Friday, March 17, 2006 31comments No tags Permalink 0

I am in love with a man. His name is Claude. Claude of Patisserie Claude. But he’s married. That’s okay. I don’t love him THAT way. I love him because he is just about the kindest French baker I’ve encountered in my life. It doesn’t hurt that his croissants leave me in a blissful state where my eyes go all cloudy staring off into space, attempting to comprehend how, HOW anything could taste that incredible.
It all started Thursday morning. It seemed as if everyone in the city but me had experienced one of Claude’s emphermal croissants. That would need to be fixed. As a lover of buttery baked goods (aka croissant and brioches) it would be a sin to neglect visiting the patisserie.
It’s a modest tiny place along West 4th street, very humble looking with three small tables in front of the bakery counter. Claude and a single assistant (he has one during day and another at night) work in the open kitchen while another lady handles the register. I arrived at 8:30am and ordered a croissant($1.40), and then, remembering the $2 minimum to sit in the patisserie, added on a cup of coffee. The coffee was fine, but the croissant.

Oh god, I think that croissant alone made the price of my plane ticket worthwhile. Warm, flaky and perfectly browned on the outside, bits of croissant shards fell onto my lap with the first bite (see how I was too weak to resist biting before the picture?). I’ve never had such a crisp or finely shaped croissant in my life. You’d then be led to think that it would be impossible for this pastry to have a layered soft and dough inside. BUT IT DID! Oh my god. I don’t know how it happened. But look! Layers upon layers of soft buttered dough! You could pick out every one of the folds Claude made in the process of layering thin slices of butter over and over again until THIS.
I finished the croissant and I was full. But my eyes were not. A batch of brioche was just taken from the oven. Warm, no, HOT brioche. I cannot stop myself. There was still a half cup of coffee left. Coffee needs a companion. Brioche. Brioche. And somehow, by magic I suppose, I found the toasty hot creature ($1.4o) sitting in front of me.

That was when Claude started to notice. You see, most people have one pastry for breakfast, not two. Especially not small sized people. I’m okay sized I guess, but I don’t think he expected me two have two buttery pastries at 8 am, one after another. I love brioches. They’re my favorite kind bread/pastry. And Claude’s did not disapoint. Look, see how this magnificent butter based yeast pastry just plumpooded over while baking!
As I left the Patisserie, Claude stepped out of the kitchen and said, “merci” in a decisively French manner. Something inside me clicked and I asked:
“When do you close?”
“I will be back tonight”
“I shall see you then”
My afternoon adventure included a visit to Mama’s in Queens (to be posted next) eating incredible roast pork subs and picking up desserts for friends when something in me said, hey, I should buy a box of Italian pastries for Claude. Never mind the fact that he really had no idea who the hell I was, much less know my name. Either way, buying sweets for a “stranger” never backfired on me yet.
Come 7:55pm, I stood in the entrance of this beloved patisserie. There was no one but Claude in the kitchen and he gave a knowing smile as I walked in,
“You are back”
“Like I promised”
“What is in that box?” he demanded. I obligingly handed it forward and Claude opened it with the precision of a man who has open many bakery boxes in his life. He examined the contents, “very good” and handed it right back to me.
“Oh nonono. These are for you!”
“Yes, for you”
“Ahh” he pondered for a moment, “why you give me?” I was stuck. What was I supposed to say, er, I loved your brioche and croissant so much that I’m attempting to show my appreciation for your exquisite baking through a box of Italian sweets?
“No. I know why.”
“But I cannot.”
“How come?”
“Ahh…” awkward silence.
“You like my pastries?”
“Could you not tell?”
“Sit, what do you like to eat?”
“Everything. What should I eat?” Claude slides open his pastry case and gives everything a once over. He pulls out a gorgeous shiny pear tart slice, places it on a paper plate and hand it to me. I instinctively take out my wallet to pay for the tart but Claude frowns, “Stop it.”
“You thoughtful enough to give me sweets. These are for you.”
“But you didn’t even accept them!”
“Eat,” he says sternly, “tell me what you think.” In no position to argue I take the same seat I occupied this morning, the one nearest the heater. I get cold easily and the warmth makes me happy.

