Note: Photos were taken by and/or with Don’s camera. The waiter at Au Pied de Cochon accidently knocked mine off the bar during dinner two nights prior. The camera did not survive.
Between bison ribs and pastrami, Don and I popped into Kouign Amann and Le Fromentier for half a dozen pastries, afternoon snacks you know?
There was only one item on our agenda at Kouign Amann, and if the bakery name wasn’t a dead giveaway, you should already know by now. The giant glistening wheel beckoned us step by step, closer, and closer. Whispers of “kouign amann” echoed in the back, a buttery chant. So long as the lady ahead of us didn’t order a wedge, we would be the lucky ones to get the very first cut from the wheel. Perfect timing. All smiles, we pointed and ordered.
The bakery girl looked at us and nodded. Nodded left and right.
The kouign amann was reserved.
Someone reserved the ENTIRE wheel.
You see, I’ve never tasted kouign amann my entire life.
I’ve read about it on David Lebovitz’s blog.
And I’ve turned Robyn’s photo into my desktop background.
I’ve dreamed and drooled. But kouign amann and my tongue have never met.
And so I thought it would remain that way, seeing as we planned to leave early the next morning. Oh well.
But wait! Don suggested. We can come back before crossing the border tomorrow. Even though it was totally out of the way, wrong direction and everything. And he would be driving the whole way back, seven hours or more. But we came back anyways, because butter is delicious and Don is awesome.
We returned Sunday morning, 17 hours later, and entered the bakery, fingers crossed. There was no kouign amann in sight, but we asked anyways. The man turned to look in the kitchen the very second the baker slashed down the center of a steaming wheel. First Slice. This time, timing was indeed perfect.
We brought the slice, along with a cafe au lait and almond croissant to one of the three tiny tables, soft morning sun shining though glass windows. This kouign amann is one fierce baby. It’s quite easy on the eyes, with sharp cuts and a wonderfully crisp, caramelized exterior. But it’s heavy. HEAVY. It’s heavy in your hands and even heavier in your belly. It’s not so much pastry with a lot of butter as it is butter with a bit of pastry. “Kouign amann” translates directly from Breton as “butter cake”. Nothing lost in translation there. Multiple layers of rich dough, butter generously slipped between in sheets and a tease of salt. Steamy, sweet and filling, perhaps more appropriate shared as an afternoon munch should you disapprove against starting the morning with a butter brick lodged deep in the belly. The best part though, is definitely the brittle crunch of the golden caramelized top – I could easily do without the rest.
Sips of the cafe au lait was absolutely necessary with the kouign amann, the hot milky liquid absolutely luscious in the cool morning, simultaneously warming the body and cutting bites of rich butter bathed bites. Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed the almond croissant even more than the kouign amann. Equally heavy, though on a different dimensions, for it managed to be delicate at the same time, with more textural interplay. This croissant leans on the doughy end of the spectrum, though there’s nothing wrong with that, for it makes that wonderful mix of ground almonds, egg and sugar all the more easier to meld and tuck into the innermost layer of dough. A carefree sprinkle of sliced almonds, light syrup to caramelize the top, and we find ourselves wrapped in this blissful mix of almondy crunch, crumbs flying, and soft innards hugging secrets of sweet cream.
But it doesn’t end there.
The pastries get even better!
Rejected by the kouign amann on Saturday afternoon, we did not walk away empty handed. Oh no. We celebrated the warm day with a lemon cake, a fantastic summer treat, sunny yellow with a tender lemon zest speckled crumb. Fragrant would be a dangerous understatement, the citrus scent exploding in the air with tailing wisps of vanilla as we opened the bag. Dainty and sweet, with a caramelized golden dome. Such intense caramelization going on in this bakery – maybe that’s the true secret to happiness
Between sweet scents dancing from the open kitchen and a large sliding glass cabinet teaming with edible options, you’d think it’d be difficult to pick a favourite. But no. It was easy. A bite into the humble maple tart and I was hooked. Settled. The others could not come close. We only ordered the maple tart out of pity – a consolation prize to the lost kouign amann, and besides, it looked rather lonely sitting by itself. Flavour outweighs beauty, and this was a fine example. The shell: simple and buttery, to serve a supporting roll. The real secret hides behind that pale, thin crunchy top. A BATH OF WALNUT SPECKLED MAPLE SYRUP. Oh my goodness, I tremble as I write this. I can recall the first bite, breaking though the crumbly, butter dabbled wall, I crunched though the surface shell not knowing what to expect. But I must have done something, or many things, right in past lives for I was rewarded with a slow flowing pool of pure maple syrup, interrupted only by tiny chunks of toasted walnuts. It was insane. Pure maple syrup on its own, is far from overly sweet, and million miles away from the Aunt Jemima I grew up with. A welcoming golden shade, deep and clear – it tastes honest, if that makes sense. So imagine that syrup, coupled with toasty walnuts, a butter crust and a shattering shell much like the first tap of crème brulee, only skip the custard and replace it with maple syrup.
That maple tart made me insanely happy.
We could have gone straight back to Manhattan and I would have been perfectly content.
But we did not.
With Kouign Amann crumbs in our laps, we didn’t waste a minute and drove down to Le Fromentier for a few more nibbles. A bit excessive? Perhaps. Much fun? Oh yes!
Unlike most other restaurants along Laurier Ave, the bakery is set off the street, down a flight of stairs into a deep open space with Le Fromentier on the left, and a charcuterie on the right.
The croissant was simply too pretty to pass up, finely browned and near symmetrical. Perhaps the most “perfect” looking croissant I’ve seen to date. A initial crunch yielded intense shattering, but only to meet lifeless innards that hovered between doughy and lifeless – more butter please.
Similar could be said for the palmier, pure visual attraction. A touch too soft, and under-sugared. A proper palmier ought to boast speckled of caramelized surface bits. It was far from disappointing, but nothing I’d care to return for, never something craveable, nothing like the Saint Germain plamiers.
Twittering between pastry coma and sugar high we returned to the hotel for a early evening nap before 9pm reservations at Kitchen Galerie. Perhaps I would have enjoyed Le Fromentier more if we made it our first stop, before I was seduced by the rich joys of Kouign Amann. Who knows. All I’m certain of is that I should have tucked back a few dozen maple tarts on our car ride back to Manhattan! Dinner post to follow shortly.
322, Mont-Royal Est
1375 Laurier Ave. E.
Montreal, Quebec H2J 1H6