Newsletter: Los Angeles is a fantastic pastry town. Here are four places our critic loves.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and I’m at Bon Temps in the Arts District. The morning scene at the downtown restaurant has a quiet but steady bustle. Customers arrive in waves, ordering coffee and studying the pastries displayed behind glass: croissants filled with cream cheese and sprinkled with “everything bagel” spices, or a meatier one layered with pastrami; kouign-amanns topped with amber crowns of caramel, scones dotted with currants or with cheddar and flecks of jalapeño.
A chef I recognize from television is meeting with a friend and greeting other food industry players as they drift through for breakfast. I’m glad to see pros are embracing the place. I wrote an enthusiastic review of Bon Temps this week. Lincoln Carson stepped beyond his 30-year career as a pastry chef to open a full-service restaurant, serving food that straddles modern American and French cooking and revels in the kind of detailed, admire-it-before-you-demolish-it plating often reserved for desserts.
Of course, when one considers pastry chefs opening fully realized restaurants in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton is the guiding light. As someone who made desserts in restaurants in his 20s, I looked to Silverton’s books for freeing ways to think about combining sweet and savory flavors; her desserts appeared rustic, but the thinking behind every recipe was rigorous, and full of light-bulb moments for a young cook. (Browning butter with a split vanilla bean to pour over fruit before putting the topping on a crisp? One of many favorite genius Silverton twists.) She established a lineage; Los Angeles is a low-key fantastic dessert town because diners responded to her ethos and uncompromising standards.
The city’s best morning pastries also carry the lineage. Whenever I line up at Republique and order at least one too many of Margarita Manzke’s temptations — a peach brioche tart, a banana-nutella crostata, a slice of fruit pie (if any is left), a chicken hand pie, too, because there’s never enough pie — I remember lining up at Silverton’s La Brea Bakery on my first visit to Los Angeles in 1997. I recall the flaky crackle of her almond croissant and the orangey detonation of her “sunshine buns.”
In the Bon Temps review, I smoldered over the not-too-sweet strawberry ricotta danish. I think danishes are the truest triumph of this pastry team, which includes bakery sous chef Neidy Venegas and pastry sous chef Ale Tanner, along with executive chef Anthony DiRienzo. On this day I’m reeling from a summertime variation: laminated dough shaped into a triangle, with an attached circle of pastry filled with nectarine jam and almond cream and fanned with ripe, crinkly skinned plums. Just … go and get one.
Since my first rendezvous with Bon Temps’ pastries, I’ve been on an informal hunt for other superior examples around the city (besides Republique, where I have the lineup memorized). Na Young Ma’s Proof Bakery in Atwater Village might be my contender for the best plain croissant in Los Angeles; beyond its crispness and buttery depths, I admire its correct, reasonable size. The danishes are also exceptionally good here, puffed and topped with sliced fig or plum or nectarine over rich, yolk-yellow pastry cream. Danishes have never been my thing, probably because so many of them in the world are squishy and cloying. It turns out they’re the truth when they’re baked into shattering layers and paired with Southern California fruit. I’m feeling the danish-like “peach squares” at Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica, too.
Last weekend I checked out the new Tartine Sycamore. Solid. The Tartine juggernaut is deep in expansion mode, with two locations now in L.A., four in San Francisco and three in Seoul. The new Hollywood outpost is way smaller than the Manufactory complex in Row DTLA; it’s a true counter service bakery-cafe. Every table was filled on Sunday; the line grew longer as the clock inched toward noon.
I’ll never resist Tartine’s signature morning bun, tart-sweet with orange and over the top with cinnamon sugar, but if I have to make caloric choices I’ll lean toward dishes made with their peerless bread. A light breakfast: fig tartine spread with almond butter, honey and olive oil, in the right proportions of salty and sweet. More in the vein of lunch: the righteous “BLTA” sandwich with fried bologna, lettuce, tomato and avocado on country bread.
And then maybe I’ll motor over to Bon Temps to see if they have any plum danishes left.
Ask the critics
What flavor trends do you see coming up in the food scene?
I’ll frame the question by looking back. The dining public in Los Angeles and the nation really dug in on universally comforting foods this decade: tacos, pastas, pizzas, burgers, sushi, noodles in every form, roasted beets, avocado on everything. It was wonderful to see an appreciation of Filipino cooking come to light. French returned to the spotlight, less fusty than our dining forebears remember: lighter, punchier, accompanied by wilder wine lists. The flavors of the Middle East became more common — I forgot to mention above that I like the tahini croissant at Gjusta. But I also say, probably too frequently, that I’d like the American mainstream to grasp and appreciate the differences between, say, Lebanese and Palestinian and Jordanian culinary traditions. “Middle Eastern flavors” are not one size fits all.
I spent nearly five years of this decade roaming the country, eating in every corner of it, and I think the 2010s will go down as a period when thinking about “trends” in terms of emerging cuisines became redundant, or driven by restaurant groups looking for fresh angles to spur interest in their brand. The “flavor trends” that most stand out exemplify individualism these days. There will always be flashes of novelty followed by nimble imitators, but I think we’re entering an age where anything goes if it’s thoughtfully conceived and well executed. More regionalism of Mexican and Chinese and Japanese and Indian cuisines? Please, by all means. But chefs that can pull off the kind of cultural splicing that Jonathan Whitener achieves at Here’s Looking at You have equally high standing.
My crystal ball wants to tell you that Georgian and Iranian and Moroccan and Sicilian flavors are about to be crazy hot. But that’s just me projecting my own wishes onto the American culinary stage.
- Following the sweets theme this week, Amy Scattergood writes about pastry chefs holding bake sales as community action: “Michelle Obama meets Antonin Carême.”
- Guest critic Lucas Kwan Peterson loves the strawberry ice cream (and the pastas) at Larchmont’s Antico.
- Genevieve Ko has a recipe for Armenian shortbread cookies with cardamom and — cool ingredient alert — mahleb from Sqirl pastry chef Sasha Piligian.
- And Ben Mims gives us Zoë Kanan’s recipe for the (danish-esque) pastry that’s close to my Texas-food-culture-loving heart: the kolache.
It's a date
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