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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

touslesjours1

Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Summer Staycation Movies, Review #2: Dialing, Dancing and Deciding

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As explained in last week’s post, in between stages of this year’s Tour de France (which kicked off in the neighboring Netherlands on Saturday and IT’S SO GOOD SO FAR), I’m trying to fit in a few movies each week so I can review them here.  This week’s installment is all classics, all the time.  And some of them fit the “classic” definition much more than others, in my not-much-worth movie opinion.  Here we go:

1) Dial M For Murder (1954; Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings)

dial

I’d always heard of this movie but I’d never seen it.  A week or so ago I watched a bit of the Grace Kelly biopic starring Nicole Kidman, and realized I’d never seen any of the princess’s films.  This was her first of three movies made under the haunting eye of Alfred Hitchcock, and I thought it was just ok. Not horrible but not great.  It was originally filmed in 3D but I can’t for the life of me figure out why, since the entire movie takes place almost all in one room, the living room of a London house (which started to seem claustrophobic after a few scenes, but maybe that was Hitchcock’s intention); perhaps it would’ve actually been better with those funky 1950’s 3D glasses on?  And also: the movie has an Intermission, a real throwback!

The plot revolves around a love triangle between Margot Wendice (Kelly), her older husband Tony  (Milland), and the American man she’s having an affair with, Mark Halliday (Cummings).  When Tony finds out about Margot’s indiscretions, he decides to logically divorce her and move on with his life; oh wait, I meant to say he absurdly plots to murder her without ever having confronted or talked to her about the situation. (Very dramatically drastic.)

The first 20 minutes or so is a pretty boring account of Tony outlining the bit-by-bit murder plan to the common thug he’s hired to help him (although we do start to get a real sense of how far Tony has fallen off his rocker).  Hitchcock uses weird far-off overhead camera shots sometimes, which also felt strange (I did notice the recognizable director immediately though in a cameo-placed shot in the picture on the wall).  And Tony’s slicked back greasy hairdo seems to solidify his villainous status.

There’s never any reason given for why Margot strayed from her marriage, other than Tony’s busy work schedule (and?); perhaps she got tired of Tony bugging her about leaving the fire burning in the fireplace after she went to bed (oh sorry, that was me that got annoyed at that).  The real interest in the movie starts with a heartfelt “OH NO!” moment when we realize Tony’s watch has stopped (his murder plot involved precise time-points for him and the hired thug) – the audience is actually invested in the plan at this point, having been privy to its every detail ahead of time.  So when the plan starts to go awry, and we’re bombarded with the schizophrenic music score during the attack scene itself, we’re completely roped in at that point and hanging on to find out what happens.

I won’t ruin the outcome for you, but I will say I was very amused by the Britishness of some parts of the movie.  When the police are at the house investigating, they are offered a tray full of proper cups of tea, and they actually drink it, I found that funny for some reason; when a crime was reported to the police, the person calling states “Please come quick, there’s been a ghastly accident” (does anyone really talk like that except the British, which I love by the way?); and what’s a checkroom?  They keep referencing leaving things at checkrooms at tube stations and I hadn’t heard that before, but it sounds very British.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the second half of the movie to keep you tuned in.  And near the end of it, one of the best movie lines I think I’ve heard in a long time:  “In a couple of days, you’re going to have the most wonderful breakdown.”  (I’ll have to remember to try to use that in real everyday conversation sometime.)  I recommend this movie for the mystery storyline, Grace Kelly’s perfect 1950’s outfits & coke-can curls, and the intriguing plot; watch it when you’re in a nostalgic mood for old-timey phones with those round finger dials.

tumblr_mazd9oGJE61qlf9wno1_1280

2) Band of Outsiders (French title: Bande à Part) (1964; Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur)

Bande_a_part

I chose to record this film simply from the description given on my program guide, which said something like “Two bandits meet a young girl in English class while in Paris, and plan as a gang to act out the burglary of her wealthy aunt’s Parisian mansion.”  I like watching movies set in France or England, but my mistake on this one was not doing any additional research ahead of time.  If I had done that, I would have discovered that this movie is the all-time favorite of one Quentin Tarantino….and I would’ve deleted it before I even started.

Let’s just say Tarantino and I (and most sane people?) have very different tastes in movies.  Don’t hate me, but I couldn’t stand Pulp Fiction.  And I’m sorry if I offend any French art cinema fans, but this may have been one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.  To call it bizarre, quirky or goth would actually be higher compliments than it deserves.  It’s a French film spoken in French with English subtitles, which doesn’t bother me since I do speak French, but I know most people either love or hate subtitles.  It was filmed in Paris but it’s not a Paris I’ve ever seen…it looked more like a really bad grey suburb of Pittsburgh.  And the beginning title sequence will give you a migraine if fast-flashing pictures are one of your triggers, so just a word of warning there.

The two bandit guys, Franz and Arthur, are horrible drivers, but then I guess their attention is all on their new girlfriend Odile and the stacks of money she told them (perfect strangers) about in an English class.  (That was already extremely annoying.)  The early scene in the English classroom is just plain crazy to me – since when is whistling, drinking alcohol from flasks, openly passing notes and sexually harassing the teacher accepted in any classroom anywhere, even in France?  Arthur is especially creepy, and Odile’s naivety comes across as self-imposed moronic.

Most of this film just makes absolutely no sense to me.  At one point Odile crosses a field behind her house, runs past a roaring lion in a cage, and throws a raw piece of meat to a tiger on a chain (never explained).  There are stacks of money in the house where Odile lives with her aunt, but there is hardly any furniture anywhere in the house.  The bandits wear full stocking masks but no gloves (fingerprinting techniques didn’t exist in Paris in the mid-60s?).  New Orleans-type jazz plays over some scenes, totally out-of-place.  They film a scene in the car where the top is down but it’s pouring rain – why didn’t they put the top up then instead of five minutes later when they were all already soaking wet?  All the winter-bare trees on location looked just like the evil trees in The Wizard of Oz. 

