Any enterprising home baker can dabble in scones or cupcakes, but the croissant is, for the most part, the province of pastry chefs. What amateur would want to spend the better part of a day spreading chilled butter on dough, rolling that dough out, and folding it back up again, over and over — a process the pros call "laminating"? Julia Child's recipe, to cite one example, has 57 individual steps.
It goes without saying, then, that a well-made croissant — flaky, buttery, and delicately layered — is a sign that a bakery or patisserie is serious about its craft. And it so happens that the East Bay is experiencing a resurgence in serious bakeries. So, two other pastry lovers and I sat down on a recent afternoon for a good old-fashioned blind taste-off, for which I'd procured a plain butter croissant and a pain au chocolat (i.e., chocolate croissant) from each of three relatively new bakeries: Uptown Oakland's Sweet Bar (2355 Broadway), Temescal's Barkada (4316 Telegraph Ave.), and Berkeley's Fournée (2912 Domingo Ave.).
Note: I'd also planned to add Nick's Pizza (6211 Shattuck Ave., Oakland) — which recently launched a morning pastry program — to the fray, but the restaurant had no croissants available on the day of the taste-off. (I snagged a couple of other pastries made with croissant dough — including an excellent savory tomato, thyme, and chevre croissant — and found them to rank among the flakiest of the bunch. File under "worth revisiting.")
Best Plain Croissant
In the plain butter croissant category, the winner was somewhat of a surprise, as all of the tasters had observed that the Sweet Bar pastries looked the least traditional — the plain croissant looked, in fact, vaguely reminiscent of those Pillsbury crescent rolls that come out of a can. And, truth be told, it didn't taste like a traditional croissant either. The texture was dense and bready, such that one taster said it was "like a dinner roll," while another likened it to a bagel.
But, flavor-wise, it was no contest: Everyone agreed that Sweet Bar's croissant was the one we'd be most excited to eat again. The deep butter flavor was front and center, with a bit of a caramelized undercurrent that added an extra savory quality. And the texture, even if nontraditional, was appealingly chewy, with a dark, crisp bottom crust that reminded me, oddly enough, of the bottom of a properly fried potsticker.
How much you like Fournée's croissant might depend on how much of a purist you are. We all agreed that these pastries tasted the way a traditional French croissant ought to taste, and they were pretty to look at, too. If you judge a croissant based on how many delicate layers you can see when you bite into it — the sign of a wonderfully airy texture — this was the clear winner. Still, we longed for more of a crunch on the outer crust, and, although tasters remarked on the pastry's "subtle" and "slightly sweet" butteriness, the flavors didn't wow any of us as much as Sweet Bar's version did.
Meanwhile, Barkada's croissant had a distinct sour note, which I later learned was the result of the sourdough starter that the bakery uses for all of its breads and pastries. But in our group, I was the only fan of the pastry's tangy, slightly smoky flavor profile, and even though the croissant was quite flaky, one taster found the texture "a bit dry."
Best Chocolate Croissant
Even though we were divided on Barkada's plain croissant, its sourdough pastry was good enough a match for bittersweet chocolate that we crowned the bakery's chocolate croissant our favorite. The key was the chocolate, which was darker and applied more generously than any of the other versions we tasted. Christina Bondoc, the pastry chef, uses Callebaut 60 percent bittersweet chocolate from Belgium, which she chose in part because it rehardens to just the right texture — not brittle, like a candy bar, but also not so soft and gooey that you end up with a mess. The pastry is also striking to look at, shaped like a thick braid. The shape serves a practical purpose — Bondoc said it ensures that the croissant eater will get chocolate in every bite.
Fournée's version also received high marks for how well the croissant dough melded with the chocolate — so that it was "like a chocolate sandwich," one taster observed. The chocolate itself was noticeably sweeter than what Barkada uses, veering more toward milk chocolate; a taster who proclaimed Fournée's version her favorite also said, "The sweetness of the chocolate would make me unable to eat more than one." Sweet tooths among us might disagree.
Sweet Bar's chocolate croissant, on the other hand, fared the worst in our tasting. As much as we all loved the butteriness of the croissant, the pastry's doughy texture and the relative skimpiness of the portion of chocolate inside weren't a match made in heaven — the chocolate component just got overwhelmed.
What we didn't have a chance to explore this time around is how these newcomers stacked up against our old favorites — the plain croissant at Boot and Shoe Service, for instance, or the pain au chocolat at Alameda's Feel Good Bakery. We'll save that contest for another day.