to purchase additional iCloud space when on vacation; how to back up your iCloud library; how to coordinate your iPad and your iPhone—I made my way uptown to Maison Kayser on Third Avenue at 74th Street.

It’s not a diner, but something better -- a Parisian boulangerie, patisserie, brasserie and café all rolled into one. Take a look at the storefront with its classic lines. It's not Paris, but it's close.

Filling the Bread Basket

When the neighbors first heard that Eric Kayser, a fourth-generation French Master Baker, was opening a shop on Third Avenue, jubilation reigned. At last—shades of Paris!—there would be an authentic boulangerie with crispy croissants and crusty baguettes. You see, in order to hang out a sign reading 'Boulangerie' in France, the baker needs to make his own dough and to bake it on the premises. And that's what they do  at Maison Kayser, with freshly baked loaves of bread coming from the ovens every two hours. Did you notice in the above photo the words: 'Pain Artisanal cuit sur place? That means bread baked on site. 

Is it any wonder that after a few years in France, Julia Child would say: How can a nation be great if their bread tastes like Kleenex? Meanwhile, back home my mother stayed loyal to Wonder Bread as it helped 'build strong bodies twelve ways.' Vive la différence!  

Beyond the Bread Basket

After opening his first shop at 8 rue Monge in Paris in 1996, Eric Kayser went on to open stores in most of the capital cities of the world—from Taipei, Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul to Lisbon, Tangier, Dakar and Kinshasa. There are more than twenty Maison Kayser shops in Paris alone and 25 throughout Japan.

From opening day on Third Avenue, Maison Kayser has been packed—the neighbors overjoyed to have a good bakery and an attractive brasserie for casual dining—for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Since then, he’s added outposts in Bryant Park and the Flatiron district, with the latest at Third Avenue at 87th Street. Given all those croissants and baguettes rolling out of the ovens, to say nothing of the sweets and pastries, the formerly solidly square Upper East Side is suddenly hip.

Enjoying the Bread Basket

When I arrive too late for breakfast and too early for the lunchtime crowd, I have my pick of tables and choose one with a clear view of the restaurant and bakery. Sometimes the simplest things in life give the most pleasure, n'est-ce pas?

So it was that morning. I was pleased with everything. With the white marble tabletop banded in chrome, the unvarnished wood flooring, the bentwood chairs. Studying the menu, I chose the Saumon Fume & Deux Oeufs au choix. Scrambled, s'il vous plaît.

And then I simply sat back and watched. Watched the waiters in their black-and-white striped Breton shirts filling small burlap bags with an array of breads. Watched two young moms catching up with one another while feeding bits and pieces of buttered bread to babies seated on their laps. Watched an elderly gentleman using a knife and fork to cut through a crusty Gruyere atop a bowl of French onion soup. Watched a college-age student highlighting every other paragraph in her book. All these commonplace happenings are reassuring in a topsy-turvy world.

It's what makes being a flâneuse so enjoyable, for when you are observing the passing scene—your analytical mind not making any judgments—you are 'in the moment,' untroubled by either the past or the future.

Waiting for Les Oeufs—organic eggs, I might add—I walk over to the Take-Out to check out the pastries and ask the young man behind the counter if they have any gluten-free breads. In this citadel of fine breads, the question borders on the sacrilegious. He’s not sure, but suggests the flourless chocolate cake is probably gluten free. I promise to try it another day.

After the velvety eggs and seconds of coffee—both excellent—I walk uptown to see what's happening at the new Maison Kayser at 87th Street and Third. By now, the lunchtime crowd is pouring through the doors. The young lady at the front of the house tells me that this Maison Kayser is slightly larger than the one at 74th Street. Really? Perhaps because of the layout, it feels smaller. That said, the offerings in the cases are every bit as delectable. Including a new twist—a loaf of bread embedded with chocolate chips.

Taking the Bread Basket Away

Let me ask you: When there are no errands to be run or chores to be done, no appointments to be kept or parcels to be schlepped... is there somewhere you like hanging out to watch the world go by? That's all for this week my friends... J'espère te voir bientot. I'll have the coffee ready and maybe a croissant or two...