The strangest scene of all is THE DANCE.  The bandits and Odile are having drinks in a diner when they suddenly just decide to get up and do a choreographed dance in the middle of the floor (not a dance floor, just next to the tables); it would be like us getting up and doing a line dance at Denny’s, with waiters and customers walking around you and trying not to bump into you.  Apparently it was based on an American dance called The Madison?  Never heard of it, but apparently Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction dance scene was based solely on the jerky little number from this film.

BandaPart5

But most frustrating of all was the HORRIBLE sound quality in this movie.  Constant background noise: traffic, construction, other people talking…it’s so distracting and very hard to even hear the characters talk. But I now think the director actually wanted the sound to be horrible – because in the middle of the diner scene, Arthur actually proposes a minute of silence – and the editors actually cut all sound, it just goes silent while they stare at each other for, well, not a minute but 36 seconds.  “YOU READ MY MIND!” I yelled at the TV screen, it was such a welcome relief to my ears.

The movie wasn’t a complete loss – I actually learned two new pieces of information that I’d never known before: 1) Apparently Billy the Kid was shot and killed on July 13th – my birthday.  I’ve always loved anything to do with Billy the Kid but now I feel even more of a bond; and 2) There was another earlier genocide in Rwanda in 1964 where 10,000-14,000 Tutsis were killed, 30 years in advance of the 1994 genocide with which most of us are more familiar.  The fact that this movie taught me those things, in the same film, is yet another testament to its odd components.  But my final recommendation is to avoid this movie if at all possible, it’s just too weird, and it’s definitely not a “classic.”

And last for this week is:

3)  High Society (1956; Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra)

High-society-Grace-and-Bing

After the disturbing disaster that was Band of Outsiders, I needed a completely opposite-direction pick-me-up film, so I thought what could be better than a 1950’s mayhem musical with the two most famous crooners of all time?  And for the second time in a week, I picked a movie with Grace Kelly in it – this was her very last film she made before officially becoming royalty and giving up her acting career.  (And it was also a musical remake of the earlier play and 1940 film, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart; I watched that movie after this one and trust me, ‘High Society’ is much more worth reviewing.)

I’d never actually seen any movies with Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra in them, I’d only ever just heard their songs.  I was pleasantly surprised by Bing Crosby, I thought he was very smooth in this movie, and played the character of wealthy Dex very believably.  His voice really is hypnotic, and I read that his friend (and co-star for this movie) Louis Armstrong once said Crosby’s voice was like “liquid gold being poured out of a glass.”  I really enjoyed his jazz song duet with Armstrong and the band, and I don’t even really like jazz.  (However I did not enjoy the song he sang to the young prepubescent girl in the beginning, it was creepy.)  My only quip with his role in this film was that he was 26 years older than Grace Kelly at the time – way too much of an age difference to be playing her former and maybe-future love interest, in my opinion.

Oh so the storyline is one of Tracy Lord (played by Kelly), a high society socialite who has to decide if she’s going to go through with her next-day nuptials to fiance George, get back together with her ex-husband (and now next-door neighbor) Dexter (Crosby) who professes he still loves her, or go in a completely new direction with a sudden third suitor and magazine reporter (there to cover her high-dollar wedding), Mike (Sinatra).  Poor baby, what a predicament.  “What do you do besides collect husbands, Miss Lord?” she’s asked at one point.  The script was full of some very good one-liners like this one.  When asked by Mike what she did in her spare time, Tracy quips “I sometimes endure arrogant reporters.”

Grace Kelly’s acting was much better in this film, in my opinion, than in ‘Dial M’ from just two years earlier.  She was given more of a chance to stretch her acting limbs in this one (including some flawlessly impeccable French that she must’ve picked up in Monaco), and while the ending is predictable, she did a good job of helping to make the journey to the end an enjoyable one.  Plus she once again looked “like a statue to be worshipped,” as she was referenced during the movie – her tiny waist!  The dresses she wore in this film were simply exquisite (just try to ignore the hat choice at the end though).  And she also wore her real engagement ring from the Prince of Monaco during this movie, a huge rock that should have had its own speaking role, it took up so much room.

grace-kelly-1

I hope this isn’t sacrilege, but I did not think Frank Sinatra was a good actor in this film.  I don’t have anything to compare it to, since I haven’t seen any of his other movies, but he seemed artificial and wooden and just…bad.  (Especially compared to Crosby, who seemed so natural.)  I found myself thinking “he should’ve just stuck to his singing career.”  I’ve read that he was a stickler for insisting on only doing one shot of his scenes, even if he didn’t do very well in them.  I did enjoy his fun duet with Crosby “Well Did You Evah,” especially the line where he sings to Bing “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum!” and Bing replies “You must be one of the newer fellows!”  I thought that was a funny dig at Sinatra and the younger Brat Packers moving in on Bing’s territory.

I was a little confused why this movie was classified as a true musical, since there really weren’t that many singing numbers it seemed.  But it’s good clean 1950’s fun – the clothes, the songs, and some great cars, like a coral-colored (!) station wagon and a fantastic silver bullet Mercedes convertible.  Louis Armstrong has a really good scene-setting song on a bus in the beginning.  And there’s even a 5-minute long Overture at the beginning, which is what they did I guess before previews existed?  Anyway, this is one to put in your pocket for future watching.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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