The tart is light and refreshing. The crust, more nutty than buttery, is tender to the touch. Slices of sweet cool pears are beautifully layer on top in a basic pattern, finished off with a thin caramel glaze. It is perfect. It isn’t overwhelmingly sweet like too many tarts I’ve had. It is simple, just the basics – crust, fruit, caramel and nothing more. And like this. This is all you want. I finish it in silence. There is no one in the bakery but Claude and I. He occasionally wanders out from the kitchen to judge my expression and I think he is satisfied. As the last bite slides off the spoon and into my mouth Claude opens up the pastry case again. “You like espresso?”
“There’s nothing I don’t like.”
“Okay. Good. You eat this.” And like magic, a modest brown rectangle with a reflective golden top is set in front of me.

This is Claude’s espresso mousse napoleon. I never had anything quite like this. Aside from the crispy layer of caramel topping the napoleon it is not sweet at all. Is this dessert made for me? I wonder. I love sweets, but they are often cloyingly sugary and leave me with a toothache. I taste a cold mousse wavering on the light gelatin-like side of pure espresso. It is as if I’m having soft espresso gelee.
“It is so good Claude!” I feel like an idiot. This amazing pastry chef practically feeds me the most wonderful treats and the best I can do is say that it’s ‘good’? God, I’m a moron. I don’t deserve this. But I love it at the same time. I try explaining to him why, “It’s everything I want in a pastry. I want the flavor, not the sugar. It is so clean, so pure!” And I hope he understands. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t.
“You still here tomorrow?”
“I see you at 8am then.”
“What will I eat?”
“You will start with the pain au chocolat,” he states as a matter of fact. ‘To start’, that means it will not end there. I leave the patisserie very full and in a strange state between bliss and wonder. 8am cannot come soon enough.

I am disapointed to discover I am the second customer of the morning. A young man is already sitting at my table, croissant in hand, NY Metro in the other. That’s okay. Claude sees me enter and takes a pain au chocolat from the kitchen, not the bakery counter, places it on the now familiar white paper plate and hands it to the same Spanish girl who served me yesterday.
“Coffee?” she asks.
“Yes please”
“$2.75” I hand over the money and this time it is accepted. I sit at the seat that is not my seat and begin. It is the same dough as his traditional croissant, yet I still marvel over the miracle of this creation.

How can something bear a beautifully browned and crisp exterior but have an interior boasting dozens of folds, each one evenly buttered and puffed up but still doughy all at once? In the chocolate version, a precise rope of melted dark chocolate is evenly distributed throughout the croissant. Every bite yields a taste of the warm chocolate mingled with the crunch of the croissant and the buttery soft layers of dough.
I am not finished. There is more to come.
“Croissant?” Clade inquires.
“Ay, I would love to but there is not room in my stomach and not enough time to have the same thing twice,” I respond remorsefully. I’ve have too many sweets in the last few days, something savory would be nice, “quiche?”
“Yes, the quiche today is very good. I will warm it back up for you.” I move back to my seat as that NY Metro reading male has left, probably back home to his lovely loft in Soho. It takes about five minutes for my quiche to be ready.
“All finished. Here, for you.”
“Thank you,” I say, handing over three one dollar bills.
It’s funny. After trying so many pastries and sweets here I am scared of being disapointed and encountering something that is not spectacular. I hesitate before starting the quiche. And I was proved wrong. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

The quiche, even after the pastries I would have tonight, was the best item at Claude’s. Even better than the croissant people rave over. If I had it my way, I would be still eating it now, spooning each light eggy bite touched with silvers of endive, and just the right amount of guyere cheese. It is just like that. I want to cry, it’s so good, unlike any quiche I’ve ever had. The egg is wobbly, barely cooked, depending on the warm flaky shell to hold it together. The crust has a just a memory of salt between the numerous layers of savory buttery crunch. It is spectacular. I want to jump up and do something, anything, but I just sit there basking in my own self-found happiness.

I come back around 5pm the same day. This will be my last visit to the patisserie. Not because I am leaving but because I cannot help myself. Everytime I enter though the doors, I inevitably leave two pastries heavier. It all feels delightful as I consume the pastries but I’ve never been so full in my life. My daily visits to Claude’s are combined with dinners at Balthazar and Italian roast pork subs from Mamas. I cannot continue to do this, I feel as if my heart will fail if I continue to average four pastries a day. (I told a friend, “I feel like there’s three 1-pound blocks of cold butter sitting atop my heart, pushing it down.”) So I will stop. After this visit.
“What are you feeling like?”
“What do you have?”
“You will eat a lemon meringue tart. You will like it. It is not sweet at all.” I had over $3.25 and he accepts it, “merci.”
There’s no need for further description. I loved it as much as I loved everything else he made. True to his word, the lemon curd was soft and sublime with the flavors of lemon, barely sweet.

