There’s nothing like a great croissant. With its buttery airy layers and flaky crust, it’s the ultimate litmus test of whether your bakery has it or not. But as recently as a few years ago, it was hard to find a great croissant in NYC. You could go to a destination bakery like Payard, Balthazar, or Épicerie Boulud, or possibly to a local coffee shop like Joe that carried croissants from these same bakeries. But it required a lot of hunting and traveling.
Then there’s timing. The optimal moment to consume viennoiserie and most (but not all) bread is within a few hours after it comes out of the oven—the sooner, the better. Since many New York bakeries and coffee shops only receive one predawn delivery from a far-off commissary, great croissants can quickly become mediocre ones.
Then came Maison Kayser, who opened their first NYC bakery on the Upper East Side in 2012, and bake all their bread and viennoiserie onsite throughout the day. And Breads Bakery‘s flagship on East 16th Street with its massive on premises commissary that continuously turns out superb croissants, baguettes, and signature chocolate babka. These newcomers not only upped the freshness factor and by design, the quality, they gave New Yorkers a reason to pick up a baguette or chocolate croissant in the afternoon or even after work. Why not if it just came out of the oven?
The trend toward all-day, on-site baking is clearly having an impact on new bakeries. Even though Orwasher’s has a commissary in the Bronx, they are baking their superb croissants, bread, and baguettes throughout the day at their new Upper West Side location. They even built the kitchen with a gleaming new oven, in full view of the seating area. Don’t miss their yeasty, flavorful, pain au chocolat with alternating layers of butter and just a hint of crunch from the crust. If you see a batch of baguettes just coming out of the oven—be sure to grab one!
One thing is certain, on-premises, all day baking, coupled with the proliferation of excellent new bakeries means there’s never been a better time to sample NYC’s baked goods and viennoiserie. So where should aficionados go to get the best croissants with the least schlepping? I recommend a small area that straddles Flatiron and Union Square where there’s some fantastic baking taking place—all within 9 blocks.
Italienne (19 West 24th Street)
At 8:00 am you could easily walk right past Italienne’s morning coffee and bakery service. It looks more like a closed restaurant getting ready for lunch service than a bakery. But passing by would be a tragedy because Italienne offers serious chocolate lovers a destination worthy pain au chocolat.
Visually stunning, due to its extra large size and cocoa colored stripes, the crunchy outer skin—glazed for extra shininess—gives way to a buttery, flaky crumb. Yeasty, aromatic dough layers are paired with copious amounts of rich 55% Valrhona dark chocolate. Just how much chocolate is used? “I’m a bit of a chocolate freak, so we use 4 chocolate batons in each!” says pastry chef and baker Rebecca Isbell. For comparison, that’s about 2-3 times the standard amount of chocolate typically used in croissants.
Italienne’s almond croissant is similarly stunning and also successfully defies convention. The sweet frangipane filling is molten and plentiful. When you slice the croissant it oozes out of the layers instead of being absorbed during the baking as is common. The crust on top is baked to crackly perfection.
Daily Provisions (103 East 19th Street)
Daily Provisions shares a kitchen and team with the new location of Danny Meyer’s venerable Union Square Cafe and offers a number of destination-worthy baked goods including superb breads that are baked throughout the day. The most unique is their French cruller, made with a moist, eggy pâte à choux dough that’s been deep fried. The outside ridges are crispy and the inside reminds me of a piece of well-soaked French toast. Get the maple flavor for the full pain perdu experience.
The kouign amann, available in vanilla or orange, features a deeply caramelized crust and sweet, slightly moist, laminated layers inside. Union Square Cafe Pastry Chef Daniel Alvarez, who oversees Daily Provisions’ sweets, has some experience crafting the perfect kouign amann. As part of Dominique Ansel’s early teams, he made thousands of the caramelized Breton pastries.
On the savory side, the everything croissant baked with whipped Ben’s cream cheese inside is a salty, airy gem. Similar to a classic everything bagel with just the right mix of seeds, onion and salt, but much lighter! If you enjoy a croissant with distinct layers, you will not be disappointed here.
Patisserie Chanson (20 West 23rd Street)
Are everything croissants the new cupcake? Newly opened Patisserie Chanson’s Pastry Chef Rory McDonald certainly hopes so. Their superb everything croissant is baked with jalapeño cream cheese that melts right into the buttery crumb. The cream cheese is barely visible inside but it adds a sublime creaminess and heat. The “everything mix” coating is slightly more plentiful than at Daily Provisions, and the croissant’s large size allows for abundant air pockets between the slightly crisp layers. A must try.
Chanson also bakes a very good kouign amann available in four varieties, including savory versions—a first in NYC as far as I know. I enjoyed the seasonal rhubarb and thyme as the tart rhubarb jam balanced the sweetness of the sugary pastry layers. The crumb texture is superb with just the right amount of butter and chewy caramelization along the outside of the pastry. The black sesame, rolled with plenty of black sesame seeds inside, is also a winner. Like the rhubarb, the nutty flavor and inherent bitterness from the seeds muted the sweetness of the notoriously sugary pastry.