Yeast-leavened French pastry or viennoiserie is a culinary miracle that traps the voluptuousness of fine, rich, sweet butter in layers of air and crunch, in the form of a golden croissant or a morning bun or a kouign amann. ( Kouign amann, a specialty of Brittany where some dishes keep their Celtic names, is puff pastry rolled out on sugar instead of flour, producing a maddeningly delicious menage a trois of butter, air and caramelized sugar.) The best versions of yeasted French pastry turn survivalist eaters into passionate believers in the culinary arts. Is there any higher magic in cooking?
Not many bakers outside of Europe can carry off this sublime transubstantiation of butter, flour, yeast and water, but we happen to have a master in San Francisco–Armando Lacoyo, a fourth generation French baker whose new-ish little Arsicault Bakery (named after the bakery started by his great grandparents in Corbeil-Essonnes on the outskirts of Paris) has become the latest pilgrimage site.
Yes, you can get an ethereal warm croissant, one that dissolves on your tongue with each flaky bite and it will be everything you want in pastry. But you can also have a croissant scattered with oven-bronzed sliced almonds and filled with super buttery almond paste, boozy with rum. Or an even more decadent version, also filled with almond paste and melted dark chocolate in both filling and pastry. This one really cannot be finished at one sitting. I used to pooh pooh anything beyond the Arsicault plain croissant, because it represents such purity; but gradually I was seduced by the almond and then the outrageous chocolate-almond. All three push the genre to the ultimate.
Let’s say you want something a little lighter, breezier, that still delivers the intense pleasure of that butter-entrapping dough. Try the morning bun with crisp, swirling edges, a coating of granulated sugar and a whisper of cinnamon.
For kouign amann lovers, Arsicault shapes their multi-layered pastry into a flat, crunchy disk glazed with caramelized sugar. If you can score a warm, freshly baked kouign amann from b. patisserie (on California and Divisadero) where they inject a shot of liquid caramel in the center of flying buttresses of pastry, nothing really can beat it. But Arsicault’s version is no kick in the pants.
I cannot be anywhere near the Inner Richmond without stopping by Arsicault, but hours of operation are short and the counter display is often sparse. Don’t be disheartened. Lacoyo bakes in batches in this tiny shop and brings out the warm pastries in waves. It’s worth waiting for the next batch of anything–until everything completely runs out.
Where did this wizard come from? Where has he been all my life? Turns out he was in “finance.” What a loss, when you think about all the years of pastry we have missed. All I can say is that I’m glad he’s baking now.
397 Arguello, San Francisco (just north of Clement) 415 750-9460
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Monday.