“I am not coming back. But I must have one more.”
“Anything you want.” I move my eyes away from the cake side of the case and towards the cookies. I’ve been eyeing this massive, dollar bill sized meringue since yesterday. I know it is only a meringue, any one could whip one up with a few egg white and sugar at home, but this is what I want.
“The meringue looks good.”
“The meringue it is,” Claude removed the delicate mass but before placing it on the plate he whispers, “chestnut puree and whipped cream on top?” as if this was an illicit secret we must share with no one.
“Oooh, yes. please do.” He goes into the kitchen and does not come out for a very long time. I wonder what is wrong. I step a bit behind the counter and try to see what is happening. I spy his back, leaning over the metal counter. His right elbow moves back and forth. Everything is alright. I just need to be patient. Claude comes out of the kitchen, a modestly proud expression on his face. He know he has created something spectacular.

The meringue is slightly crushed beneath the threads of pure chestnut puree which borderline savory with a slight tang. The cream is thick and billowly all at once. And I eat it spoonful after spoonful. It feels clean and refreshing despite the components. It is magic! (again)
I pack my bag, getting ready to leave. I’ve had eight pastries in two days (not including a Italian dessert venture in Queens and cakes from Blackhound). It’s all wonderful, but I my stomach can’t hold any more. Before leaving, Claude hands over two delicate macarons.

Tiny precious creatures. I hold them like pieces of gold.
We shake hands like…I don’t know…like two people who love to bake and eat, or maybe two people who love meeting strangers and building relationships on a whim.
“Enjoy them. I see you next year.”
I walk out the door, pop a macaron in my mouth, perfectly content with how the nutty bit dissolves in seconds, leaving behind nothing but traces of wonderful memories.
I will see you next year, Claude.

Patisserie Claude
187 W 4th St.
NY, NY 10012
(212) 255-5911

  • anonymous
    November 30, -0001

    Wow – pretty amazing story. It kept me reading all the way till the end. Nice piece of writing. Not to mention the fact that I am cravign a fresh croissant right now :)

  • Robyn
    March 28, 2006

    Man, that was the best story ever. I really enjoyed reading it. :) I’m sad that so far I’ve only tried two things…loved the croissant of course, but the eclair not so much…since I don’t really like eclairs anyway. What was I thinking?! I guess I should go back but I don’t have the same pastry-drive as you, haha! Ahh. You’re unique. :)

  • anonymous
    March 28, 2006

    Kathy – I’m speechless. You have my utmost respect in that you’ve gotten an old man whom everyone has claimed a grumpuss to feed you his pastries. Your utter and absolute love of food has put me to shame. My God. May I request another meeting? I’ll be waiting till next year.Allen

  • anonymous
    March 28, 2006

    perhaps you should seriously consider pursuing a career in the food industry.

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 28, 2006

    Hey Robyn,Thanks :) Chee, now I really wished we were roomates – we could pastry ourselves to death. Imagine us both on the floor of your water street dorm, passed out, surrounded my dozens of mmm buttery goods! We need to eat together again – but till then, food exchange perhaps?Hey Allen,Aw, that makes me blush. I’m still swooning over the pictures you took of his croissant and quiche, they put my dinky camera to shame. We’ll definitely be meeting when I come again, but if you ever come to Hawaii you’ve got a place to say and I’ll make sure you’re well fed!Hey Ron,It seems like I’ve been debating that since middle school. I love food but seriously don’t know if I could make a living off it. However, culinary school is in the near future (as soon as I get this accounting major finished with :)

  • Robyn
    March 28, 2006

    UHH, YOU ARE SO GOING TO HAVE A FOOD RELATED JOB. None of that accounting nonsense.Man, I wish we were roommmates!!!! Oohh, food exchange, totally! I’m up for that.

  • anonymous
    March 28, 2006

    your appetite is admirable. i’ve really enjoyed your posts about NYC. p.s. i went to pomona.

