There are people whose jobs require them to wake before dawn, pound cold butter and fold it into chilled dough, and then fold it, roll it, chill it, fold it, roll it, and chill it again and again until the butter is but a whisper-thin memory between weightless layers of pastry. The perfectly “laminated dough” (“laminated” with butter, that is, to avoid any “breadiness” in the pastry) is then rolled out one final time, cut into long, sharp triangles and rolled up, the pointy ends gently brought together to form the crescent. Finally, a light egg wash is applied before baking.
These are the painstaking lengths that the best bakers in Seattle go to so that you and I can experience one of life’s simplest, finest pleasures: diving into a shatteringly tender, buttery croissant. The taste and texture stop you in your tracks, eliciting approving noises. Like the passionate local bread bakers at Macrina, Grand Central and dozens of other bakeries that forever changed our definition of good bread in the 1990s, a new band of artisan bakers are opening sweet, petite artisan pastry shops in all corners of the city, making remarkably good European-style pastries.
Of course, each bakery has its specialty: Owner and pastry chef William Leaman is known for sensationally pretty, sublime desserts, macaroons and twice-baked almond croissants at Bakery Nouveau; Evan Andres’ Columbia City Bakery does rustic, crusty breads best; Honoré’s cannelles and kouign amann, handcrafted by Franz Gilbertson, are the talk of the town (more on that in a bit). But the ultimate litmus test at these pastry shops: the deceptively simple butter croissant.
Earlier this winter, I crisscrossed the city, traipsing from one Ballard bakery to another—Honoré to Cafe Besalu—one day, and then from one Madison Valley patisserie to the other—Inès to Belle Epicurean—a few days later—and to West Seattle, for those award-winners over at Bakery Nouveau—comparing the color, texture, flavor and scent of the fresh buttery croissants on offer. (Sadly missing: the pastries from chef Neil Robertson’s much-anticipated new Crumble & Flake bakery; at press time, the former Canlis and Mistral Kitchen pastry chef was set to open on Olive Way in April or early May.) Of course there were outliers: the yeasty croissants at Capitol Hill restaurant Sitka & Spruce and the impressive pastries at Le Rêve Bakery on Queen Anne.
Let’s start with my favorite croissant, which I’m surprised to tell you can no longer be found in Ballard. Cafe Besalu, which had long been my go-to destination for simply perfect butter croissants, has been upstaged in my mind by the gorgeous croissants ($3.50) at the hidden Madison Valley patisserie, Inès. Owner Nohra Belaid’s croissants have an ideal softness inside, a deeply buttery flavor and a crust that’s neither pale nor too caramelized for my taste.
There seems to be two distinct schools of thought on the ideal color of a good croissant. At Ballard’s Besalu, James Miller’s soft, somewhat stout croissants ($2.30) land on the pale side of the spectrum, which lends them a soft, subtle, pure butter flavor. But at Honoré, several blocks away on the east side of Ballard, owner and baker Gilbertson’s croissants ($2.50) are longer in shape and cooked until they’re the color of mahogany: more crust, with complex caramelized notes.
Belle Epicurean owner Carolyn Ferguson is no dummy: knowing full well the seductive qualities of a warm croissant perfuming the air with butter, Ferguson treats dine-in customers to butter croissants ($2.89) warmed to order in an oven. Et voilà! An impossible-to-resist croissant that seduces in flavor and texture, and an exterior that lands in the middle: not too pale, not too dark. The warming-up thing? Maybe it’s cheating, but I wish more bakeries would do it.
Landing toward the bottom—still perfectly good, though not as memorable—were the plain croissants at Bakery Nouveau ($2.25) and those at Le Rêve ($2.25). I also enjoyed the excellent croissants ($4.50) at the Capitol Hill Restaurant Bar Ferd’nand, which are made with a fermented starter that completely transforms them—they taste malty, reminiscent of beer—but their distinctive flavor will likely surprise those looking for butter as the primary flavor.
On the hunt, I dove into dozens of fine pastries, crumbs covering my lap. For marvelous pastries, Madison Valley—where you, too, can do a croissant comparison (Belle Epicurean and Inès are just two blocks apart)—is a worthy destination. This month, however, you’ll likely find that the lines there are just a tad bit shorter than usual; everyone is likely to be heading to Capitol Hill to get a taste of the just-opened—and sure to be scrumptious—Crumble & Flake.
West Seattle, 4737 California Ave. SW, 206.923.0534; bakerynouveau.com
Capitol Hill, 1531 Melrose Ave., 206.623.5882; ferdinandthebar.com
Two locations, including Madison Valley, 3109 E Madison St., 206.466.1320; belleepicurean.com
Ballard, 5909 24th Ave. NW, 206.789.1463; cafebesalu.com
Crumble & Flake
Capitol Hill,11500 E Olive Way; crumbleandflake.com
Ballard, 1413 NW 70th St.; 206.706.4035; honorebakery.com
Madison Valley, 2909 E Madison St., 206.915.7379; inespatisserieseatle.com
Queen Anne, 1805 Queen Anne Ave. N No. 100, 206.623.7383; larevebakery.com