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 29, 2006

    Robyn!The sad thing is that this accounting nonesense might actually give me financial stability…but personal satisfaction, that’s a whole nother matter. Food exchange – Ok! We’ll give each other a call and plan it all out. yay!Hi Afuzz,Thanks, the food in this Claremont area really poos compared to nyc doesn’t it :)Hi anonymous,Man, I’m craving a croissant also -one of Claude’s. Oooh they were divine. Glad you liked the post, I’m just happy people had the patience to read it all!

  • anonymous
    March 29, 2006

    Hi Kathy – You’ve got this thing for Pastry Chef’s, huh? ;o) I’m sure once you’re done with the FCI, we’ll be bowing down to you in adulation – hey BTW, don’t forget My invitation to your FCI graduation, ok????

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 29, 2006

    Hey Kirk,Thanks for the support! Ah, yes, you’ve found my ultimate weakness -I cannot resist pastry chefs, especially ones with an accent and a hand for croissants. Consider your grad invitation sent! Now I just have to figure out where I’m going to open up this little patisserie of mine :)

  • hereandthere123
    March 30, 2006

    Hi Kathy,Robyn pointed her loyal readers (me among them) to your site to read this extremely well-written story. Thank you so much for sharing it on your blog. I sincerely hope that you are pursuing some kind of career that involves writing. You are a talented writer, especially when it comes to the delights of the culinary arts.Best of luck to you in your studies.Deb

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 30, 2006

    Hi Deb,The more support I receive from people who are as passionate about food, the more I feel like abandoning the accounting world for better things – like eating and writing! Thanks for visiting my blog, I was just on your site and everything looks spectacular. I definitely give you credit for being brave enough to follow your dreams and shift into the culinary world :)

  • Lutkie
    March 31, 2006

    If I was a crying person, I would be crying right now. That was such a good story, it makes me so happy! There were so many times in the story where I was like “that’s exactly how I feel!”. I love food because it is a source for universal happiness for all people. But for people that LOVE food it can be so much more. I definatley going to visit Claude.

  • Mochene
    March 31, 2006

    I could cry, but my eyes are dry. Contacts. I want to go to my favorite French Patisserie, but I know it won’t be nearly the same.Sigh.

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 31, 2006

    Hi Sarah,Eating/fooding is an incredible experience on your own but becomes an infinite times more exciting when you’re with someone who feels the same. It’s like their “in” on the secret – wonderful food is seemingly the key to everything! It makes you want to dance with happiness when you taste something spectacular and it all just clicks into place. Hard to place in words, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. Enjoy Claude’s (and have the croissant first. oh yes, the croissant :))Hi Mochene,A plane ticket – that will fix everything! :) PS. those egg rolls of your totally made me drool – so perfectly brown and crisp. And then I saw the brownies. Oooh man, what are you trying to do to us? lol

  • Food Monster
    March 31, 2006

    That was one of the most heartwarming stories I have ever read, be it about food or not. But the fact that it is about food makes it that much better. Thank you for sharing it- and telling it so incredibly well that I truly felt like I was there with you.

  • Kathy YL Chan
    March 31, 2006

    Hi Food Monster,I’m glad you enjoyed it, it makes me happy to hear people like what they read, mutual satisfaction! If only you were there with me, the croissant was so wonderful it would have brought tears to your eyes. Ah Claude, there is no man more charming and devoted to his work. And who would thought all this could stem from a pastry?

  • anonymous
    March 31, 2006

    Such a wonderful story to start off my weekend with :) Wish I could’ve been there instead of you ;) Thanks!

  • Preeminence in the Prosaic
    April 1, 2006

    Hi, I saw your blog from Robyn’s. Anyway, THIS was a beautiful, Chocolat-esque piece. It’s wonderful how you were able to meet a wonderfuyl place owned by a marvelous person in an everyday setting.-Therese

  • Kathy YL Chan
    April 2, 2006

    Hi Therese!Isn’t Robyn’s blog awesome? I don’t know anyone else who has such great photo skills and high tolerance for sugar :) Ooh, I’m glad you liked the post, it makes me so happy to read your comments!

  • Brooklyn Mama
    April 4, 2006

    What a great story!! You inspired me to pay a visit to Claude myself last night. I tried the quiche (YUM!!!) and took home some croissants for this morning, which my daughter and I just devoured.And Claude is very sweet too!

  • anonymous
    April 11, 2006

    Kathy, Excellent recount of your time in New York with the pattisserie or is it boulangerie. Loved your story about Mama’s. I recall my awakening of what food could be when I was living in Boston and was exposed to “good” Italian food in the North End. I would have to say another city that would be of comparable culinary status is San Francisco. A wonderful bistro is Chez Nous, a couple of doors down from the San Francisco Boulangerie. The Boulangerie had incredible brioche and chocolate escargots. I always have very fond memories of my culinary trips to San Francisco. Since your now at Claremont, your just a hop and skip to Monterey Park and Rowland Hts. These two places have some of the most exciting new regional Asian cuisines. I remember my first truly authentic Szechuan dishes, Water boiled beef and Fu Chi Fei Pian. Heaven! Never has having a mouth that was numb and on fire at the same time been so sublimely wonderful. Anyways, just wanted to give you kudos for your great passion and expressivity. Cheers.

  • anonymous
    April 12, 2006

    …next time try the palmiers!

  • anonymous
    April 15, 2006

    Great passion for food, Kathy. Wish I had more time to search for wonderful food with you. I love Dim Sum GO GO on East Broadway and Bowery and am curious to know your opinion on that exquisite chinese restaurant with excellent price and delight ratio…Also like Blaue Gans. The Salzburger Nockerln are to die for and just 8 or 9 $. A meal in itself and the place is open all day! Also love the walnut rye bread at Le Pain Quotidien , or however you spell that..And love, love, crave the many-courses at GILT. I dont like the Palace Hotel on Madison location, but the food is DIVINE and even a bargain at 92$ for dinner, as sadly they dont serve lunch. Best, Sarah

  • Kathy YL Chan
    April 16, 2006

    Hi Brooklyn Mama,Aw, neato! I can’t believe the post was that inspiring, but I’m glad you visited Claude :) Am still dreaming about his croissants…such a wonderfully delicious dream.Hi Anonymous,Thanks for all those tips and positive support! I’m definitely going to try make it to SF sometime soon (so much food and not enough time!) Asian food in Arcadia and Rowland Heights is incredible, now we don’t say “let’s eat Chinese”, the questions is “what kind of Chinese?” My tastebuds never cease to be amazed by the variety :) Oh, but good Italian, definitely need to fly eat for that. lol.Hi Anonymous,Will do, Will do!Hi Sarah,I have yet to try all the places you mentioned, but Dim Sum GOGO has gotten positive review from even “traditional” Chinese food eaters. I know it’s more expensive than the neighboring places, but their quality and presentation are accordingly higher. GILT! So on my next trip back to nyc list. Ooh, at Le Pain Quotidien was across the street from my dorm on the corner of 5h and 10th last year. Walnut rye with a drizzle of honey, or on more sinful occasions, a happy smear of the chocolate hazelnut spread made my day:)

  • Paul Adams
    June 12, 2006

    Hi, Fellow!I like your blog!I just came across your blog and wanted todrop you a note telling you how impressed I was with the information you have posted here.I have a job portalsite. It pretty much covers job portal related subjects.Come and check it out if you get time :-)Best regards!

  • hellokitty893112
    October 10, 2006

    Kathy,That was a great food story I’ve ever read in a long time. It’s very touching and I wish I could eat that much in a few days, but my stomach can’t handle it! *sighs* I, too, am a Claude follower and I worship that man for all the croissants and pastries he creates.

  • Helen
    October 12, 2006

    Hi Kathy,Oh, how I loved your post about Claude. You are a woman after my own heart. Sometimes I feel like most people don’t really taste the food — they don’t experience it, they just eat it. Reading your post made me taste that delight, that amazement of appreciating a creation that is rare and beautiful.I now know where I am having my 1 breakfast in NYC this weekend. I am already torn over what I should get.Thank you!-Helen

  • anonymous
    June 30, 2007

    Amazing – a (not so) secret love affair. I hung on your every word . Most enjoyable!Alan

  • Richard
    July 1, 2009

    Spectacular. I have never found Claude to be grumpy. Always sweetly shy and modest, with, as you say, the most spectacular quiche, and fabulous croissants.

  • anonymous
    September 2, 2009

    Having returned to Honolulu in 2007 after residing for 18 years in NYC, Claude and his croissants are very much missed. A couple bakeries try to make their own here but they just don't cut it. As my spouse and I are planning to visit NYC during Thanksgiving weekend, the first place we'll get to is Claude's that early Friday morning.Mahalo- Thanks very much for writing this.

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